Rudresh Mahanthappa: Getting To Know Who I Am
Rudresh Mahanthappa explores his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, has been music in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components.
January 21, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
It has become common practice to describe jazz as “America’s classical music,” but in some ways doing so misrepresents jazz’s role in this country’s culture and also creates a false hierarchy between this extraordinary American-born music and many other valuable musical idioms to which Americans have made invaluable contributions, including so-called “classical” music. Perhaps even worse it circumscribes jazz as a musical practice, limiting what it can be as well as the aspirations of people who create music that has been defined by that word. Last year, Boydell Press published a book with the provocative title The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church. The book looks at a total of 15 different musical traditions from around the world and, in the process, redefines the words “other” and “classical”; one of the 15 traditions featured is Western classical music since this music is in fact an “other” to people who grew up thinking of, say, Carnatic ragas as the building blocks of classical music. Another one of the traditions featured in the book is American jazz.
The Italian-born, Boulder, Colorado-raised composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa creates music that is deeply informed by at least four of the traditions featured in Church’s book—the Carnatic music of his ancestors, the Hindustani music that most folks in America assume is the sum total of India’s contribution to classical music, Western classical music which got instilled in him while studying the Baroque recorder in elementary school, and jazz—his pedigree in which is backed up with two academic degrees. But the music he first fell in love with was Grover Washington’s and, he acknowledged when we visited him in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, his earliest attempts at original material were inspired by Kenny G.
That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.
Rudresh ultimately wanted to be somewhere else. And the ticket to that somewhere else was, first, the Berklee College of Music and then DePaul University, where he finally came to terms with his identity as an American of South Asian origins who wanted to blaze a trail in jazz.
I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. … When I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am. … In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation.
For the last 20 years, Rudresh has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as the duo Raw Materials in which he collaborates with like-minded pianist Vijay Iyer, and a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, have been projects in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components such as Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Rudresh also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, Rudresh has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company. And his most recent album is an homage to Charlie Parker. In all of these projects, he has come even closer to finding his own voice by deeply probing some of the world’s greatest musical traditions.
Frank J. Oteri: This morning I started reading a really interesting book called The Other Classical Musics, which was published last year. There are two very loaded words in that title: “other” and “classical.” But the book is an attempt to turn both of these words on their heads. There are a total of 15 kinds of music featured in the book, and one of them is Western classical music, since for some people it is an “other” classical music. Anyway, among the different musics discussed in the book, you’ve dipped into at least four: jazz, Carnatic music, Hindustani music, and Western classical music in terms of working with an ensemble like PRISM.
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Right.
FJO: In the book’s introduction, there’s a reference to a comment by the musicologist Harold Powers, who has claimed that the difference between a classical music and a folk music is that you can be from anywhere and still be able to learn a classical music with application and talent, whereas you have to be born into a folk music.
RM: You have to have lived it for real. Wow, that’s really interesting. I have this conversation a lot with people about jazz. Jazz has this international scope; everyone’s playing jazz and everyone’s making their own jazz, but there’s always this kind of lurking intimidation among people from these countries outside of America feeling—depending on the population—that they don’t have access to black culture or black American culture. So there’s a bit of a sinking feeling that their jazz is not authentic. And yeah, that’s an interesting issue for me and an interesting thing raised to me by others because, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, and I’m not Latin. I came to this music through jazz-rock fusion or instrumental soul R&B—people like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets—because that was music that also sounded like the music that was being played on Top 40 radio. I was born in 1971. I’m really a child of the ‘80s in many ways, so that music all made sense. It wasn’t like I was listening to Charlie Parker when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I was finding a place where I felt like I was safe playing jazz. There were plenty of times where I felt like I didn’t belong because of ethnicity, the color of my skin.
The industry had no place for me, either; they didn’t know what to do with an Indian-American jazz musician. They knew what to do with a black jazz musician or a white jazz musician, and Latin jazz is a huge genre unto itself as well. So there was a lot of stereotyping that would take place. I remember talking to an entertainment lawyer who was trying to help me get a record deal when I was 24 or something like that. And she said, “We definitely need to have Ravi Shankar as a guest on the first album.” I was like, “Really? We do?” Here I am with a band that’s piano, bass, drums, and alto saxophone, and we’re playing very traditional jazz forms—blues, rhythm changes, nothing very wild by any means. A common reaction from an audience member would be, “wow, this is great music” not “you should have a tabla player in your band,” which doesn’t even make sense musically. I’m South Indian, you know; tabla’s a North Indian instrument. So do I have to have that conversation, too, about the prevalence of North India as opposed to South India in the United States?
