© 2024 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Saxophone Stylings, With A South-Asian Flair


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest finished number two, just below Sonny Rollins, in the 2008 Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and in the New York, jazz critic Gary Giddins called his last two albums astonishing.

His name is Rudresh Mahanthappa. His parents are from South India and in the '60s moved to Boulder, Colorado, which is where Rudresh grew up. In spite of his Indian heritage, he didn't pay much attention to Indian music. He studied composition and alto saxophone at Berkeley College of Music.

But as you'll hear, a novelty gift from his brother led Rudresh to immerse himself in Indian music and collaborate with a master Indian saxophonist. We'll hear one of their collaborations later.

Rudresh calls the band on his new CD the Indo-Pak Coalition. It features guitarist Rez Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan. Dan Weiss is the tabla player. Here's the title track, "Apti."

(Soundbite of song, "Apti")

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us about one of the things happening in that piece that you think you wouldn't have known about if you hadn't studied Indian music.

Mr. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA (Saxophonist, Composer): My approach for a long time with Indian music, you know, when I first started listening, was more melodically oriented. And I was always fascinated with this idea of ragas, which are - in the West, they're often simplistically called modes, but they're much more complicated than that.

They're much more complicated than the Western perception of scales because they often have an ascending form that's different from the descending form, and the notes sometimes will come out of order. They won't go straight up. It might go up a little bit and down, and then up a little bit again.

So with that title track there, with "Apti," I was kind of trying to synthetically create something that was raga-like, even though the melodic material for that tune is not a traditional or even existent raga in Indian music.

GROSS: You know, listening to your music, I think of it as being - some of it as being not so much melody as patterns. There's like these patterns that you hear that are different than, say, song melody.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Now, that's interesting. I guess I could hear that, too. You know, I have this very kind of mathy sort of background.

GROSS: Did you say mathy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Mathy, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, okay.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: And I think this - the idea of permutation is something that I've always gravitated towards. Like, you know, here you have five notes. How many different ways can you order those five notes, both in sequence or rhythmically or however, and you know, create these kind of cells that sound like, I don't know, almost like a pinball bouncing back and forth between bumpers but ricocheting a different way every time?

GROSS: And is that compatible with Indian music?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, I don't know if it's compatible with anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: I think, you know, I see music and math and computation, and, I mean, I see them all as being, as coming from a similar part of the brain and a similar part of human existence.

So the interesting thing with Indian music is there is definitely a strong emphasis on numbers, on math itself, more with regard to rhythm than the actual melodic stuff, though.

GROSS: Were you supposed to become a math teacher instead of something more impractical, like jazz musician?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: It's funny, Terry, because I feel like everything that I gravitate towards within anything I do, whether it be professional or as a hobby, is always in the most esoteric, impractical, inapplicable form.

So even my fascination with math was, you know, in high school and junior high, was more with number theory and abstract apology and things that have very little use.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: It's math that's beautiful, but has very little application. Like it's very elegant - like you know, Fermat's Last Theorem. I mean, it has no application, really.

Well, I don't want to overstep my boundaries, but as far as I understand, it has no application, really. But it's beautiful.

GROSS: Now even though you're Indian-American, are you surprised by how influenced you've ended up being by Indian music?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: I think when I look back, I'm surprised, but Indian music was something that I felt like I had to discover on my own terms. You know, as a jazz musician, there's often this assumption that you know about Indian music because you're Indian or because you have brown skin or something like that.

So I felt like I had to discover that music myself instead of pretending like I was an expert on it. And I feel like I came into the music at the same time I was coming into understanding that I do have a hybrid background, that I don't feel entirely Indian, that I don't feel entirely American.

And I think that's something that hits a lot of children of immigrants, you know, probably when they go off to college, like, you know, when you're 18, 19 years old. Sometimes it's a gradual thing. Sometimes it hits you like a hammer. I think for me, it hit like a hammer.

