When I first met and spoke with the alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa over a dozen years ago, he was still an up-and-comer, recently recorded by the also-new-to-the-scene Pi Recordings. He had been in New York City for a while, after getting music degrees at Berklee and DePaul, and he had been playing with pianist Vijay Iyer in various formats, creating a name, a style, and a sound.
The sound is distinctive—sharp and singing too, with a tendency to play quick and rhythmically syncopated runs that suggest that Mahanthappa is in the lineage of Charlie Parker, but as interpreted by more acidic modern players such as Jackie McLean, Julius Hemphill, and Henry Threadgill. As time passed, he began to look at his South Asian musical heritage, engaging with Carnatic music through encounters with fellow saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath.
In that first interview, he told me a riveting story about finding his name listed for the first time in the Downbeat critics poll (as a “Rising Star” on alto saxophone) but he didn’t have the money to buy a copy of the magazine. It was the kind of story you can’t get out of your head because Mahanthappa’s playing and ideas are so strong that any decent musical culture would have to embrace him.
Today, Mahanthappa has placed first or second in in that poll for many years running, going back to 2011, and he has been the Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton University since 2016. (Iyer, interestingly, plays a similar role at Harvard.) With two children and a house in Montclair, New Jersey, a lovely suburb of New York, he’s a modern jazz success story. He has accomplished a great deal with a combination of immense talent, productivity, and no discernible artistic compromise.
In this time of COVID-19 self-isolation, Mahanthappa finds himself staying at home, off the road, and teaching students through the internet. His most recent recording, Hero Trio, released this month. It shows off the propulsive and probing style that has landed him so many awards, as well as his range of influences (from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman to Stevie Wonder) and his ability to create a modern grammar for organizing creative music both within “jazz” traditions and beyond regular boundaries.
As ever, Mahanthappa plays with bite and blues from Bird but also a taste for 21st century abstraction that has roots in his fascination with Steve Coleman’s music from the 1990s. His current trio with François Moutin on bass and drummer Rudy Royston plays with a pungent disregard for tradition while still swinging like absolute mad.
Mahanthappa and I talk about Hero Trio, teaching during COVID-19, his respect for songwriters like Wonder, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton, and the recent death of saxophonist Lee Konitz. He’s at home going into the seventh week of quarantine as we speak, admitting that “I was rolling with it but am unraveling a bit now. I haven’t touched my horn a whole lot.” Down but not defeated, the affable and articulate musician is bracingly clear about his music, his connection to his students, and his ravenous interest in the world beyond jazz.
Adjusting to the COVID-19 environment has got to be a particular challenge for musicians, who rely so much on live performance. How are you doing?
There’s not really a good way for people to play together, though [bassist and composer] Mark Dresser created a telematic translocational concert—with musicians in different locations around the world. But it was more based on conduction and free improvisation. But the technology makes it hard to really play together.
Princeton sent students home, of course, they didn’t come back after spring break. It has been a real bummer for us not to be able to play. My main interaction with the students is through the ensemble that I run. The students are missing that and the concerts we were playing with guests.
I don’t know how we are dealing with the fall yet. We are talking about it. This spring, I at least had taught the students for a semester and a half before they dispersed. We’ve been passing around recorded tracks, and that was okay because we had already established a relationship in person. But to start in a remote learning position in the fall would be hard. I’m concerned about incoming first year students who will want to be energized.
Rudy Royston, Rudresh Mahanthappa and François Moutin / Photo by David Crow (courtesy of the artist)
Princeton isn’t thought of as a conservatory, of course. I don’t imagine the jazz program there was significant before you arrived.
This will be my fourth year at Princeton. Before I arrived it had a different focus, but they’ve always had an active jazz program. Alumni from the 1970s recall that there was only a big band that was run as a student club. Even today, all the ensembles are extracurricular, but Princeton students are overachievers who are good in a lot of areas, and they put a lot into it. But, of course, you have to compete with their academics for time and attention.
I wanted to focus on bringing musicians who are real practitioners to campus, folks who are out there doing it. Jazz education at most schools is now getting to be more about active musicians. I had the big band being led by Darcy James Argue, for example.
I’m the son of a prominent physicist, and I very much relate to these students and the way they see music related to the world around them, the ideas around them. Princeton is a better fit for me than a school where I would be around a bunch of jazz students. There’s a big picture view at Princeton.
You’ve had to cancel a jazz festival organized at Princeton.
