South Asian-American jazz from New York

Rudresh Mahanthappa — an extraordinary American jazzman of South Asian descent — has a critical fave with Kinsmen, his album featuring his own alto sax coupled with that of Indian Carnatic master musician Kadri Golpanath, supported by Karachi-born but L.A.-bred former surfer/electric guitarist Rez Abassi, violin, bass, traps, mridingam from East and West. They all talk and play in my NPR production on last night’s “All Things Considered.”

Mahanthappa is Boulder-born-and-raised, second son of an Indian-immigrant physics professor and his wife, also from India. Rudresh was obsessed with Baroque recorder music as a child, then switched to sax in high school, especially taken with a strange album his brother gave him called Saxophone Indian Style. Yep, Kadri Gopalnath had recorded that. Mahanthappa was moved to study jazz at North Texas State University, Berklee School of Musaic, and De Paul in Chicago, where he got his MA; he now teaches at the New School Jazz Program. He is thoroughly New Yorkitized, has been to India twice, as a Berklee student and a Guggenheim fellow, and has recorded voluminously with fellow jazz musicians of his generation and South Asian descent — besides Abassi, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Sunny Jain and guitarist Fareed Haque. Other good musicians are in on this, too, cf drummer Dan Weiss.

I’m not the only professional listener to have Kinsmen on a 10 best list; several members of the Jazz Journalists Association cite it, and Mahanthappa ranked as the one-and-only mentioned runner up in the Village Voice jazz poll run by Francis Davis this week. 

(By the way, can you believe the Voice fired Nat Hentoff??? At age 83, after he’s worked for them 50 years and can be cranky, yes, but genuinely has something to say in righteous defense of civil liberties in the USA, here, that is, at home!!! What is with this? Save money by firing Hentoff!?!)

Er, back to topic . . . Mahanthappa and his fellow musicians excell by melding intricate, emotive jazz improvisation with deeply informed employment of traditional South Asian elements in a process of ubër-American engagement. In our NPR piece Mahanthappa says “there was no template for an Indian-American jazz musician,” but he and Iyer, Abassi, Jain, Haque, Weiss, percussionist Royal Hartigan, et al are creating one that is steps beyond what John Handy and tablaist Ali Akbar Khan took in the ’70s, which John McLaughlin popularized with Shakti and Miles Davis upped to funky phantasmagoric extremes in On The Corner with tablaist Badal Roy. Mahanthappa is coming more out of Charlie Parker, with knowledge of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman. Rez Abassi has played rock and blues, bebop and his own originals as well as with Kiran Ahluwalia, his wife, an internationally admired interpreter of ghazals.
Saxophonist Gopalnath, who lives in Chenai, India, had the opposite problem in his career of the American South Asians, trying to embrace something of their ancestral past: his mission was to introduce a Western jazz-associated instrument into the precise parameters of South Indian Carnatic music. “All the embellishments, all the rhythmic complexity,” is what Rudresh marvels at in Kadri’s playing. Bouncing phrases back and forth, they start playful and near- transcendently heated. Check on the back-and-forth on this 15-minute track, “Convergence.”  
Here are quips from Rudresh Mahanthappa not in my NPR piece: 
  • Kadri’s reaction when, after long correspondence, he met Rudresh: “He was really excited by my name — Rudresh Mahanthappa, the meanings are very powerful. Mahanthapp is kind of the same root at Mahatma, spiritual leader, and Rudresh refers to a very powerful incarnation of Shiva. He just loved that, and the fact I’m south Indian.” 
  • After they finished the project (which was funded by and debuted at New York’s Asia Society) and a brief tour, “on the day he was going back to India,” Rudresh reports, “we were hanging out and Kadri said to me, ‘You’re really amazing, you’re an amazing musician, you’re going to be really, really big — bigger even than Kenny G!’ “

Jazz critics hope so.


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  1. Richard Mitnick says

    The Village Voice owns L.A. Weekly, and from that paper they fired Alan Rich, described by, I believe, Alex Ross as the dean of American Music critics.
    Alan Rich is an octogenerian, and he writes with incredible skill. He now has a blog,
    Maybe Mr Hentoff will go the same route.
    HM: I doubt Nat will go a-blogging — he refuses to e-mail. However, he still has a monthly column in Jazz Times (though another JT columnist has recently reported to being asked to take a pay cut, or file half as often, so they may be having some problems there) and he writes from time to time for the Wall St. Journal (owned by Murdoch, so anything can happen there). I will continue reading the Voice as long as they print Dan Savage. But it’s not hard to forecast the end of days for alternative weeklies.