GROSS: I want to play another track from your latest CD, "Apti." And you were talking about patterns and, like, mathematical patterns that you see in music and shifting these cells around, and I think what you're talking about is evident in a piece that I want to play. And you're going to have to tell me what the title is, because I'm not sure whether it's I-I-T or L-L-T or two ones and a T.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm not sure how to read this title. So be my guest.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: That's funny. It's "IIT," which actually refers to the Indian Institute of Technology.

GROSS: Ah-ha, okay.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Which is the - that's the school that everybody dies to get into out of high school. By getting into IIT, you kind of guarantee yourself a job in the, you know, in the technical world or the engineering world. I would say that most of the Indian immigrants that you see like in Silicon Valley probably went through IIT. It's a very grueling process, but it's supposed to be worth it if you can get in and make it out alive.

GROSS: So why did you write a song with the title?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Because this song is actually quite math-oriented, but in a very traditional, South Indian way. Now you have to understand in Indian music, one doesn't talk about measures like we do in Western music. We don't talk about 4/4 or 3/4. We don't talk about these traditional song forms, say, of like - that jazz standards are based on, where it's 32 bars and divided into four, eight-bar sections.

In Indian music, one speaks more about beat cycles and number of beats. So you might have something that's a four-beat cycle or an eight-beat cycle, a seven-beat cycle. One that you see often is a 21-beat cycle. It's three groups of seven.

So "IIT" was based on this traditional way of breaking down 32 beats. And 32 beats, you know, we can think of that in the West as, you know, eight bars of 4/4.

So there are two things happening at once there. You can hear the overall pulse of the eight bars of 4/4, but on top of that, you have this - again, it's kind of a traditional, rhythmic, superimposition of grouping where we're going to go six, five, four, three, two, three, four, five. And if I did my math right, that should add up to 32.

So the kind of auditory illusion is something that's - there's the big grouping of the six, and the groupings are shrinking and expanding again.

GROSS: Is there any way you can kind of clap out the type of rhythmic divisions that you're talking about?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, I can try. Let me see here. So you hear the melody goes like…

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So you have this thing that starts, the first segment is…

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So I don't know if you can follow that, but you hear this kind of punch where the clap is, where the punch in the tabla is, gets shorter and shorter every time, and then it expands again. So it's this - then it kind of collapses in on itself and expands. It's a really cool sound, I think.

GROSS: So why don't we hear "IIT" from your CD, "Apti," and hear how all this sounds with your ensemble? So this is Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto, Rez Abbasi on guitar and Dan Weiss on tabla.

(Soundbite of song, "IIT")

GROSS: That's music from the new CD, "Apti," by my guest Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition. The track we just heard is called "IIT." We'll continue our conversation and hear more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. His new recording is called "Apti."

You traveled to India a few years ago and worked with a saxophonist there, an Indian saxophonist whose work you had heard recorded. And before we talk about your interactions with him, Kadri Gopalnath, tell us how you first heard his music. It's a great story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, when I was at Berkeley College of Music, I had heard that there was a Carnatic saxophonist, a South Indian saxophonist, but I didn't really think anything of it. And as kind of a congratulatory present after I'd done, like, a big, like, senior recital or some big concert of my own music, my older brother jokingly gave me this CD called "Saxophone Indian Style."

And to him, he thought it was hilarious, but I saw it, and I said oh, my God. This is that guy I've been hearing about. It was very funny to me that - well, it was funny that he thought it was just a prank. And one of the things also with these Indian classical music albums, which is somewhat unfortunate, is they all have - well, let's just say not a lot of thought has gone into some of the titles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So "Saxophone Indian Style" is a pretty funny thing, you know? But the album blew me away, you know? I couldn't believe that somebody was playing Indian music authentically on the saxophone.

I couldn't believe somebody even had accessibility to, the access to a saxophone in India. I mean, that, to me, seemed already kind of bizarre.

