Blindfold Test: Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio, Parts 1 & 2

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In this rare iteration of the DownBeat Blindfold Test, all three musicians were asked to comment on selections consisting entirely of trio music.

(Photo: David Crow)

Seeing a colorful press photo of Rudresh Mahanthappa and his bandmates adorned in masks, tights and capes might lead one to believe that they are the comic book-like heroes from which the trio’s name is derived. But the alto saxophonist has been clear: He is paying homage to his own musical heroes — Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz, for starters. Rollins and Konitz virtually trademarked the chord-less trio format embraced by Mahanthappa and his rhythm section players, both of whom work regularly in other highly regarded trios: bassist François Moutin with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, and drummer Rudy Royston with guitarist Bill Frisell.

In this rare iteration of the DownBeat Blindfold Test, all three musicians were asked to comment on selections consisting entirely of trio music. It was Mahanthappa’s second Blindfold Test, and the first for Royston and Moutin. The following article originally ran in two installments in DownBeat’s May 2022 and June 2022 issues.

ORNETTE COLEMAN

“Dawn” (At The Golden Circle Stockholm, Blue Note, 1966) Coleman, alto saxophone; David Izenzon, bass; Charles Moffett, drums.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: That’s Ornette Coleman, At The Golden Circle, with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. This is on Blue Note, not Atlantic, I believe. When I was at Berklee in the ’90s, I wanted to do a recital of all Ornette Coleman music. It had a horrible name — it was called “Ornette, or Not.” We ended up doing a ballad called “Dawn” — this is it? There it is, I hear the melody now. 5 stars.

François Moutin: I don’t know of anything else that David Izenzon did, but he’s a monster bass player.

JERRY BERGONZI TRIO

“Have You Met Miss Jones” (Lost In The Shuffle, Double-Time, 1998) Bergonzi, tenor saxophone; Dan Wall, organ; Adam Nussbaum, drums.

Mahanthappa: It sounds like Steve Grossman when he was in his Sonny Rollins phase. It has a Jerry Bergonzi vibe to it, too. It’s not Dan Wall, is it? Adam Nussbaum? Jerry is great. For better or for worse, Grossman, Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, even George Garzone, to some extent Dave Liebman — these guys were like the kings of this post-Coltrane [sound]. I think Grossman was the forefather of all those guys, including Michael Brecker. Steve was playing like that when he was only 19 years old with Elvin Jones.

Moutin: There’s one lick in there that could have been you on tenor, Rudresh.

Mahanthappa: It’s the same source material, just up a fifth. I tried playing tenor in high school; I sounded terrible on tenor.

Rudy Royston: Adam Nussbaum is on! I like all the energy, rhythm, big fat sound ... not like that “clean” stuff that was going on at that time.

Moutin: I’ve played with him half a dozen times, and every time, it was an incredible experience.

Royston: He’s a cat who believes in the drums leading the band, the drums leading the vibe. He came to UNC when I was there. He said, “You should be able to tell what the tune is from what I’m playing.” You could hear it in his rhythms and how he was defining stuff around the melody. He’s still a bad cat.

Mahanthappa: 5, shall we go 5 stars on that?

Moutin: Yeah.

Royston: Everyone was killing on that.

MELISSA ALDANA & CRASH TRIO

“Turning” (Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, Concord, 2014) Aldana, tenor saxophone, Pablo Menares, bass; Francisco Mela, drums.

Royston: Is that Melissa Aldana? The thing I love about Melissa is how she uses space. She’s never in a rush. She always waits, and then she does that thing where she starts low, I don’t know what it is [sings the line]. And the way she uses … falsetto?

Mahanthappa: Altissimo. I like Melissa a lot, I don’t know her playing real well. One of the things that’s hard for me to realize is that there’s a whole generation of folks that were influenced by people our age. Melissa told me a story about how into Mark Turner she was, and how he gave her a seven-hour lesson once.

Royston: That’s a great trio. I saw them at Dizzy’s. They were a good trio.

Moutin: Good composition, too.

Mahanthappa: 5 stars.

CHRIS SPEED TRIO

“Arrival High” (Platinum On Tap, Intakt, 2017) Speed, saxophone; Dave King, drums; Chris Tordini, bass.

Moutin: Triplicate?

Mahanthappa: No, it doesn’t sound anything like that. It kind of reminds me of Bill McHenry. Is it George Garzone? It definitely sounds like it could be someone of our generation. It could be Rasmus Lee, or it could be …

Moutin: Donny McCaslin?

Mahanthappa: No, it can’t be, that’s not Donny’s sound. Or guys that I went to Berklee with, like Matt Renzi … all these cats that played all that modern shit, but with harder reeds and a darker sound, as opposed to Donny. It was almost like a reaction to Michael Brecker, “We’re going to go dark!”

Royston: I know this drummer, man.

Mahanthappa: It could be Chris Speed, too. Is this the trio with Dave King? There you go. Chris was a little older than me, but he was still in Boston when I was in school, but he was hanging out, playing his ass off. 5 stars. Chris is a bad motherfucker and more people should know who he is.

