Mahanthappa, Harris Match Wits in Chicago Double Bill


Rudresh Mahanthappa (left) with Stefon Harris at the Symphony Center in Chicago on Feb. 26

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Chicago Symphony Center’s Jazz Series presented an ambitious double billing Feb. 26 with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Recalling Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough’s droll “Who’s on First?” (which borrowed from WWII lyricist Red Evans) one had to wonder whether a coin was flipped to decide who would be the “Frim-Fram Sauce” and who the “shifafa on the side.”

The two groups, Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls quintet and Harris’ six-piece Sonic Creed, each affected a totally different impact.

Mahanthappa’s imperious intellect is counterweighted with a witty pragmatism on his celebrated album Bird Calls (ACT, 2015), featuring trumpet tyro Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bass maestro Francois Moutin and feisty drummer Rudy Royston. The album extrapolates tangible elements from the oeuvre of Mahanthappa’s first hero, Charlie Parker, which then undergo surgical revisions. One wonders what audience members familiar with Parker’s music made of Mahanthappa’s opening salvo, one of four vignettes or “birdcalls” from the album, which conjured the static harmony and microtonality of his subcontinental Indian ancestry.

As Moutin droned with bow, Royston added busy, roiling beats and pianist Joshua White (subbing for Mitchell) contributed pedaled shimmers to a frontline melody that traded ominous, melismatic phrases for several minutes before launching full bore into “On The DL,” Mahanthappa’s witty reference to Parker’s serpentine evergreen “Donna Lee.”

But “On The DL” is hardly a contrafact. The piece began with an urgent M-Base styled odd-metered ostinato over which the horns traded tangled phrases before a brief, mercurial Parker-like break ceded to another repeated unison bass riff in cut time. The song then launched into a tempestuous solo from the altoist.

It was immediately clear from his furiously dense opening gambit that Mahanthappa had no intent to pace himself. Beyond his 21 years, O’Farrill rode the rolling meter and exhibited a knack for reining in, his tone muddied, his playing largely inhabiting the lower register. The ensemble nailed micro stops at a demanding tempo before finally flashing the earlier Parker-esque fragment.

A cappella horns engaged in heraldic cantabile against each other before synching for the head to “Chillin’,” loosely inspired by Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo.” Mahanthappa took harmonic excursions and then doubled, even tripled passages within his outrageously dense but connected and discernible foray. Despite the demands of the music, Moutin conveyed a sense of enjoyment and wonder while taking firm grip of the narrative.

A more reflective unaccompanied passage using multifarious vented/alternate fingerings that eked out curated rasps from the alto heralded “Talin Is Thinking,” dedicated to Mahanthappa’s young son. The piece had a lofty lope, mixing plaintive dulcet tones with dark, cubist lines in the manner of Mahanthappa’s sometime sparring partner Bunky Green.

The composition is actually a development of Parker’s signature blues “Parker’s Mood” but decidedly more somber, and with a lopsided jaunt.

Mahanthappa and O’Farrill proved stellar frontline foils. The younger man is a new name to watch for, but comes from bluechip ancestry (he’s the son of pianist Arturo O’Farrill, grandson to Afro-Cuban bandleader Chico). The duo’s relentless striated lines were ably set in relief by forceful engine-room work from Royston, Moutin and White, whose demonstrative, percussive style recalled McCoy Tyner, or perhaps Don Pullen, who both deployed chop-like assaults on the keyboard to emphasize rhythm and intensity beyond harmonic nicety.

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