In the early 1980s, the life of a sixth-grader in Colorado was transformed when he first heard bebop jazz icon Charlie “Bird” Parker. Now a world-class alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa pays homage to Parker with Bird Calls, “an intelligent and timely tribute to one of the greatest figures in jazz” (London Jazz News). He and his fiery quintet perform Bird Calls in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium, Friday, January 27, 8 pm. Mahanthappa also will give a saxophone master class for Dartmouth students that is free to observe, Wednesday, January 25, 4:30 pm in Faulkner Recital Hall.
The performance draws on Mahanthappa’s 2015 album of the same name, chosen as the year’s best by both DownBeat magazine and NPR Music’s Jazz Critics Poll—just the latest garlands in a career that has placed Mahanthappa among today’s leading jazz artists. He plays at the Hop with esteemed musicians Josh Evans (trumpet), Matt Mitchell (piano), Thomson Kneeland (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums).
At 45, Mahanthappa has been hailed by The New York Times as possessing “a roving intellect and a bladelike articulation,” and has been named alto saxophonist of the year four of the past five years in DownBeat’s International Critics Polls and for five years running by the Jazz Journalists’ Association. He’s also been lauded with a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, one of the most prominent arts awards in the world, and was named a United States Artists Fellow. Noted for sizzling, sinuous and inventive playing and compelling projects, Mahanthappa hybridizes progressive jazz and South Indian classical music in a fluid and forward-looking form reflecting his own experience as a second-generation Indian-American.
In Bird Calls, he applies that ear for synthesis to the music of fellow alto player Parker, resulting in an insightful and at times playful tribute with captivating compositions that meld Bird-like motifs with elements of pop, hip hop, funk, classical Indian music and the jazz of today, placing Bird’s foundational influence in a decidedly 21st-century context.
Wrote All About Jazz, “Rudresh Mahanthappa is to ‘Yardbird’ Charlie Parker what Albert Einstein was to Isaac Newton. He revises Parker’s legacy to his own advanced understanding, yet preserves the essential truth of Parker’s contribution to jazz. One genius says ‘hello’ to another and then goes his own way. …This is millennial world music at its best.”
Said Mahanthappa in a publicity statement, “It’s easy to say that Bird influenced modern music without dissecting that notion. …This music says, ‘Yes, Bird’s influence is absolutely indelible, and here’s why.’ This is music that is all directly inspired by Charlie Parker, but it sounds as modern as anything today.”
It was purportedly while helping a student learn Parker’s infamously difficult song Donna Lee that Mahanthappa first thought up his new interpretation. To make the song more approachable, they broke it into smaller chunks, he told NPR. “In hearing these snippets out of context, these snippets started sounding more like Bartók or contemporary classical music, or even elements of something more funk-like—just modern,” Mahanthappa said. “And it started striking me that maybe there was more to Charlie Parker than I had previously thought.”
Mahanthappa came to music as a child studying recorder at school, he told New Music Box. “Everyone played Hot Cross Buns. But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons.” He studied Baroque recorder for several years, which taught him to read music and execute fingerings that were not, it turned out, very different from the saxophone—which he transitioned to a few years later, he said.
“I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother [who played clarinet] said, ‘You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.’ He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing.”
His first fascination was with Grover Washington, Jr. By middle school, his focus shifted to Parker’s music. “From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.” He also took to playing on Boulder’s famously entertainer-filled pedestrian mall and started meeting and playing with older musicians.
Graduating from high school in 1988, he would have been happy to try making his way as a musician in New York, but that wasn’t an option, he said. “I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of.”
While getting his bachelor’s degree at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, he was introduced to the music of Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, whose use of a Western instrument in the context of Carnatic music surprised and inspired him. He would later travel to India on a grant to work with Gopalnath; the two played together in concert between 2005 and 2008, and collaborated on the album Kinsmen (2008), which fuses Western and Indian approaches to improvisation.
After Berklee, he received a master of fine arts in jazz composition from Chicago’s DePaul University in 1998, then moved to New York City—where he quickly teamed up and released an album with pianist (and fellow Indian-American) Vijay Iyer, Architextures, the first of many collaborations between the two.
In the nearly 20 years since then, Mahanthappa has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as his collaborations with Iyer as well as a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition, in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Other projects combine jazz and Carnatic elements with other components—such as the groups Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Mahanthappa also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, he has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company.
This past fall, he entered academia like his father, becoming Director of Jazz and the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Senior Lecturer in Jazz Studies in Princeton University’s Department of Music.