But that’s really interesting because I think at its roots, jazz is often talked about as being American classical music—and in some regards it is. But at the same time, its folk origins are really undeniable. I’d be interested to read that book, because you could argue jazz’s roots having such a strong folk tradition that maybe it isn’t accessible. But I would like to think it’s accessible because I am one of the biggest anomalies in my musical genre that I know of, with a handful of others.
But, you know, those issues of authenticity and validity are the things you confront regardless of what you do in the art world. To find places that are encouraging and nurturing is sometimes more than half the battle in making your way through and making a career out of this. The example I always bring up is everyone feels like they can own jazz across the world. But if they were going to study Indian music, they would all go to India to study it. So why is it that more people don’t come to New York City to study jazz, or New Orleans? But I would say New York City is more the capital of jazz, and there are a lot of people that are making jazz in the world that have never been to New York City. I always tell them that they have to go to the place where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and innumerable others really made a mark on this music. This is like going to Madras to study Carnatic music. You have to do it. You don’t have to live here, but you got to do it a little bit.
FJO: It’s interesting where you took that comment; you talked more about jazz than you did about Carnatic music except for your assertion about the certainty of going to Madras to study Carnatic music versus people’s lack of certainty vis-à-vis needing to go to New York City to fully understand jazz. Theoretically you can learn jazz from anywhere in the world, but there is this cultural root to it. Then again, there’s a cultural root to any music including Western classical music.
FJO: In a way, it’s sort of presumptuous for someone to assume that you’d be fluent in South Indian music just because your parents came from there. You grew up in Colorado and you were actually born in Italy, so technically you should be singing bel canto opera!
RM: We weren’t there long enough, but yeah. This is a really interesting issue. Everybody should try to go visit the roots of wherever what they do comes from. Opera singers spend time in Italy, most of the great ones do. Everyone has to visit the mother tongue of whatever it is they do, the cultural homeland. It might not necessarily make you better at what you do, but it’ll give a perspective to what you do that I think is very important, and also place what you do in the larger scope of what it means to be producing something on this planet—music as a community event.
FJO: So Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s is your personal cultural homeland—listening to Grover Washington, the Brecker Brothers. How did you get interested in making music yourself?
RM: My older brother played clarinet and he used to practice before school, if you can imagine. It was so early. It was still dark outside in the winter. I was often eating breakfast. It was getting close to the time where I could be part of the music program in elementary school. I think you could start in fourth grade or the summer before fourth grade. Everyone played recorder in elementary music school class. Everyone played “Hot Cross Buns.” But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons. So actually I had two years of Baroque recorder in second and third grade, which was great. I already knew how to read music and the fingerings are practically the same [as the saxophone’s fingerings]. So it was a smoother transition than having played nothing before. But I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother said, “You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.” He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing. And the other thing he said was that often times the baritone sax, especially if you’re a kid and not tall enough, will rest on the floor and it will shake the whole room. My mom had all these kitschy knick-knacks from all over the world, and the idea of those shaking off the shelves—I mean, that was it for me. I was really hoping to destroy my mom’s stuff by playing the baritone sax. But I never got to play that.
I’m still very much in touch with the father of my elementary school best friend. My friend actually passed away, but I’m still close with his dad. He was really psyched that I was playing saxophone. He actually was an amateur musician, and he gave me that first Grover Washington record when I was in fourth grade. It’s that famous one with “Just the Two of Us.” Then shortly after that, Grover was on tour and my dad took me to the concert at Red Rocks. We got there early and got third-rows seats. We couldn’t hear for three days, but it was really, really awesome. Everybody was up dancing in the aisles, and it was like going to church or something. It was really amazing. So those were a lot of the inspirations. I heard Charlie Parker by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in it by then. From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.