It was going to be amazing. The top student group was working on music by and to be performed with Chris Potter. My second group was working on music from Jamie Baum with an octet. The big band was going to be playing with drummer Dafnis Prieto.
And you have surely had to cancel all sorts of gigs beyond Princeton.
Absolutely. I haven’t been touring as much in recent years—with two kids under the age of ten and this Princeton job. But  was supposed to be a really big touring year for me. I’m particularly upset that Charlie Parker’s centenary will be spent with no live gigs in his honor. Terri Lyn Carrington
and I had been working for well over a year on a Charlie Parker project, and it’s all been cancelled. Although much of it is being rescheduled for 2021, the 100th anniversary or Parker’s birth will pass without all the honors he deserves. We had great venues in performing arts centers all over the world, and some will disappear.
Charlie Parker’s music is a huge part of your sound—and you perform two Bird tunes on the new Hero Trio recording. You recorded with pianist and bandleader Arturo O’FarrillO’Farrill, who told me that he considered you a contemporary avatar of Parker, a player with that level of genius. Why is Parker such a big part of your sound and conception of music?
There are a lot of reasons he is a big part of my music. It’s important to acknowledge that what he was doing back then was the avant-garde. You have to sit with that for a second. When he was playing, the best-selling jazz artist was Benny Goodman. He was a vanguard thinker about music.
We throw the word “genius” around all the time, and Parker was certainly that. But part of innovation and genius is hard work. With anyone we consider a genius in any field, there is a period of extreme rigorous attention to the mechanics of what they’re doing. Bird is a model of that and, while there were others such as John Coltrane, this was part of him being so forward thinking.
It’s important to acknowledge that in lots of ways we haven’t moved on from his music. Nothing about Parker’s music is obsolete. It resonates now with Western music in general. A lot about how we think about playing with time and momentum can be traced back to Bird and Max Roach and Buddy Rich. There are a lot of elements to Charlie Parker that remain such an inspiration—not just his music, but how he made it and how he got to where he is.
I took a lesson from [alto saxophonist] Gary Bartz in the mid-’90s in Chicago, and he said he still listened to Bird to be inspired. I was blown away by that, I was 24 or 25, and I was thinking, well, should we be getting inspiration today from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or from Steve Coleman’s music? That may have been silly of me. I don’t want to sound like an old man today, but lots of young people over the years have only been interested in what their contemporaries are doing. Of course there’s so much great music happening. But Charlie Parker is still an important inspiration.
Let’s talk about Hero Trio. First of all, you didn’t write any of the music here.
I’ve rarely recorded music that wasn’t my own. But I’ve always wanted to do this.
There are three Charlie Parker tunes, but they’re not played “straight”. For example, on “Barbados” you not only pair it with a Coltrane tune, but you start off with a funky introduction over a single chord. And on “Dewey Square” the arrangement uses the melody as written but you seem to have grounded in a tonal center without all the chords getting in the way. Am I hearing that right?
I’ve been doing this with bands of mine for the last 20 years, going back to my time in Chicago—having grooves kick off the tunes. We would be playing standards but have this live element—to have a groove or even two or three of them—and then cue in the tune. Here we planned the idea of playing over this groove before settling into the form of the tune. We have a melodic motif that acts as the cue, which requires us to really be listening to each other.
Photo by David Crow (courtesy of the artist)
Something similar is going on with your version of “I Can’t Get Started” as well, where you open it with a simple pedal point from the bass and then play much of the tune over that simple harmonic states.
My favorite early version of this tune is the one that Sonny Rollins recorded—also with a sax/bass/drums trio at the Voillage Vanguard. And then there was Lee Konitz’s trio with [drummer] Elvin Jones. This is a nod to those two trios.
This is more of a mediation that came up my accident as we were rehearsing. I started playing the head, but François kept playing the groove and it sounded great. How I would place the melody over that groove was different every time. I’m not counting, just reacting in the moment. There is mystery as to where it will line up.
“I’ll Remember April” uses a groove too—and you were thinking about Lee Konitz here?
This arrangement is built on a funk groove on the main section, with a written “bass line” for the alto to play. All of these grooves we are talking about stem from a bass line that is meant to resonate as a melody. I want the listener to be “singing” the bass line, absolutely.
Let’s talk about Lee Konitz a bit. He started as a Parker-influenced master of bebop language but evolved over the years and embraced a more open way of playing.
