PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Codebook

The rising alto saxophone star makes music from cryptography play as sharp and clear as noon.

Rudresh Mahanthappa


Contributors: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Francois Moutin, Dan Weiss
Label: Pi Recordings
US Release Date: 2006-09-12
UK Release Date: Available as import

The contested territory between jazz that exists strictly "inside" the tradition and jazz that chooses to go "outside" the usual swing rhythms and consonant harmonies is an exciting landscape. Straight-ahead jazz is a beautiful thing, but it hasn't changed much in 50 years. And totally free "out jazz" is exhilarating to experience, but how many albums of utterly freeform playing are you likely to go back to over the years?

That's why the most insistently creative jazz musicians of today find ways to structure their music in new ways, combining exciting freedom with the discipline and artistry of new forms. Among the rising generation of such players, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa must now be counted as a leader. His latest effort Codebook is innovatively structured and a pleasure to listen to -- a grand example of how new structures fit under the jazz umbrella.

Codebook features compositions generated through an understanding of various codemaking procedures. Therefore, the CD package comes with a cool "code wheel" and plenty of interesting references to the contemporary approach to information overload. One tune, "Play It Again Sam" (dedicated to Samuel Morse, of the famous dot-and-dash code) supposedly allows the musicians to play rhythmic patterns that spell their names in Morse Code. But as a listener, you don't need to know any of this. Rather, you need only open your ears and hear plainly how Mahanthappa's tunes sound fresh and distinct without being unstructured. However they were made, these tunes open new vistas.

This is possible, in large part, because Mahanthappa is working with a quartet of incredible prowess. The drummer, Dan Weiss, is new to the group, and he lends a lighter, more open touch than previous drummers in this band. Bassist Francois Moutin is agile and specific, playing composed lines as well as typically swung patterns. But Mahanthappa's crucial partner in crime is pianist Vijay Iyer. Iyer and Mahanthappa have been playing together in each other's groups (and their first album of duets, Raw Materials, came out just this year), and their communication is about perfect. Iyer is an ideal modern pianist -- the equal, say, of Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau -- in that he is able to play harmonically complex material without fencing the band into restrictive corners.

Codebook thrives on the contrast in tone and style between the leader and his pianist. Mahanthappa's alto is slightly sharp and nasal, with an acrid immediacy and bracing, pointed attack. On a tune like "Frontburner", Mahanthappa makes a case for his virtuosity, jabbing his horn in a boxing match with Weiss's drums, stuttering and poking at the harmonies, pungent and steely in his sound. When Iyer enters on piano, he is more likely to play with a quick-fingered transparency, opening up spaces in the music while still playing the kind of clusters and rolls that we associate with Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen. When playing together, Mahanthappa and Iyer are symbiotic enough to set each other up, trade roles, glide subtly out of each other's way.

For listeners who haven't heard either the leader or Vijay Iyer before, the crucial comparison is to alto player and MBase bandleader Steve Coleman. Both Mahanthappa and Iyer played with Coleman and obviously absorbed his a facility with devilish time patterns and precise flurries of notes that are harmonically obtuse but are not in the honking-and-squealing free jazz mode. On a tune like "Wait It Through", Coleman's influence is manifest, with a crazy time signature still lending itself to a funky groove under a jibber-jabber complicated head. The difference, however, is in the soul and human warmth that Mahanthappa always brings to his music. Steve Coleman, in fact, creates interesting music that is usually too cool or too mechanical for my ear. Mahanthappa, by contrast, bends his hard determination to a human form. And so a song like "My Sweetest" is perfectly lovely and tender, with Iyer rolling waves of harmony beneath like a refracted McCoy Tyner and the leader rolling out aching phrases that Steve Coleman would never craft.

Codebook is the kind of record that jazz needs right now. It's fresh and original but not gimmicky -- not any kind of "fusion", yet still plenty funky in spots. There is freedom but also the kind of precision virtuosity that takes your breath away. With a dash of politics (the opening track is jokingly titled "The Decider" in tribute to President W) and a streak of romance, you can't pin this disc down. It's a jumping bean of a recording -- always moving and surprising you.

If jazz is, indeed, "the sound of surprise", then Codebook deserves a place of honor in the music.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.