GROSS: Because it's such a Western instrument?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, I mean, I can't imagine - I mean, here, you know, in New York, I can tell you 50 places where you could go and buy a saxophone. I couldn't tell you where to go buy a saxophone in Bombay, you know.

But the other main musical issue is that in Indian music, you have this very complicated system, or complex system, I should say, of ornamentation that, again in the West, it's kind of glossed over by being referred to as microtonal or quarter tones, and it's much more complex than that. But it involves being able to kind of slide between notes, and this ornamentation is kind of - like you won't play a note directly on it.

You might play just a little bit above and a little bit below it. There's like this very decorative ornamentation of just an individual note, and there might be 100 ways to ornament one note, which is why, I think, Indian music is so dynamic, even though on the surface it seems like you're not dealing with very much melodic material because you're just dealing with these ragas or something like that.

So, obviously, this kind of ornamentation, which we call gumika(ph) is much more conducive to singing or playing violin or, you know, paying an instrument where you could actually slide.

And the way the saxophone is constructed, it's what we call, you know, a fixed-hole instrument. You know, there is, arguably - I mean, some people would argue with me. But traditionally, the way the saxophone is played, there is no real way to slide between notes in a way that's clean.

So what was amazing about Kadri initially is that he really figured out how to do that on the saxophone, and it wasn't a gimmick that he was just playing South Indian music on the saxophone. It was - he's playing Carnatic music at a very high level, and it just so happens he's playing the saxophone.

GROSS: Okay, so I want to play Kadri Gopalnath, and then you can tell me what you heard, like what revelations you heard when you heard this. So here it goes.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Okay, so that's Kadri Gopalnath, who introduced my guest, Rudresh Mahanthappa, to this Indian style of saxophone playing. And Rudresh, what did you hear in that? And let me just say I find especially interesting those long-held notes with the kind of stops in between.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, what we heard there - I have to tell you, I'm kind of transcended elsewhere. I haven't heard that album in years because it was actually stolen out of my car about 10 years ago. So…


Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So just to hear that little bit there just kind of - my feet are about eight inches floating off the ground. So thank you for playing that for me.

What we heard there, structurally, that's called the alap, which is an opening - it's an opening solo that's out of time. You know, there was no pulse there. We didn't hear any drums there. And it's usually something that happens at the beginning of a concert, but not necessarily.

It can happen anywhere in a concert, but it does usually happen at the beginning and then maybe another time. And it's a way of introducing the raga. It's a way of introducing the melodic content of what's going to come once, like, an actual song or composition is going to come in later.

And it's kind of a way of introducing each note of the raga to the audience. So it's a really interesting idea, I think, conceptually, something that we don't hear in the West. It's almost like I'm going to make musical friends with the audience, you know, before this concert continues.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: You know, it's a really nice idea, and it's something that I'd like to do as a jazz musician, as well, in my own concerts and my own albums.

GROSS: And now I want to kind of fast-forward to the pulse part, I guess the raga part…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, this is where the song comes in. I mean, we're still - it's all raga-based. This is - where the percussion comes in, that's where we talk about tala(ph), and tala, those are those beat cycles I was talking about. If I remember right, the first thing that we hear on this album is a 16-beat beat cycle. I could be wrong. It's been a long time.

GROSS: Okay, we'll let's fast-forward to the beat-cycle part. Here it is.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Rudresh, did that part knock you out, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, that definitely knocked me out. I'm sorry to just be, you know, laughing like crazy over here, but it - oh, man. Every time I hear that album and every time I hear him, I'm just - I get so just elated and excited. It's just - it brings back lots of good memories, and it's very inspiring at the same time.

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa will be back in the second half of the show. His latest album is called "Apti." That's A-P-T-I. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with jazz alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. Much of his composing and playing is influenced by Indian music. His parents are from South India and immigrated to Boulder, where Rudresh was born and raised. When we left off, he was talking about how he got interested in Indian music after listening to an album by the Indian saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath. They've since performed and recorded together.

