The “Hero Trio” Debuts on Disc

Mahanthappa Hero Trio Mahanthappa Album Cover

AwardHERO TRIO / PARKER: Red Cross. Dewey Square. WONDER: Overjoyed. Medley: PARKER: Barbados; COLTRANE: 26-2. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. JARRETT: The Windup. CARTER CASH-KILGORE: Ring of Fire. DePAUL-JOHNSTON: I’ll Remember April. COLEMAN: Sadness / Hero Trio: Rudresh Mahanthappa, a-sax; François Moutin, bs; Rudy Royston, dm / Whirlwind Recordings 4760

Rudresh Mahanthappa, the Italian-born alto saxist of Indian descent, first broke through to fame with his Bird Calls album of 2015. It was while recording that album that he worked extensively with bassist Moutin and drummer Royston, who were part of his quintet, and he has worked with them as a trio on and off through the last five years, but this is their first recording in this format.

Three of Parker’s compositions are featured here—the opening Red Cross, the closing Dewey Square, and Barbados which he plays as a medley with John Coltrane’s 26-2—but as in the Bird Calls album, he updates Bird’s top-line playing by shifting and varying the underlying rhythm, often breaking it up with unusual emphasis on the beats and other such devices. Although Bird spawned many imitators during his lifetime, I can honestly say that no one else who I’ve heard plays LIKE Bird as much as Mahanthappa does. He not only has the rhythmic and harmonic alterations down pat, but he also has that earthy “edge” to his tone that Bird possessed, and this is evident throughout this splendid album.

Moreover, this is true even when he is not playing a specific number by Parker. He and his rhythm-mates bring a similar sensibility to Overjoyed, a tune by Stevie Wonder who, I’ve often said, is one of the most underrated songwriters of the late 20th century. I would place several of his tunes on the same high pedestal as those of Bobby Troup (also underrated) and Harold Arlen as being really jazz-friendly in addition to having catchy melodic lines (Sir Duke being my favorite). Of course, Mahantappa and his trio transform this tune into something quite wonderful (no pun intended) and different from the original, again displacing beats. Moutin doesn’t have the richest bass tone in the world, but he is extraordinarily inventive, able to do things on his instrument that a great many others cannot. His fingers fly over his instrument with the felicity of a classical cellist, and indeed much of the time he elicits a cello-like tone from his instrument.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

L to R: Royston, Mahanthappa, Moutin. Photo by David Crow.

Indeed, as one listens to this album, it is the alto saxist and the bassist who you are really following on almost a note-to-note progression. This doesn’t mean that Royston’s playing is superfluous—far from it—only that he is the rhythmic underpinning to the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers whose work keeps you on the edge of your seat. I’ve sometimes complained, even in reviewing albums I’ve liked, that some improvisations nowadays seem to me to go off track, to become too wrapped up in providing novelty or overblowing or just splattering notes up against the wall to see what sticks, but this is not the case here. Every note that Mahanthappa and Moutin play is not only interesting but sounds like a matter of life or death to them. Not once in this entire program do they make a misstep.

Perhaps the most interesting transformation, for me, was their slow belly-dance version of I Can’t Get Started, which the bassist plays with a single underlying chord (A major) as the saxist goes through both the melody and its variants until the 2:49 mark when he suddenly shifts the harmony a bit. And of course the bassist also takes an inspired solo of his own. And wait until you hear how they transform Keith Jarrett’s The Windup, playing it as a rather funky, blues-infused uptempo romp.

On Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash hit written by his wife June, Mahanthappa adds one extra beat to the third measure each time around which completely changes how it sounds—and of course, Moutin’s enormously creative bass lines add an extra layer of complexity. But if you think this was clever, wait until you hear his uptempo deconstruction of the familiar Gene DePaul ballad I’ll Remember April. It will pin you to the wall, and almost makes Sonny Rollins’ 1957 version sound conventional. Even more surprising, this is then followed by a simply extraordinary arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Sadness, on which Mahanthappa’s alto almost sounds like a wailing soprano sax and Moutin’s extraordinary arco bass playing takes you places you’ve never been before.

The album, and the set, wind up with an explosive and highly creative reimagining of Parker’s tune Dewey Square (also known as Prezology or Bird Feathers), with the saxist virtually exploding creative new ideas from moment to moment and Mouton supporting and egging him on. If this isn’t a top pick by Major Jazz Magazines as one of the best of this year, they need to get their heads examined.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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