Some people might know that Boulder, Colorado, has this pedestrian mall that’s very famous for its street entertainers—jugglers, magicians, savants, whatever, and musicians, of course. I think my dad was joking when he said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to make some money?” I was in sixth or seventh grade, but I went out there. I was just playing T.V. show themes and songs like “Mandy.” My brother had this [book of] pop classics for the clarinet, and I just played them on the saxophone. But I met so many other musicians playing out there that were much older than me. Eventually I heard a Dixieland band playing in a restaurant across the way. I went in there and I had my horn in the case. For some reason, the leader of the band saw me and saw the case and he came over to me with a list of tunes and said, “Do you know any of these?” I said, “I think I know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’” So he said, “Come up and play.” They played every Friday afternoon, and I played with those guys for like five years. So the first tunes I learned were all these Dixieland tunes—which most people would be shocked to know actually—like “Up a Lazy River,” “Avalon,” and “Undecided.” I know those tunes better than I know what are considered the classic jazz standards. Then I met other older, amateur musicians who would get little gigs at coffee houses, so I was kind of out there playing already when I was 15.
FJO: Now when did you go from playing standards to wanting to create your own material?
RM: I was writing tunes in junior high and high school. I had a little funk-fusion band. We would write some tunes together. The keyboard player was really good. We would try to write tunes that probably sounded more like Kenny G. tunes to some degree. That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.
I tried to keep writing through college. I had a kind of hiccup in college because the school I started at was a bit oppressive in its way of teaching jazz, so I was a little bit lost there for a couple of years. But then I ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music and had a much more creative experience. That’s when I really started writing a lot and getting a better grasp on what I wanted to do.
FJO: So what would be an example of an oppressive way of teaching jazz?
RM: I think it was very patternistic. It wasn’t about learning from records. It was what we call learning licks, piecing together vocabulary but more from books, so I felt like the aural tradition of jazz was missing. It was all very academic. It was also very big band oriented, which I wasn’t so much interested in. I was really into small groups and improvising, and I felt like all of that was an afterthought. There was also an almost classist sort of feeling within the student body. You know, “I play in the top ensemble and I’m a first class citizen.” It went all the way down to the zero class citizens, which was the world I was in. But I was already thinking about different approaches to creating vocabulary, both as an improviser and a composer back then. In between the first and second year, I went back home to Colorado. I went back to my original teacher, but he said, “You don’t want to study with me, you want to study with this guy.” His name was Chuck Schneider. They weren’t saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons, but they were always very far-reaching. Like, we’d talk about some sort of intervallic concept, let’s say, and he would say, “You see it in Coltrane, but you also see it in Bartók, and in Schoenberg here.” It wasn’t just about jazz; it was about a whole sphere of music. That’s the summer I became a total theory head—Persichetti, Schoenberg, whatever. I went to the library and checked out as many books as possible. The following year we were using Allen Forte and different methods for analysis in the classical theory program, and the first thing that struck me is why can’t we reverse engineer this method of analysis to actually create fresh vocabulary to improvise with and to write with? So I was thinking about serialism and I was thinking about pitch sets. I was thinking about playing 12-bar blues also, but I was thinking about all these things in the same space.
Then also as a listener, I had the same teacher from fourth grade until I left for college—Mark Harris. I was his first student. He was a sophomore in college when we started. And he had just a very open-minded approach to music in general. First of all, every time I saw him play was different. He might be with something that was considered more avant-garde, like two horns and a drummer screaming. Then I’d see him with an Afropop band. Then I’d see him with a prog rock band. He was in a band called Thinking Plague that was actually signed to Cuneiform way back when. Then I’d see him with a big band. So I had this sense that music was large. It wasn’t just about playing jazz, or certainly just playing saxophone. He also came to my house for lessons. Remember those days when people came to your house to teach you? He would always bring three records with him and there’d always be an incredible variety. There might be Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, and Yes. Then the next week it would be something else. So I was listening in this way that really had no boundaries with genre. It was about music being played well and played with integrity. I was listening to Ornette and Grover Washington at the same time. I just thought they were two great saxophonists. I didn’t really think that one was out and one was in. When I went to college, people were talking about hard bop and all these little subdivisions. I was like, “What are you talking about? This is all just great music.” Those perspectives were instilled in me at a very young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it and say holy moly!
FJO: Have you kept up with Mark Harris?
RM: Oh yeah. He stood up at my wedding. He’s one of my best friends.
FJO: You had this really important mentor, but you also had official academic training. As a jazz player, you’re a product of the whole jazz education thing. You actually have a graduate degree in jazz composition.
