As award-winning New-York-based alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa gears up to release his new album, Agrima, on Oct. 17, DownBeat spoke to him on the day of his performance at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival. The forthcoming album was recorded with his band Indo-Pak Coalition: guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer/percussionist Dan Weiss.
Our conversation began with a discussion about the ancient Southern Indian musical form of Carnatic music, which Mahanthappa has incorporated into his own playing style.
You were never going to follow a standard path of musical interpretation, were you? Especially with Carnatic music available to you.
I can’t say I have really gone down the Carnatic path; it’s just one of a number of areas that have been available to me. I am South Indian, my parents are from Bangalore and emigrated to the U.S., so it’s definitely the music of my heritage, and now it is part of my musical DNA. It is something that does act as an influence. Indian music is very important to me, but it is not the only style of music I want to study. If I did, I would move to India and find a guru and live there for 20 or 30 years, but there are too many other things I want to do in music.
I always liked how when I hear any piece of music, in any genre, only the composer knows where it has come from; listeners will never know what, and how much influence, came into the creative process.
Yes, that’s very true, and often the finished piece bears no resemblance to any of the pieces that have influenced its composition. There is a piece on my Samdhi album that is based on some very specific Carnatic influences, and everyone thinks it is a Balkan tune, which perfectly illustrates your point. I think there can be instances where listeners come with a preconceived agenda when they listen to my music, based on race and ethnicity. I think some people expect to hear something overtly Indian, and they project that impression, even when it is not actually there, or they feel disappointed because it is not there.
Does that presupposition annoy you?
Well, it did, because it infers that people are analyzing the music too much, looking into it too deeply, when they should be experiencing it on an emotional level, and enjoying it for what it is.
You used some effects and electronics to record your new album. Did the purist police come knocking?
Well, [electronics] are fairly new to me. I did try some of that with the Samdhi album, and then went back to acoustic sax for the next records, and I am back to it again with my latest record. I don’t really care what the purists say, to tell you the truth. I think it is sonically very challenging, and it adds a whole new dimension to what improvisation can be.
Let’s talk about your latest project, Agrima, with the Indo-Pak Coalition. What was the genesis of that work?
That project actually started in 2005. There was a very early version of it before I moved to New York, which was a bit of a disaster, so it got canned. When I moved to New York, I heard Dan Weiss and Rez Abbasi play. I thought it was time to get the group going again with tabla and guitar. So I wrote some music and we made an album [called Apti] in 2008, and I think that has a purist quality about it. It was basically an acoustic album, and it has that Hindustani sonic palette of sorts. The album did really well, and we toured it quite a bit, and I moved on to other projects, but always with a view to coming back to it.
With the vast palette of sounds at your disposal, is it difficult not to get sidetracked and find yourself going down various musical avenues, and losing the direction of the project you started out to create?
That’s an interesting question. I think it comes down to your relationship with your band-mates, and how much you trust each other. When I first started making records, I always had a very definite idea of the way I wanted things to sound, and the developments I wanted to make as we went along. Now I find that I don’t work that way anymore. I have a lot of trust in the musicians, [whom] I have worked with for a long time. So if something appears to be taking a different path, I know that I can trust them to make sure that everything will still be great.
You are an award-winning musician, having topped the Alto Saxophonist category in the DownBeat Critics Poll six out of the past seven years. This may not be a question you can answer, but have you ever considered what it is that appeals to the critics?
Gosh, I have never really thought about that before. I would like to think that it is because the music I am producing is new and fresh in its approach, but very much conforms to the traditions. If you want to address the present, you need one foot in the future and one foot in the past. I don’t think about it too much. These accolades are a great honor, and I feel blessed to have them.
You have been appointed Director of Jazz at Princeton University. I was wondering if this post is going to impact your work as a composer and performer?
That’s a really good question, and I don’t really know how to answer that yet. I’ve just finished my first year. Touring-wise it was an atypical year for me. The fall was really busy because I had a lot of dates booked in before I was offered the Princeton post, so they had to be honored. I don’t really have a sense of how it’s going to balance. I know that they do value what I do as a performer, so I guess I will have to learn to fit it in with the rest of the things I am involved with.
Looking back on your diverse, varied career, is there any one aspect of it that gives you more pleasure than any other?
I think that feeling changes all the time, depending on what I am working on. For my evening with The Bad Plus here at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I had to learn this Ornette Coleman ballad, an obscure piece called “Sadness,” and I was working on learning that at Princeton at around two in the morning, and that is when I got the feeling that this is what makes everything else work for me—this feeling, learning this piece, and connecting with this music. Just me and the saxophone, and the silence and connection. That’s something that is so valuable and I will never lose sight of it. DB