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Rudresh Mahanthappa's Bird Calls at the Wexner Center

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by Richard Sanford on February 16, 2016

With his appearance at the Wexner Center on Saturday, February 27th at 8pm (tickets available HERE), Rudresh Mahanthappa marks the 10th anniversary of first appearing at the Wex (Feb 22, 2006) with Vijay Iyer’s quartet and the first direct exposure of much of Columbus to one of the finest saxophone players working today. Mahanthappa returns to us with his quintet Bird Calls supporting their eponymous 2015 record. I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with Rudresh Mahanthappa and congratulating him on his role in this year’s Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Composition by Arturo O’Farrill, “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” which O’Farrill composed for Mahanthappa as featured soloist with the Arturo O’Farill Afro-Latin Orchestra. For more information about the band and videos, including comments from Mahanthappa, please read below.

Bird Calls is a masterclass in how to honor the past by grappling with it, recontextualizing it, and possessing it. It grapples with the fountainhead of alto sax player (also Mahanthappa’s principal intstrument) Charlie Parker. There are very few strains of modern jazz and also few strains of modern art that don’t flow back to the eruption of Charlie Parker (along with Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, etc) in the 1940s and 1950s and his tunes are still played every night on bandstands around the world. But it’s safe to say, even if you’re someone with all the Savoy and Dial recordings and a stack of grainy bootlegs that threatens to crush you in an earthquake (you know who you are), these adaptations are a reminder of that music’s power and the joyous power of continued reinvention.

When I had the privilege of talking with Mahanthappa, he discussed just how far back the genesis of this project went, “20 years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I gave lessons to [acclaimed reed player and composer] Matana Roberts. When we looked at ‘Donna Lee,’ we took it apart and we talked about how modern it was, it didn’t feel in the grip of the 1940s. Parts of it reminded us very strongly of Bartok or Schoenberg.” The seed, that some of Parker’s connection to modernism hadn’t been fully explored musically, germinated in the back of his mind until he received an invitation from Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s “Lost Jazz Shrines” series to do something about Parker in 2013. That gelled enough that Mahanthappa wrote more work along those lines and dedicated three of his six night residency at John Zorn’s The Stone to further work shopping that material. After one of those Stone appearances, Steve Lehman (coming to the Wex on May 6th) said, “You’ve got to record that.” The Bird Calls pieces premiered in their final shape at Newport Jazz Festival in summer of 2014 and were recorded later that week.

Much like Parker’s work, a big part of what makes Bird Calls such a riotous success is the quality of musicians Mahanthappa surrounded himself with. His long-time bassist François Moutin, last seen in Columbus with Mahanthappa’s riotous prog-fusion Gamak, has also brought surging rhythm and melody to acts as diverse as Tigran Hamasyan, Lew Soloff, and Antoine Herve. Drummer Rudy Royston, who appeared on three of my top 10 jazz records of the year last year and never fails to leave me speechless, was last seen at the Wex with Bill Frisell’s gorgeous Big Sur Quintet.

And when I spoke with Mahanthappa, he seemed most excited to introduce the two up and coming members of the band. Pianist Joshua White (substituting for Matt Mitchell from the record), raised a lot of eyebrows in the 2011 Thelonious Monk competition and since then has played with heavyweights from Christian McBride to Dayna Stephens; Mahanthappa said, “he’s into more music and more literature than almost anyone I know.” Rounding out the front line, and with a lot to prove, since as Mahanthappa said, “Parker always had great trumpet players, even beyond Miles and Dizzy: Herb Pomeroy, Roy Eldridge, Kenny Dorham,” is Adam O’Farrill (son of the above-mentioned Arturo). 21 years old, just finishing up college, O’Farrill was suggested to Mahanthappa during his search for the right trumpeter for this project by Steven Bernstein, great trumpet player, composer, and bandleader in his own right and no stranger to the Wexner Center or to music fans at large.

What makes this show so special is the combustible energy of those five players in a room ripping into such great material. Tunes and riffs that will get stuck in your head for days whether you’re a hardcore jazz fan on the edge of your seat looking for pieces of “Donna Lee” in “On the DL” or whether you’re a more general music fan who came to Rudresh Mahanthappa through his work with Eastern music and fusion.

Also a part of what makes it special is the role places like the Wexner Center, and in particular, Chuck Helm, who Mahanthappa enthused was a “great guy,” have had in shaping his not-always-orthodox career. On this run, Mahanthappa is playing at Symphony Center in Chicago, one of the great concert halls, in the same weekend as the Wex, and within the next couple of weeks he’s playing Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. As he told me, “The Walker and the Wexner were interested in presenting my work earlier and with far above and beyond the support I’ve found in traditional jazz clubs. You start to see how you want to frame your career and how your career is being framed and you try to balance that … I want to place what I do in the same realm as the contemporary classical composers. My work speaks to a larger audience than the traditional jazz audience, what we all call the NPR audience. A group looking for new and interesting sounds regardless of genre. I’m grateful for my jazz fans, and I’m less of an outsider than I used to feel as though I was… but I’ve never done a week at the Village Vanguard.”

Speaking to that wide net Rudresh Mahanthappa casts, his list of upcoming projects made me dizzy and made me excited as a fan. First up, he’s reconvening his Indo-Pak Coalition with guitarist Rez Abbasi (also a Wex veteran) and percussionist Dan Weiss playing a hybrid tabla and trap drum kit for what he promises to be a departure from their 2008 record with a greater emphasis on live electronics and sonic manipulation, for a recording booked this summer for release early next year. He’s also become interested in children’s music through TV around the world (an influence shaped by his three year old son Talin, for whom one of the tracks on Bird Calls is named and another child on the way), as he said, “There’s a song on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood I can hear done by John Coltrane in my head.” And there are even more interesting projects in nascent stages including work with comedians, a potential collaboration with Eric Dyer who takes a modern approach to the proto-motion picture Zoetrope technology, and possibly even a tap dancer-as-percussionist, along with more chamber music commissions and whatever else strikes his fancy.

Having heard Bird Calls, the record, many times since it came out last year, I couldn’t be more excited for any show this winter. Even if you haven’t, this isn’t the kind of show that needs you to do some homework. I promise you it’s a visceral, emotional thing that will knock you back in your seat. My highest recommendation.

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