RM: I do. Well, there are several reasons for that. I didn’t know of another way to gain access to the music in Boulder, Colorado. You have to understand, at the time I graduated from high school in ’88, there were really only ten schools in the country that had a jazz studies program. They were all very competitive, and they all meant moving thousands of miles away. It’s very different now because your local college has a jazz studies program. Everybody has a jazz studies program now. Anyway, at that time there was still a level of commitment that meant displacing yourself at the age of 17. I knew that moving to New York was not an option. I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. My mom was the more artsy one. While I was listening to this music, she would say, “oh, I really like that” or “oh, I hated that,” or “what you played sounded great” or “that was awful, what you were doing.” She actually had feedback. With my dad, it was really like, “Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I don’t know enough about it.” So that’s to say that I think my dad is really pleased with degrees and awards. And that’s great. I like calling home and saying, “Hey, I just got this.” And you know, my parents are ecstatic, but I can tell that my dad loves it more.
But I didn’t actually know there was another route without going to college. For someone finishing high school in the ‘80s, that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I met people like Steve Coleman, who just moved here and practically lived on the streets. He’s made some of the most important music in the last 20 years. Now I know that’s a possibility. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t really my plan, but there’s this preordained path now—it’s actually quite dumb—that you finish your bachelor’s and you move to New York. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a jazz musician, whether or not you’re prepared to. You either move to New York or you go to school in New York to get your master’s, or something like that. More and more at this point there’s so many great non-New York communities that are producing great music. You don’t need to do that anymore, so I guess that’s all to say that we were all finishing up at Berklee, and everybody was moving to New York. I’d only been here once, for a long weekend, and it was like a 72-hour panic attack. I didn’t want to have anything do with this city. So I was pretty confused. And a friend of mine was like, “Why don’t you come to Chicago? It’s a very healthy scene, you’d probably play a lot and work a lot and get a lot of experience, and by the way, there’s a school here and you could probably do your master’s here.” I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Then I had mentioned this in passing to a teacher at Berklee who said that school’s called DePaul University and it’s a great school. He said, “You know, the best man in my wedding runs a jazz program there. Let me make a call for you.”
So it just kind of barreled forward and it was great. The school was great. And Chicago was great, and it was a great stepping stone to New York because I got a lot of experience and exposure, but more experience than I would have if I had come to New York. I’d probably be temping. I’d probably be an expert in Photoshop now if I had moved to New York. I really got to play in Chicago. I had a steady Monday night gig. I was writing music. A little local label put out my first album. And I learned stuff. I learned how to get a gig. I learned how to get a radio station to play your music. I learned a lot of business stuff. And then every band that was coming through from New York, I went to meet them and would take them out for South Indian food or cook for them.
So, when I moved to New York, I knew all these people. “You’re the guy who took us out for idlis and dosas.” “Yeah, that was me. Here’s my CD.” I was always thinking about the music and the business together because I saw, in some sort of maybe subconscious way, that the industry was—well, I didn’t predict MP3s and the internet and piracy, but I knew that stuff was going to get harder and harder. It was very clear to me. The schools are turning out so many proficient musicians. There’s a lot more to wade through to make sure you are heard, especially if you have a real personal voice.
FJO: During the years you were at DePaul you also played as a sideman in a big band led by Clark Terry.
RM: Well, that wasn’t really true. The university band had hired Clark Terry to be a guest with the group. So I wasn’t really doing that. That was the other thing. I saw very quickly that I was not going to be called as a sideman very often. I always modeled myself after Michael Brecker in the sense that Michael Brecker could do anything he wanted to do. He was amazing. But whenever you saw him as a sideman in anything, or playing a solo in a pop track, it wasn’t because they needed a saxophonist—it was because they wanted his sound. So even back then, I thought of it all as a high road. I was like I don’t want someone to call me just because they need an alto player. I want them to call because they want me specifically. And that meant being just a leader for a very long time. I had those revelations pretty early.
