Rudresh Mahanthappa has been named “Alto Saxophonist of the Year,” many times over, by DownBeat’s International Critics Poll and by the Jazz Journalists Association. He is also the recipient of a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.
A great way to get to know him is through his latest album Bird Calls. Though the press release claims that “Rudresh Mahanthappa has explored the music of his South Indian heritage and translated it through the vocabulary of his own distinctive approach to modern jazz,” his album has no discernible South Indian flavor, in a good way. Unlike jazz violinist Arun Ramamoorthy, whose sounds are directly relatable to Karnatik music, Mahanthappa has channeled instead, jazz master Charlie Parker into his sounds.
Most of the 13 tracks are inspired by specific Parker numbers. Mahanthappa’s “Gopuram,” for example, is attributed to Parker’s “Steeplechase.” Both comprise a repeated pattern of notes. However, Mahanthappa has the refrain echoing one instrument following the other, and shadowing the sequence till it settles in to your senses. Parker, on the other hand, had a less subtle approach in “SteepleChase” with all the instruments playing it at once. The album’s “Talin is Thinking” is based on “Parker’s Mood” but is more frenetic. (Incidentally, the entire album is dedicated to Mahanthappa’s toddler son, Talin.)
It is said that Parker’s music was both fluid and harsh but the ethos of Bird Calls is not conflicted. It is simply an ode to Parker’s music. Admits Mahanthappa, “This album is not a tribute to Charlie Parker. It is a blissful devotion to a man who made so much possible.” He is referring to the fact that Parker is considered a father of Bebop, the complex jazz music from the 1940s.
There are parallels to Parker and Mahanthappa’s lives as well. Each was around 12 when they were captivated by the sound of jazz; the former by the “new music” idols of his time such as Louis Armstrong. Of his own first introduction to Parker’s music, Mahanthappa recalls, “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe the way he was playing, gorgeous with so much charisma and flying all over the horn. I think hearing Charlie Parker was what planted the first seeds of wanting to do this for the rest of my life. It was very powerful.”
Bird Calls also features a 20-year-old trumpet prodigy called Adam O’Farrill. The effortless virtuosity reverberating between O’Farrill and Mahanthappa can be heard in “On The DL” inspired by Parker’s “Donna Lee.” The CD is interspersed by a series of shorter birdcalls, solo, duo and group ruminative interpretations of the inspiration music.
You might wonder, “Why the title Bird Calls?” It is a play on Parker’s nickname, “Bird,” or “Yardbird,” and of course the fact that he is calling out to jazz lovers of the world, in his 95th birthday year.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.