Mahanthappa Returns With His Indo-Pak Coalition

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AGRIMA / MAHANTHAPPA: Alap. Snap. Showcase. Agrima. Can-Did. Revati. Rasikapriya. Take-Turns / Indo-Pak Coalition: Rudresh Mahanthappa, a-sax/electronics; Rez Abbasi, gt; Dan Weiss, dm/tabla / no label or number, available only as digital download or as double vinyl LP set at the artist’s website: http://rudreshm.com/

Although Rudresh Mahanthappa has been on the jazz scene for at least a decade, and won plaudits for his now-famous album Bird Calls, this is only the second release by his Indo-Pak Coalition band, the first having been issued in 2008.

Recently I reviewed an album by Canadian bassist-leader Søren Nissen, who attempted to fuse Indian music with jazz, commenting that such a combination is extremely difficult because the two music systems tend to be incompatible. I mentioned the old Hindustani Jazz Sextet as one of the few groups successful in that endeavor, largely because they had Indian musicians in the band. Mahanthappa, also being Indian, does a credible job here as well, although in his case the resultant music sounds more Indian and less American jazz although much of it is improvised. Some may feel this is a small issue to bring up, but to an extent I feel it’s an important difference. What makes it work is the fact that two of the group’s three members, Mahanthappa and guitarist Abbasi (whose recent CD I also raved about), are bona-fide jazz players who just happen to have an Indian heritage.

The difference comes in accent. Nissen “speaks” Indian rhythms with an American accent while Mahanthappa and Abbasi “speak” jazz rhythms with an Indian accent. Listen carefully to their playing, particularly in the breaks, and you’ll hear what I mean. Mahanthappa’s debt to Bird is well known and unashamedly admitted, and here’s the odd thing: if you go back and listen to Bird’s later (post-1949) recordings, you’ll hear him play rhythms that could easily be overlaid onto an Indian beat. Not that he was all that influenced by Eastern music, mind you, but he always tended to play the blues with an accent quite different from that of his peers. Just a thought.

The first piece on this disc, Alap, is a relatively brief guitar solo by Abbasi that acts like an introduction to the rest of the set. The trio really gets cooking in Snap, a nine-minute romp that, astonishingly, bears a resemblance to some of what the Hindustani Jazz Sextet did back in the early ‘60s. I doubt that Mahanthappa or Abbasi have even heard this group, but who knows? In any case, it is one of the most successful Indo-jazz fusions on the set.

By contrast, Showcase is a pure funky blues. Dan Weiss switches from table to drum kit, and just listen to Abbasi’s great guitar solo. So many modern jazz guitarists seem to want to play mostly in rapid-fire single notes, but Abbasi re-teaches us that playing chorded solos can be even richer and more rewarding to hear. (Get out your old Eddie Lang and Dick McDonough records to hear what I mean by that.) Towards the end, Abbasi and Weiss set up a nice repeated lick that Mahanthappa improvises over for the finale. On Agrima, Mahanthappa switches from alto sax to electronic keyboards, playing a pair of complementary double-time riffs (either one in each hand or pre-recorded to overlap one another) with Abbasi coming in with a third riff before moving into the tune proper. This one is an almost perfect fusion of Indian and jazz rhythm, although to my mind some of those riffs, built around Western modes rather than Indian scales or ragas, tended to sound somewhat Celtic to me. The second time Mahanthappa plays his wild, circular riffs, Weiss really cuts loose on the drums. There’s a storng allusion here in his beat to rock music, yet the continual invention of the two soloists above him (partilcarly Mahanthappa, who really gets into this one) holds the attention and makes one forget the nasty rock beat. Abbasi, on the other hand, shiftsgears here and simulates the playing of a rock guitarist. Oh well.

With Can-Did we’re back in India, and very firmly so. The tempo is relaxed and not so much swinging as swaying (hard to describe, but you’ll know that I mean when you hear it). Weiss is back on tabla and Abbasi has calibrated his electric guitar so that, at times, it almost sounds acoustic, the tone exceptionally clean. Mahanthappa plays relaxed lines and the harmony sounds basically Indian on this one, quite modal in its form. At the three-minute mark, however, Weiss switches to drums, they double the tempo, and suddenly we’re in an American jazz groove tempered by the Indian harmony. Mahanthappa is quite wild on this one, playing some “outside” alto while Abbasi remains calm, cool and collected. They go into a bit of free-form rhythm, with Weiss playing almost a quasi-march beat on the drums behind a repeated five-note riff which is then reduced to four notes.

Rasikapriya starts off in a fast tempo and cooks throughout. This sounds the closest in style to the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, rapid music played with an Indian beat and harmony, though the earlier group fractured the time even more radically than this. Mahanthappa and Abbasi go into a “reverb trance,” playing their instruments in an atmosphere of echo and tape-looping. Once they come out of their reverb, they play in a quite hard style. Abbasi again reverts to rock guitar. I guess younger jazz listeners really like this kind of thing, but I was opposed to Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew way back when and haven’t changed my mind much since.

Revati also begins in reverb-land, this time with Abbasi out front while Mahanthappa plays electronic keyboard way out back. A tape loop plays Abbasi’s phrases backwards. After a pause, Mahanthappa enters on alto sax, Weiss seems to be playing tabla and drums simultaneously, Abbasi fills in with chords, and we’re on our way down a strange journey. Then, suddenly, the tempo jumps up to an asymmetric rhythm for a few bars, with Weiss now firmly on drums, then we shift towards Indian tempo, the tabla returns, and so too does our journey. Mahanthappa is relaxed here if somewhat static in development; he seems intent on maintaining a mood more than pushing the music into new directions. Then suddenly, around 6:35, he jumps into some really wild, inventive improvisation, taking us in an entirely new direction. Abbasi returns to his clean, quasi-Nashville guitar sound, complementing Mahanthappa’s series of rhythmic riffs with outstanding soloing of his own. This is the kind of piece I love: it keeps shifting, morphing and building on itself, creating new motivic cells (as the classical cats are wont to say) as it goes along. Later, a rarity in this set, a tabla solo—but with some cymbal licks thrown in for color.

The closer, Take-Turns, begins with Mahanthappa madly playing little circular riffs up close to the microphone and then in the back, overdubbing himself. Then we apparently switch to a live feed, Mahanthappa plays a commanding lick and the band cooks mightily behind him, playing a strange and elusive rhythm that sounds at once static and propulsive. Abbasi’s solo is excellent, as is Mahanthappa’s, mostly over drums despite the strong Indian feel of the rhythm. The two soloists do indeed “take turns” in this one, to good effect. It’s an effective finish to a fine album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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