Bird Is the Word


On his latest release, Rudresh Mahanthappa communes with the spirit of Charlie Parker.

By Michael Roberts
Photos by Jimmy Katz

Everyone agrees that Charlie Parker is a towering figure in jazz. But saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who pays tribute to Parker on the thrillingly unorthodox album Bird Calls (ACT Music), thinks the consensus about the bebop visionary’s brilliance may prevent many people from truly appreciating his achievements.

“It’s almost like we know his music so well that we stop listening,” Mahanthappa says, “and we stop investigating what all that means. What does it mean that he was the best? What does it mean that he was an innovator? We do that with other people, too. We’re very quick to say Einstein is a genius, but why was he a genius? These are questions worth asking.”

Mahanthappa’s approach to such analysis on Bird Calls has nothing to do with mimicry. Rather than simply covering classic Parker numbers of the sort he clearly adores (see sidebar), he and an exciting group — drummer Rudy Royston, bassist François Moutin, pianist Matt Mitchell and trumpeter Adam O’Farril — break them down, exploring their elements and essence within the context of Manhanthappa’s original compositions. Take “On the DL,” for instance, which was inspired by “Donna Lee,” one of Bird’s trademark offerings. Instead of drawing from the most familiar notes, Mahanthappa says he focused on “the last quarter of the tune — like, the last eight bars. I was kind of using that as the primary source material and looking at what it is conceptually or theoretically. When you think of ‘Donna Lee,’ oftentimes you want to start at the very beginning. But for me, it was more interesting to start somewhere in the middle and find out how it functions on its own. It’s like that funny situation where you’ve memorized a page of a book, but you only know it from the beginning. It’s very hard for us to start in the middle, but when I did it for ‘On the DL,’ it flowed very easily. It just made sense.”

Seeing patterns others miss has become a specialty for the 43-year-old Mahanthappa. He’s best known for fusing jazz with influences from Indian music, as he’s done on Yatra, his 1997 debut recording, and many subsequent releases and projects. But he points out that “a lot of my work uses particular concepts or strategies,” including 2006’s Codebook, “where all the tunes are based on number theory and cryptography in a very literal way.” At the same time, however, he stresses that “when I’m writing and playing, I try to strike a balance between the intellectual and the soulful and the spiritual. And that balance is in all the music I like. I hear it in Beethoven and Bartok, and I also hear it in Coltrane and Charlie Parker.”

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