Royston: I knew that it was [Dave King on drums], but I just couldn’t put my finger on that sound. Big tom sounds, and you can hear all that facility with the rim shots and the bells. You can hear all that stuff in the Bad Plus.

… To be continued in the June 2022 issue of DownBeat. Same Hero Trio time. Same Blindfold Test space!

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio (Part 2, June 2022)

Previously on The Blindfold Test: Our three heroes, led as always by the indubitable alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and ably assisted by his sideman sidekicks François Moutin and Rudy Royston, added to their legerdemain with a perfect four-for-four on last month’s treacherous playlist, a feat they accomplished even while blindfolded (figuratively speaking). After easily nailing the mysterious Ornette Coleman and killers Jerry Bergonzi and Melissa Aldana, a bit of high drama occurred as their last unknown audio assailant proved elusive until Mahanthappa deduced the culprit to be Chris Speed at the 11th hour. But this month, new and more dangerous challenges lie ahead. Can our heroes pull of a perfect score, or will they succumb to the weight expectations they’ve already set? Read on to find out!

BRANFORD MARSALIS

“Gutbucket Steepy” (Trio Jeepy, Sony, 1989) Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Milt Hinton, bass; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Sounds like Arnett Cobb. It’s not rough enough to be Turrentine.

Rudy Royston: Sounds like Turrentine right there.

François Moutin: It’s not Turrentine?

Mahanthappa: It’s so of another generation. It reminds me of Houston Person records, or even Lockjaw. But I could also see Seamus Blake totally playing like this, and doing it convincingly, and sounding like an old cat. I could see Josh Redman playing like this too. But I’m stumped.

Moutin: It’s not Ron Carter, is it? There’s something in the sound … I don’t know.

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: I would have never gotten that.

Moutin: You tricked us.

Mahanthappa: Branford definitely has his own sound, but then he can kind of inhabit all these other things, historically.

Royston: “Tain” came to my mind with that ride cymbal, but I was like, “I don’t think so.” I needed to hear a “Tain”-ism.

Moutin: 5 stars.

Royston: I didn’t know Branford could do that. Branford was getting a lot of lip back then, going to Sting’s band, and all the jazz cats were like, “Oh, man!”

Moutin: Makes me realize how much Ron Carter borrowed [from] Milt Hinton.

Mahanthappa: I’m a little embarrassed; Branford and I just hung out last week.

ANNA WEBBER

“Forgotten Best” (Idiom, Independent Release, 2021) Webber, tenor saxophone; Matt Mitchell, piano; John Hollenbeck, drums.

Mahanthappa: It’s killing, whoever it is.

Moutin: European?

Mahanthappa: Sounds like Anna Webber, kind of? With Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck? Anna’s ridiculous, she can do anything. 5 stars, 5½! I had Anna come and speak to my advance improv class last semester. She was amazing. She’s actually kind of codified and demystified “free improvisation.” She had this beautiful list of all these techniques to work on. Imagine Jamey Aebersold’s scale syllabus, but it was techniques and strategies for free improv. It was literally just one sheet of paper, and it was a lifetime of stuff to work on.

Moutin: Matt Mitchell is amazing.

Mahanthappa: Matt was in Bird Calls. He was practicing [his piano etudes] in sound checks for every gig we did.

Royston: He did those every day when we were in Dave Douglas’ band. You just knew it was going to come [mimics atonal piano sounds]. I used to try to play with him to figure out [the time].

JEFF BALLARD TRIO

“Western Wren (A Bird Call)” “Mivakpola” (Times Take, Okeh, 2014) Ballard, drums; Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar.

Moutin: It’s killing. I don’t know what it is, but it’s great!

Mahanthappa: That’s insane. I can’t even …

Royston: And that wasn’t Jeff on drums? Jeff Ballard?

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: I never would have guessed that.

Moutin: I should have guessed that.

Royston: I thought that was Jeff, because you can hear that staccato style. When Jeff plays, he plays “off” the drums. Everything is precise and staccato.

Moutin: Beautiful. 5 stars.

Royston: I’ve got to get that.

JOSHUA REDMAN

“Mantra #5” (Trios Live, Nonesuch, 2014) Redman, soprano saxophone; Matt Penman, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums.

Royston: Sounds like Branford.

Moutin: Ravi? Not Ravi Coltrane?

Royston: That’s definitely Brian Blade.

Mahanthappa: Is that McBride?

Royston: Joshua? That’s not Hutch on drums?

[afterwards]

Mahanthappa: Oh, god, Matt sounds amazing. That sounds great. I don’t know Josh’s playing well enough to recognize it, to tell you the truth. But he always sounds great.

Royston: Hutch man, wow. We’re friends. He came to Denver when I was in high school. He was playing with Roy [Hargrove’s] band. We had this jam session in Diane Reeves’ basement. I was trying to play all this “Tain” stuff. Roy was there. Then, Hutch comes in, he’s got the flu. He has this big bomber coat on, he sits on my drums and my cymbals and he just [gestures a seriously minimal ride pattern]. I wanted to leave after that. That was a lesson learned right there. I went upstairs and ate some of Diane Reeves’ cooking. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.



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