A common summer job for a jazz musician is to go out on a cruise ship and play in one of these mickey bands. So that was my first professional gig when I was still at Berklee. I was 20. It was like, “This is great. I’m going to spend the summer in the Caribbean. I’m going to save a lot of money. I’m going to practice. I’m going to do all this stuff.” And I was horrified. I was horrified by the music, by the other musicians, by the amount of substance abuse. There were a lot of people like me. “I’m just going to be on here for the summer.” And they’d been on there for ten years, you know. There was one guy who—I don’t know if he forgot—almost every day would tell me about how he was going to get off the ship and go study with Joe Lovano at William Paterson. And I was like, “Do you know you told me this yesterday?” I actually jumped off after six weeks. I was very depressed, but I came out of that summer realizing that I was a really good teacher and that I could sustain myself doing that. And also making a real vow to myself that I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where the saxophone was in my mouth and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. So I set up a different career path for myself. When I moved to Chicago, everyone was playing weddings and private parties on Saturday nights, putting on their unwashed tuxedo and playing out in the suburbs. In four years in Chicago, I think I did 15 of those gigs. And it was always like a ticking clock when I got on the gig. As soon as there’s a saxophone solo, I know that at the end of that solo I will not get called by this band leader again, because I’m gonna play nutso; I’m just going to do what I want. So it actually became this joke to me. I’m going to get hired and fired by another band in one night. Not that I was trying to be a jerk, but I would look at these people next to me and say, “Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you went to music school when you were 18?”
FJO: So when did you feel you became you, as opposed to just an interchangeable saxophone player, in terms of what you were playing?
RM: Already in college at Berklee I felt tinges of that. I was not only checking out a lot of modern voices in jazz, I also just felt like it was really important to—not just vocabulary and composition—have a sense of what I wanted to sound like. I really listened to a lot of tenor players instead of alto players. After Charlie Parker, it wasn’t really Cannonball and Sonny Stitt. It was really Coltrane and people that came after him, so my sonic picture was very different. And I was listening to all this double reed music from India, like Bismillah Khan on shehnai and players on the South Indian nagasvaram—really reedy. I really liked that. I was kind of trying to put those two together. I had different ways of thinking about embouchure and just the way you position your body when you’re playing the instrument. They weren’t necessarily new, but I just didn’t hear those conversations happening a lot around me.
FJO: So you were already starting to get immersed in Indian music.
RM: A little bit, you know. Indian music was always tough for me because when I was younger, say like in high school when I was playing with all these musicians, there was this assumption that I was an expert on Indian music just because of my name and the color of my skin. So I always felt like I had to know a lot about it, even though I knew nothing about it. My parents weren’t actively listening to it, speaking of that folk/classical thing. They were mainly listening to bhajans, which is temple music. I always describe the difference between bhajans and Indian classical music as the difference between church hymns and Debussy. Indian classical music has the same tools, but it’s much more complex and orchestrated.
Anyway, these certain sounds were in my head from a young age, but I certainly couldn’t pick apart a Ravi Shankar track or a Subramaniam track or anything like that. And I had this thing hanging over my head that Indian music is not a safe space. In Boulder, it was easy to just kind of consider myself white, because that’s what it was primarily. Then when I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am and also just the newness of an Indian-American identity in this country. The idea of being children of immigrants wasn’t something that was at the forefront. Now we’re everywhere: we’re in Hollywood; we’re on T.V.; we’re writing books; we’re making music. But back then, in the late ‘80s and even going into the ‘90s, there weren’t any role models. So it was all quite scary.
In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation. In ’93, I had already finished at Berklee and was living in Chicago, but Berklee sent a student band to India comprised of the few students from India who were attending Berklee and then a few other musicians like myself and the great bass player Matt Garrison. We did this tour, and we managed to hear some really great music. Outside of Bangalore, which is where my parents are from, there’s this tradition of the all-night concert—a concert that starts at sunset and goes to sunrise. And we went to one of these and I didn’t know that at the time it was really some of the great names in both North and South Indian music; it was just an amazing night. I went to the record store the next day and just bought as many CDs and cassettes as I could handle of the artists I’d heard and then I asked the store owner to recommend a bunch of stuff, too. So I went back to Chicago with all this music in hand and a lot of that very first album that came out in ‘95, all those compositions, is very loosely inspired by that trip to India.
That trip was eye-opening in lots of ways because it wasn’t just about the music. It was my first time going as an adult. It was the first time going without my parents. And it was the first time going to play music. I hadn’t been there in ten10 years, so my relatives were all going to ask why I didn’t speak their language. I was prepared for lots and lots of anxiety, which resulted in some really, really cool music. Then shortly after that, Vijay Iyer and I met, and then we finally had a partner in crime to kind of learn from each other. And we learned a lot of stuff together. You know, we listened to a lot of albums together and picked them apart, and we had very different perspectives on what we wanted to do musically, but enough common goals and agendas that it was amazing. We’ve been playing together for 20 years now.
