The Musical Worlds of Rudresh Mahanthappa
Jazz saxophonist and composer Mahanthappa is drawing a growing audience for his explorations of American jazz and traditional Indian music.
In many ways, the musical travels of Rudresh Mahanthappa parallel those he has taken in his own life—to reconcile his Indian heritage with his American upbringing. The answers he has found—in his life and his music—are not necessarily the obvious ones.
During the last several years, Mahanthappa has achieved widespread acclaim as a jazz virtuoso. At the same time, critics have increasingly recognized him as one of the most innovative and original composers working today, whether using a more traditional jazz idiom or exploring the fusion of American jazz with unique Indian melodies.
In a 2009 review, the New Yorker magazine spoke of the “rumble” that echoed through the jazz world with the release of Mahanthappa’s Indian American breakthrough album “Kinsmen.” In 2011, Mahanthappa released another Indian American infused album, “Samdhi,” to equally rapturous reviews.
“The compositions artfully blend knotty subcontinental rhythms and modern jazz harmonies,” said one Washington Post review, while another described the “rippling silk of his saxophone timbre.”
Mahanthappa, 40, appears regularly at the top of the critic’s polls in the leading jazz magazine Down Beat, and in 2011 was voted the year’s top alto saxophonist. The Jazz Journalist Association named him best alto saxophonist three years in a row, 2009 to 2011. As a musician and composer, he has received numerous grants and awards, most notably a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 to study the Carnatic music of southern India.
With the range of his interests and music, Mahanthappa refuses to be labeled as “that Indian alto player,” as he put it in an interview in the blog Jazz Truth. In 2010, for example, he issued the highly regarded album, “Apex,” with American alto saxophonist Bunky Green.
Along with his own Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet, he leads the Indo-Pak Coalition, plays in a duo with fellow Indian American pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, and co-leads the Dakshina Ensemble with Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, among other groups. “I think jazz has always been a means of contemporary social expression, staking your claim in the American landscape,” he says in the Jazz Truth blog.
Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where he recalls playing with a traditional Dixieland jazz band as a teenager. He didn’t face any sort of real identity crisis until he attended college at North Texas State, where he first encountered a substantial African American population—and realized that, being neither white nor black, he would have to find his own identity as an Indian American and the child of immigrants.
He found his way through music, graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and earning a master’s degree in jazz composition from Chicago’s DePaul University in 1998.
“There was no template for an Indian American jazz musician,” he says in an interview with National Public Radio. “There was a template for a white jazz musician, an African American jazz musician, even a Latin jazz musician. So we’re all kind of trying to blaze some new trails in the best way we can.”
Mahanthappa had little interest in exploring Indian music simply for the sake of a kind of vague “East West” fusion music that has been tried many times in the past, both in jazz and pop music, with varying degrees of success. “It was really difficult for me to find a space where I could learn about it on my own terms, at my own pace,” he said to the Washington Post.
What changed his mind was encountering Kadri Gopalnath, a master Indian alto saxophonist who has moved “beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice,” as the New Yorker explains. Mahanthappa traveled to India several times to study and play with Gopalnath. Their collaboration resulted in the album “Kinsmen.”
Mahanthappa lives in New York City, although he travels frequently to perform with one of his many music ensembles and to continue his musical explorations in the world of jazz.
“Oftentimes, when one is working with compositional elements from several different cultures, the end result has nothing to do with those cultural elements,” Mahanthappa observes. “For me that’s really great because it’s not always important to know what went into a composition, it’s what you walk away with in the end.”
Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.