Sax man Rudresh Mahanthappa explores ornamentation

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Given that he was born in Trieste, Italy, to parents of South Asian extraction, grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and now lives in the cultural melting pot that is New York City, Rudresh Mahanthappa probably can’t help making music that’s a bit of a mashup.

But it’s clear from his approach—and especially from his latest release, Gamak—that he’s thought long and hard about how to assemble the various pieces of his personal jigsaw puzzle.

Jazz, he’s concluded, is the best vehicle for his art, which is not surprising; he plays alto saxophone, the instrument of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Ornette Coleman. But the title of his new record refers to the concept of melodic ornamentation in both South and North Indian music, something he’s learned about firsthand from the Carnatic master Kadri Gopalnath.

“The way that ornamentation occurs in Indian music is very precise—and integral to the music, in the sense that it’s built into the melody,” Mahanthappa explains, in a telephone interview from his home. “If you have a song and you didn’t perform the correct ornamentation, you’d be playing the song incorrectly—which is not necessarily a concept that exists in western music. I mean, we think of ornamentation as something that you add on, not something that is mandatory.

“Nonetheless,” he adds, “I never claim to be playing Indian classical music. I’m heavily influenced by it, but I’m more concerned with expressing what it means to be Indian-American, and embracing that feeling of being tied to neither and both worlds.”

That’s especially apparent on Gamak, which only occasionally references Indian music. “I was thinking more about how ornamentation occurs across the world, whether it’s in Chinese classical music, or gamelan music, or the way Beyoncé riffs on a cadenza, or that kind of yodel effect in country music that’s very effective and emotional,” the saxophonist says. “So it’s about looking at melodic ornamentation as an incredibly humanizing and visceral component of melody.”

Visceral might be the key term here. Mahanthappa’s compositions often build on asymmetrical rhythms, and they always take surprising twists and turns. Yet they also incorporate hummable themes and an enormous amount of energy, making his music the perfect introduction to state-of-the-art jazz for those visiting the style for the first time.

“The things that made me want to play the saxophone were people like David Sanborn and Grover Washington and the Yellowjackets,” he says. “Those were the first saxophone albums that actually made me want to practise when I was 10 years old. A lot of that music has been relegated to being ‘smooth jazz’, but at that time that was important black music. It was instrumental R & B, it was instrumental soul; it wasn’t smooth jazz. It still had a lot of feeling and depth.”

Those qualities are apparent in Mahanthappa’s music too, no matter how spiky it can sometimes get. His first TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival performance as a bandleader promises to be a thrill—and, perhaps, a revelation.

Rudresh Mahanthappa plays the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival at Performance Works on Sunday (June 22).

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