FJO: When does Rez Abbasi come into the picture?
RM: I actually played a session with him at someone’s house right when I moved to New York in ‘97, my third week in town. But Rez was not so engaged in his ancestry. I think what turned it around for him is he ended up dating Kiran Ahluwalia who’s this great ghazal singer. He started playing with her, too. He started playing with her first, I think. He had lots of agendas at once, I’m sure, but I think that’s when he really started thinking a lot about Indian music. I heard him and Dan Weiss at the same time. And I couldn’t believe—here was this Jewish kid from Jersey who was playing tabla better than anybody. So we had this trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition. I had started a band like that in Chicago with the same name, but it felt very inauthentic. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable working with Indian concepts or instrumentalists, or Indian musicians, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place where the dialogue was meaningful and that it was a real synthesis of ideas and with the right people who wanted to blur the lines. There are so many East-West sorts of projects where it’s two people playing in a room together and not only are they not pushing each other, they’re really just showing up and doing what they do. That’s what the f-word is for me—fusion. You know, it’s really like, ugh, when people say my music is fusion! Please don’t use that word because that connotes all those projects from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really about exoticism and smoking weed and listening to Indian music. The way Indian music got presented in America initially was a little bit sad. I always say that Ravi Shankar playing at Woodstock was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Indian music.
FJO: At the onset you were saying this lawyer thought that Ravi Shankar should be on your first album, even though you’re South Indian. Immediately I was thinking about how Indian music influenced Western music—jazz, rock, and classical music. Most of that influence was coming from North Indian music, which has a very steady drone and develops very gradually. To me, Carnatic music is much more frenetic and raw; it’s more like early bebop.
RM: Absolutely. The rhythmic engagement is on such a high level. It’s funny because when I talk about blurring those lines, I hear Jack DeJohnette or Max Roach and the greatest mridangam players on the same rhythmic playing field. It’s couched differently culturally, of course, but those things are rather seamless to me; it all kind of makes sense in my head. Plus I’m Indian and I’m American every second of every day, so the music has to reflect that and has to be respectful of that.
FJO: Well, in terms of identities, when the Indo-Pak Coalition really gelled and came together it was Rez, Dan Weiss, and you. You mentioned the Jewish guy from Jersey playing the tabla, which is the Indian instrument, and the two guys from South Asia are playing Western instruments. But that’s a ridiculous way to think about it ultimately since you’re all Americans.
RM: Right. Yeah, totally.
FJO: What instrument belongs to who, a saxophone, a guitar, or tabla? The saxophone was invented in Europe. The electric guitar is an American creation, but it’s a hybrid. American culture is a hybrid culture no matter what we do.
RM: Absolutely. I think so much of this country is based on hybridity and all sorts of cross-pollination. It really is a laboratory for anything to happen—maybe more so than other places in the world.
FJO: So in terms of that f-word, fusion: one thing that immediately does come to mind as a precedent for the Indo-Pak Coalition, although he’s British, is what John McLaughlin did in Shakti, his collaboration with L. Shankar, which at times really did work.
RM: Oh, it’s blazing. I love that music. But I would never call that music jazz. That’s McLaughlin playing Carnatic music. I know they had a jazz presence, because it was McLaughlin, and whenever they regroup, they play all the big jazz festivals. And it’s awesome. There are some Shakti videos that I’ve watched thousands of times, and they’re killing. But I’m thinking more things like the first coining of Indo-jazz fusion, Joe Harriott. There was a time when everyone wanted to reference that album. It actually took me a long time to listen to it. I really don’t like that album. I admire the endeavor and the effort, but the musical results are nothing that I relate to really. But maybe that’s my problem. I’m thinking more about that than Shakti. The reality is McLaughlin’s investment in Indian music is tremendous, both musically and spiritually. He really feels it. He knows that stuff better than some Carnatic musicians. And he deserves all the credit and the kudos, for sure. But yeah, people always want to think of what I do as an extension of that, whereas I want think of what I do as an extension of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
FJO: When you were mentioning the names of people who influenced your approach to playing the saxophone, I thought you’d also mention Gato Barbieri, who had such a raw sound.
RM: Oh yeah. Definitely.