You had said that there's a great story behind how Kadri Gopalnath started playing saxophone, which is an unusual instrument for classical Indian music.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, well, you know, his father was a nadaswaram player. Nadaswaram is a double reed instrument, a South Indian double reed instrument that sounds a lot like an oboe. So he definitely grew up with music, but it's not like his father was famous or something. His father played at the local temple, which is often where you hear nadaswaram. But I guess he saw one of the British palace bands when he was really young and there was a saxophonist in the band and he just -he was completely blown away by the sound and by the way it looked and just everything about it really knocked him out.

And obviously there was no template. You know, there was no predecessor of, you know, to playing the - their being a saxophonist in Indian music, period. So he really had to carve out his own - well, I want to say his own niche, but it obviously has become bigger than a niche. But he had to find his own way for sure. And you know, one of the things that I think is very touching and endearing about his story is that his life is a lot like that of a jazz musician. There was a lot like that of a jazz musician, where - well, in Indian music one of the things you see is this idea of lineage being very important.

And I don't mean lineage necessarily only meaning, you know, someone is the son or daughter of so and so, who was a great musician. Lineage can also manifest as far as who you studied with and who they studied with and who they studied with, and you can actually go on the Internet and see this family trees that aren't very family but it's a tree of tracing who you studied with back to some - you know, a great master musician that might go back three or four or five hundred years. Obviously Kadri didn't have that advantage as a saxophonist.

So fortunately he was able to find a few instructors that really supported what he did, but it took a long time for the Indian music community to actually take him seriously. And when I likened his life to that of a jazz musician, it's like he didn't have this privilege of lineage. He worked in an electronics store and sold transistor radios, from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 in the evening and he came home and would practice about six hours, then sleep four hours and go do that all over again.

So you know, that kind of reminds me of, you know, what my life was like when I first moved to New York or something like that, you know, just really finding your own way and creating your own voice and really sticking to your guns.

GROSS: Well, you not only toured with Kadri Gopalnath. You recorded with him on your album "Kinsmen," and I want to play a track from that. The track I want to play is called "Ganesha," and I would like you to talk about what you're doing here musically and since both you and Kadri Gopalnath are on alto saxophone, who is doing what?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Let's see, okay, so "Ganesha" is actually, again, I'm trying to kind of create this simultaneity of Eastern and Western, of Indian and jazz happening at the same time. So "Ganesha" is actually a blues in that regular kind of blues form, except that it happens to be, instead of a - we often talk about the 12 bar blues in Western music. This is six bar blues because it's at a slower tempo, but it's also based on the seven beat pattern that I referred to earlier, and one can actually think about it as three groups of 21 beats, which is something I also, you know, talked about earlier, this idea of a 21 beat cycle.

So I'm playing something that's more akin to kind of a blues riff and Kadri is playing something that's more raga based, but the raga that we're working with actually when I first heard it sounded so incredibly bluesy to me, I couldn't help but think that, okay, I really need to write a blues.

GROSS: Okay, let's hear "Ganesha" from Rudresh Mahanthappa's album "Kinsmen".

(Soundbite of song, "Ganesha")

GROSS: That's "Ganesha" from the album "Kinsmen," by my guest, the alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. I want to read something from the liner notes to your latest album. In those liner notes you write and - this is about the fact that you're playing Indian-inspired music now. You write: I first started a version of this group when I lived in Chicago back in 1996. There was a sort of pressure put upon me to do something Indian as if there was no precedent for an Indian-American jazz musician at that time.

I disbanded the group rather quickly as I felt that I lacked the skills and knowledge to lead such a trio with musical and cultural integrity. And wanting to avoid any notions of exoticism or exploitation of my ancestry, I went back to my comfort zone of leading bands of more traditional jazz instruments. So let's look at that statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: That's pretty heavy, right?

