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Rudresh Mahanthappa: A melting pot of jazz from a childhood saxophone

Rudresh Mahanthappa has made recordings with musicians as diverse as drummer Jack DeJohnette and saxophonist Bunky Green.

Jimmy Katz/ACT

Rudresh Mahanthappa may be the least traditional traditionalist in jazz.

Along with pianist Vijay Iyer and guitarist Rez Abbasi, the alto saxophonist is perhaps best-known for his efforts to incorporate elements of Indian classical improvisation into jazz. But he has also made it clear, through recordings with musicians as diverse as drummer Jack DeJohnette and saxophonist Bunky Green, that he's equally at home with the standard jazz vernacular.

So even though Gamak, as he calls the project he'll be touring across Canada this month, takes its name from gamaka, a South Indian term for melodic ornamentation, it would be a mistake simply to file the music under "Indian fusion."

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"This album, more than others, covers a lot of different territory," he says, over the phone from his home in New Jersey. His Gamak band is a quartet with guitar, bass and drums, and that allows him to showcase a wide range of influences. "There are elements of progressive rock in it, and almost folky, singer-songwriter elements," he says. "There are parts that sound almost country western."

Although what Gamak delivers is, as Mahanthappa says, "music that can reach everybody," it never panders; nor does it dilute its jazz roots or intelligence. Instead, it uses Mahanthappa's voice, as a composer and instrumentalist, to speak across genres and create a sound that is personal, compelling and impossible to categorize.

"I see that as being an extension of all the things that I've respected within the jazz tradition," he says. "Jazz is this living being that is constantly growing. Pushing the boundaries is what keeps the music alive, and keeps it from being housed in the museum."

Mahanthappa traces that attitude back to his earliest musical experiences as a boy in Grade 4 in Colorado, where he was lucky to have had a saxophone teacher who valued listening to music as much as playing it.

"He introduced me to a lot of different music, without any sense of genre," Mahanthappa says. "He would lend me two or three albums to listen to each week, and it was really all over the map. It might be Sidney Bechet and [Charlie Parker] and Debussy, and then the next week, Yes and Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington. It wasn't until I went to college that I heard people talking about 'hard bop' and 'cool' and 'bebop' and 'free jazz.' I was like, 'What are you guys talking about? This is all music.'"

Perhaps that's why Mahanthappa is unafraid to acknowledge influences jazz snobs would consider distinctly uncool. "The music that motivates you to play your instrument ends up sitting in the fabric of your being someplace," he says. "When I hear Grover Washington, when I hear David Sanborn, or the Yellowjackets, or the Brecker Brothers – any of the stuff that I used to listen to on a mono tape recorder – it takes me back to that feeling of first holding a saxophone, and in some ways that's more powerful than the most inspiring Coltrane solo.

"I think it's important to acknowledge that, and run with it. There's a lot of eighties rock that is considered really horrible, but it stands out for me. I used to know all those Huey Lewis saxophone solos, and Supertramp, and Clarence Clemons with Springsteen. Any of those saxophone solos that were on Top-40 radio, I learned them all, and I'm glad I did. It was awesome."

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For this Canadian tour, Mahanthappa will be playing with guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss, collaborators whom he's played with since forming the IndoPak Coalition in 2008, as well as the Toronto bassist Rich Brown, which he says is a special treat. "I wish Rich would move to New York," he says, "because as far as I'm concerned he's one of the best electric bass players in the world. He can do anything he wants. He's got pocket and groove, and he's got insane chops, and he knows exactly where to use them. It's really unbelievable.

"He's also one of the most well-listened musicians I've ever met. I mean, he's checked out everything." He laughs. "Rich is a scary individual."

Mahanthappa first heard Brown in the Toronto band Autorickshaw, and featured him on his 2010 album Samdhi. "I knew that Rich had a very specific skill set that would bring that music to life," he says. "He knows a ton about Indian music, both from Autorickshaw and his own investigations, and he's one of these guys who, you send him the music in advance and he turns up at the first rehearsal with everything memorized – knows it inside out."

It doesn't hurt, either, that Brown is Canadian. "It's easier with these Canadian festivals if there are a few Canadians in the band," says Mahanthappa. "We're playing almost all the Canadian festivals, and I've actually never done this. I'm just really excited."

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak quartet plays the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival on June 24; the Rex in Toronto on June 25; the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 26; and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on June 27.

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