I came to Lee Konitz a little later in my musical development. I started checking him out after I met him. I had associated him with a somewhat cultish outlook that argues Lennie Tristano was the “real” innovator or the bebop era. Vijay Iyer and I were playing duets at the Jazz Baltica festival in Germany during a year when they focused on sax—and everybody was there. Vijay and I were playing duo. Lee came up to me and said, “I”ll be honest, I didn’t know who you were. I was leaving, and then I heard you and turned around and stayed.” What an honor. He had all these great questions.
Lee always improvised. He was deep in it and in the moment. He was never just playing licks, relying on muscle memory, falling back on things. Lee avoided that. There are very musicians people like that. His openness in general was inspiring, playing in straight ahead formats but also freer contexts.
The way you are using those groove elements feels connected to the approach pioneered by Steve Coleman, who is one of your influences.
Yes. And that approach has become part of the great jazz language. Recordings like The Tao of Mad Phat  and the Dave Holland album Extensions with Coleman and Kevin Eubanks —those were big for me. I can’t say that I followed Steve’s work for all the years that followed, but those albums were a great launching point, musically but also culturally and artistically.
How do you deal with Indian music but not play fusion? He was doing that with West African music—the way his music is constructed like Senegalese percussion music.
On Hero Trio you tackl some tunes from outside the jazz canon as well — Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash. They’re not any kind of “fusion”, but you’re approaching the music in an interesting way. The arrangement of “Overjoyed” is by pianist Danilo Perez, and it has you playing the signature piano lick as well as the melody.
Stevie is a total genius. There are all sorts of complex things happening in his music with tonality and chords. There have been some good jazz interpretations of Stevie as a result. There are even a few Stevie tunes in The Real Book, and I used to wonder why. “Overjoyed” does all these things without the listener realizing, changing keys for example. Stevie’s work is as sophisticated as a great classical composer.
Danilo Perez and I experimented with some free duo playing that wound up on a record called Providencia. When I had him as a guest at Princeton, he brought in this arrangement of “Overjoyed”. [A similar arrangement by Perez appears as the bonus track on Kurt Elling’s latest recording, Secrets Are the Best Stories.]
“Ring of Fire” seems like the least likely tune here. You use the material as a source for motivic inspiration. I can’t help thinking of Sonny Rollins and Way Out West here, but also of Ornette Coleman and his love for folk playing and melodic development.
Yes. This almost sounds like Ornette’s “Ramblin'” with that earthy, folksy sound. But that doesn’t mean the tune isn’t sophisticated. Johnny and June Carter Cash and Dolly Parton also have that sophistication like Stevie has, using three and half-bar phrases, things that repeat in odd but perfect places. The Bad Plus did an amazing arrangement of “Walk the Line” that showcased these overlapping phrases.
When think of my childhood, the three things I remember most from watching Sesame Street were appearances by JohnnyCash, Stevie Wonder, and Ella Fitzgerald. Those things are indelible.
A lot of people who have heard this version of “Ring of Fire” say we’re playing it straight up—no one actually hears the rhythmic changes we made because the melody is so strong and each section has a strength to it. I didn’t want to mess with it too much—I didn’t want to reharmonizes it or make it into a different tune.
Speaking of Ornette Coleman, you also cover his tune “Sadness”.
And we look, there at the other side of Ornette. I suppose it is the most “out” thing on the recording.
The other track here with a kind of folk-song appeal is Jarrett’s “The Windup”, which is pure joy. Branford Marsalis’ group recently recorded this. It seems like it’s time for musicians to admit how much they loved these records and this band. It had to be a challenge to tackle it without a piano player.
I knew this would be a challenge. One of the great things about this group is that it’s not me sitting on top of a rhythm section. It’s a single organism that’s playing together. In the past bands too often emphasized playing the head, talking some solos, that old routine. This arrangement works because of Francois. It’s a testament to his ability, as he plays Jarrett’s fills on the bass.
Covering certain music can be very challenging. There are some things we want to play, but the original version was capturing a certain moment in time and it seems hard to do it today. Branford and I talked about this on a panel—about covering A Love Supreme. [Marsalis and his quartet played all of that famous Coltrane record during concerts in 2003 and released on as a CD/DVD.] I argued that there was something about the original that was kind of sacred.
Keith’s music is similar, particularly the quartet with Jon Christensen [drums], Palle Danielsson [bass], and saxophonist Jan Garbarek. I wanted to play “The Windup” forever! Toni Morrison was a huge Keith Jarrett fan, and I played this tune at the 2019 “Toni Morrison Conversations” event at Princeton. It’s one I decided I could put my personality into. The other one from Jarrett’s Belonging that I’ve wanted to cover is “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”. Some day!