GROSS: Yeah, what kind of pressure was put on you to do something Indian since you were Indian-American?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, maybe - you know, the pressure could be self-inflicted to some degree. You know, there was no template for an Indian-American jazz musician at that time, so it seems liked the way to get over was to do something that was, you know, do something that was really blatantly Indian, something that was, you know, with a sitar player.

You know, I mean this is coming from a whole background of hearing things like Oh, you know, your music sounds really great, I could really hear the Indian influence.

And you know, to me up at that - up till that point, the Indian music influence in my music was - I don't want to stay it was subtle; it was definitely in there, but it was also very personal. So when somebody said I really hear the Indian influence, I always wondered what they meant. And I - you know, and I'm sure their sentiments were very positive, but I couldn't help but feel that they were saying that because of my name and because of the color of my skin, because even then I felt like my music was coming more of a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane then it was, you know, Ravi Shankar, or Kadri Gopalnath, for that matter.

GROSS: So how did you start hearing jazz? I mean, you're what, 37 now?


GROSS: So I think most people your age did not grow up with jazz. Jazz is no longer a popular music; it's more of an art music, an esoteric music. A lot of people think of it as music for older people.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yes, they do.

GROSS: Yeah. So did you start listening? How did it become important to you?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, it was more via the instrument. I chose to play saxophone when I was in fourth grade, I guess; that was the year that you could choose a band instrument. That's the year that you could be in the school band. And my older brother had played clarinet and he always regretted not being able to be in the jazz band. He said that everyone in the jazz band looked like they were having more fun, and I had no idea what jazz was. But I heard the word fun and - as a fourth grader, and said, yeah, okay, I'll do that.

And what you are going to do? I mean if you're a saxophonist; I mean, you know, playing jazz or listening to jazz is kind of the logical thing. I mean had I played guitar, maybe I would have been a rock musician. And I had a really good teacher growing up too from - I had the same teacher from when I started all the way till I left for college. I mean he played in jazz groups, he played in progressive rock groups, he played in all sorts of little avant-garde configurations. So I was turned on to a lot of music by going to hear him play and also him loaning the albums and all that.

So yeah, so I heard - what I was first into was more like the instrumental soul and R&B, like Grover Washington. Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, stuff that's unfortunately considered to be smooth jazz now, but I think back then it actually, it had more of a bite to it, it really was instrumental soul or R&B, and then I heard Charlie Parker when I was in sixth grade or seventh grade, and that, that was the end. I was hooked.

GROSS: I want to play another track of yours from your album "Kinsmen," and this is a piece called "Longing," and I want to play this because it's different from what we've been hearing. We've been hearing these like clearly Indian-inspired compositions of yours with that kind of mathematical pattern that you've been describing of melody and rhythm. But this starts off almost like it's more of a Coltrane ballad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so I'd like to talk - I'd like you to talk about this piece before we hear it.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah. "Longing" is an interesting one. The melody is very strictly based on a raga that Kadri and I worked on together, and you know, in the same way than in the West you take a major scale or a minor scale and you build harmony and then you write a tune, and all the harmony implies the scale, you know, you can do that with a raga, and usually that sounds really cheesy.

But with this particular one I just thought that there was going to be a way that I could really do something like that. So - so there are real chords, there are these kind of thick, lush chords that are all kind of built, mostly built from notes in the raga but I kind a played around with that. And yeah, it really does sound like, you know, like a contemporary Western jazz ballad. But it goes to these other sections and that kind of brings it back to its Indian roots. I like how it turns out. For me that was a big risk to write this tune and put it on the album.

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, it was a pleasure to talk to you, Terry. It's really wonderful.

GROSS: That's Kadri Gopalnath with Rudresh Mahanthappa on Rudresh's CD "Kinsmen". Rudresh's new CD is called "Apti." He spells his last name M-A-H-A-N-T-H-A-P-P-A. Coming up, Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of guitarist Grant Green's first Blue Note album as a leader after many Blue Note albums as a sideman. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Related Stories