FJO: But in terms of thinking of what you do as an extension of Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane, I think Coltrane was the only one who really became immersed in Indian music and was trying to find a way to internalizing it and make it completely his own. Where I hear that even more in your work is in what you’ve been doing on albums like Gamak and Samdhi, which derive not only from jazz and Carnatic musical traditions but from lots of other stuff as well. On Gamak, you worked with David Fiuczynski, who plays wacky microtonal guitar, and on Samdhi you’re messing around with a laptop. It’s a lot more than just a fusion. Oops, there’s the f-word. Anyway, it’s something that’s way beyond just two things; I think what it really is, if you need to put a label on it, is 21st-century American music.
RM: Well, the interesting thing with Samdhi and that project with laptop was that it was actually the result of my Guggenheim project, which was all based on spending two to three months in India and informally studying with a bunch of people. The intention was always to take all these ideas, concepts, and ancient techniques and graft them onto the jazz/rock fusion band that I always wanted to have, with screaming electric guitar, electric bass, and distorted saxophone. All those tunes are very much based on South Indian rhythmic cycles and ragas. It’s really funny that that was the mouthpiece I wanted for all this information.
Then with Gamak we moved into lots of different territory. We worked with some modes that are used in Javanese gamelan music. There’s also some stuff that sounds almost like country music. Gamak or gamaka refers to melodic ornamentation in Indian music. That’s the name for it. But I wanted to think about how ornamentation occurs across the world, because that’s such a humanizing factor in the transmission of song, whether it’s R&B or country music, or some East Asian genre. How that yodel you hear in country music occurs in early American music and occurs in Africa, but variations of that occur in Japanese music. So are these the primal and visceral elements of what making music means? That’s what I was trying to address with that album, but also in a very playful way.
Then I turned around and kind of deconstructed Charlie Parker on the next album [Bird Calls]. But at the same time, the first track on that is very much based on a South Indian tala. Now it’s more in my DNA. I have to say when I look back on those first things with Indo-Pak Coalition or Kinsman, a collaboration with the Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, even though it’s only seven or eight years old, is that I was trying to prove something. I don’t know if it comes across in the music, but when I go to those head spaces, I’m like, “Yeah, I felt like you have to play like this, because you’re trying to prove that you can do all these things.” And now I’m like, you know what, they’re so embedded. They’re just coming out now. And I can relax with it. It’s always going to be me.
FJO: But in terms of trying to prove something, you really made a statement by calling an album Samdhi.
RM: Yeah, the new universe. I was thinking more like the way that the Hindu calendar has this very finite place; they know when the universe is going to end. Then there’s this space while the new universe is being created. At the time I was feeling like there were new things opening up for me musically—not necessarily that other things were closing, but I felt like I was finding a new voice. So it’s more metaphorically speaking of that space between the destruction of one thing and the creation of another, and what happens during those magical times. It’s like twilight, really—all the weird things that can happen in twilight.
FJO: But I hear Bird Calls as coming from a completely different place than either Gamak or Samdhi. Not in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of how it exists in relation to tradition. I would place it more alongside projects like I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight, your collaboration with the PRISM Quartet, or Song of the Jasmine, the music you created and performed with Ragamala Dance. Working with those dancers resulted in what is probably the most traditional Indian-sounding music you’ve ever done. And working with PRISM, which is a genre-bending ensemble but one that is firmly rooted in the Western classical saxophone quartet tradition, is probably the most traditionally Western classical thing you’ve done. Similarly, Bird Calls, which is a direct homage to Charlie Parker, the most iconic saxophone soloist, is in some ways your most traditional straight-ahead sounding jazz album. You’re still creating things that are clearly in your own voice but you seem to be more directly in specific dialogue with these very different traditions.
RM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I was writing all that music at the same time, so I always feel like there are elements of all in each. One of the things I learned writing and playing for the dance company was that there had to be this certain melodic clarity. We get rather intellectual with what we do. How much can I throw in there? How complex can I be? I think it’s a game; at least it’s a game I play with myself sometimes. You know, what’s another layer I can add to this to make it even more convoluted? I quickly saw that that wasn’t going to work with the dancers.
Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean simplicity, but I think there’s a place where melody sings in a way that can reach a lot of people. And that’s what the dancers needed regardless of what’s going on rhythmically. So I felt like that music that I wrote for them had that, and that mindset trickled into the Bird thing and also trickled into the PRISM thing as well. I feel like I’m a different person after that year of working on these three things at once. My approach to writing music, and even how I listen to music, has changed a little bit. Doing something interdisciplinary puts you in a bit of a more selfless space because what they’re doing is equally valid and important and virtuosic. So it’s really not about me. It’s about us making this thing that seems seamless and that is seamless. In the end after all that touring, I always describe that project as ten musicians. It just happened to be that five of them were dancers.
FJO: Now in terms of the PRISM project, this was a collaboration with these four great saxophone players. They’ve done a lot of music where people write them a piece and they play the piece. And then there are pieces where people write them a piece and play the piece with them, which is what you did. But it’s a completely fixed piece, right?
RM: For the most part. There is a section where they improvise, but there are rules. There are rules to how they improvise and certain key points and stuff. So it’s not like they just go for it for a while and then I raise my hand; it’s much more structured than that. It’s based on some pitch sets. It’s very much composed, and it’s very finite. It’s always kind of the same length and the same message comes across. Well, PRISM is interesting. I’ve always liked what they do; they’ve always been very forward-looking in what they’re looking to perform. I actually met Taimur Sullivan back in ’94 at the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. It’s also known as NASA, if anyone cares. He was a finalist in the classical competition and I was a finalist in the jazz competition. I had this very intriguing conversation with him because I had never met a classical saxophonist who was so aware of jazz and who was just so into modern music. He wasn’t into just playing the Creston Sonata and the stalwarts of the classical saxophone canon; he was doing stuff with tape loops and he was looking to do all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Who are you?” This was before he was part of PRISM, but we kept in touch over the years. Then we had had conversations like, “Hey, it would be great if you could write something for us, blah-blah-blah.” Some of these conversations go back and forth for years and then it finally happens. So that was something I was really looking forward to. And they really wanted me to write something where I was going to actively play with them. I approach that in different ways. But you know, I definitely wanted to be in there, and then the great thing about that part where they improvise is I’m actually holding it down; I’m playing a bass line for them. It’s like, you guys go; it’s not about me soloing. I don’t always want to be the one playing the melody by any means. It’s again, music as a community event.
FJO: So did doing a project like that whet your appetite for potentially doing a piece where you’re writing music that other folks play, that you’re not part of?
RM: You know, I would love to do that. I try to put it out there that I’m interested in doing that. I’ve had a few conversations with Imani Winds. Toyin Spellman, the oboe player, is someone again whom I’ve known for many, many years. It’s a question of logistics and getting calendars to align. But I would love to write something for them. I would love to write for string quartet. I did an interview this morning where someone was asking me if I’d ever thought about writing for orchestra. I would love to do all of those things. And I’m just as happy to write and not play, for sure. You know, that would be really, really fun.
FJO: You just came back from Panama and Chile.
RM: Yeah. That was with Bird Calls. Mainly the bulk of what I’ve been doing is with Bird Calls, the Charlie Parker project. That’s touring pretty much through the rest of the year. Indo-Pak Coalition’s going to make another album, but with a lot of electronics. I’m actually working on a couple of new pieces that will debut at the Walker Arts Center in February.
I also have this idea for a project with a comedian. There’s always been this relationship with comedians and jazz that hasn’t been engaged so much recently. Comedians used to open for jazz musicians. I mean, at the Village Vanguard. That was a thing! Artistically speaking, there’s something very interesting about the commonalities and timing and pace, and the ratio of composed to improvised material, and how different comedians approach that. It’s really like being a jazz musician to me. So I’d just like to see where that goes. I have to think about that a lot more. There’s this great artist I met named Eric Dyer. Do you know what a zoetrope is? It’s kind of like the earliest form of—it’s not even film. You look through this thing with slits in it that spins, and the result would be like someone riding a bicycle. It’s essentially the first form of movie. So this guy Eric Dyer has done this amazing work with a kind of modern take on the zoetrope. They look just bizarre, and then when they start spinning, it’s like a whole civilization moving around. But when it’s static, it doesn’t look like anything. He’s also done it with umbrellas. So it’s like a pretty umbrella, but when you spin the umbrella, it’s an animation. It’s really, really brilliant. We’ve been talking about ways in which he could make something that he can actually manipulate in real time. It’s not just a piece of art that spins. So I’d like to do something with him and a comedian. That’s really on my mind. So those are the two things that I’m thinking about for this year. And then who knows from there.