Jazz With an Accent: CDs by Rudresh Mahanthappa; Dino Saluzzi, Anja Lechner & Felix Saluzzi. And Further Thoughts

By Fernando Gonzalez

Catching up with a pair of worthy, recent releases: Indian fusion and Argentine bandoneones.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Samdhi (ACT)

Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has been methodically building his music out of blending South Indian Carnatic musical elements and contemporary jazz. In Samdhi, he takes it all a step further as he brings technology into the mix. The results are both substantive and fun. Ably supported by former M-Base guitarist Dave Gilmore; Rich Brown, on electric bass; Damion Reid, drums, and South Indian percussionist “Anand” Anantha Krishnan on mridangam (a two-headed drum) and kanjira (frame drum), Mahanthappa sets out a three way dialogue between jazz and South Indian music and electronics full of unexpected turns.

Mahanthappa is an intense player – there is a distinct force in his tone, dry and edgy, to the fast, relentless, baroque lines he unfurls at dizzying speed. But in Samdhi, he paces that intensity as if probing the edges of the music.  The opening “Parakram #1,” with Mahanthappa’s slow moving, mournful alto playing over a discreet cloud of synth strings in the background improbably suggests a Nordic ECM landscape in grays  –  which is exploded by the ferocious urgency of the following track, “Killer,” in which the band negotiates hairpin turns at a breathtaking speed. (Mahanthappa also for good measure runs his alto through a harmonizer.) Then again on “Parakram #2,” the sax plays over a loop of sax and electronic drums. But in sharp contrast, “Breakfastlunchanddinner,” which starts out as a stop-time conversation between sax, guitar and drums, becomes an almost conventional funk piece.

Mahanthappa has spoken in interviews about how his early influences were not straight ahead jazz but rather The Brecker Brothers, Yellowjackets and (1980s) Miles Davis. All is in play here – cutting edge fusion, funk grooves, post bop phrasing, jazz rock, South Indian rhythmic patterns, electronica and more. In lesser hands, this would be little more than pastiche. In Mahanthappa’s, the sum is greater than the parts. Jazz with an accent indeed.

Dino Saluzzi / Anja Lechner / Felix Saluzzi

Navidad de Los Andes (ECM)

Bandoneonist and composer Dino Saluzzi, cellist Anja Lechner, and saxophonist and clarinetist Felix Saluzzi, Dino’s younger brother, collaborated most recently in Dino Saluzzi’s orchestral El Encuentro (ECM) in 2009. But in this soulful deceptively simple sounding Navidad de Los Andes, the three work at suggesting, as much as enunciating, the possibilities in the music.

The bandoneón is a melancholy-sounding button squeezebox invented in Germany as a portable, poor man´s harmonium. It’s best known for its use in tango. Born in rural Salta in Argentina´s Northwest not in urban (and urbane) Buenos Aires, the capital of tango, Saluzzi has always had a distinctly personal approach to the instrument. Here he seems to nod as often to tango as to his own roots in folk music and, at times, even the bandoneón´s original religious function (listen to the evocative “Ronda de niños en la montaña”). Three of the tracks draw from the tango repertoire ( “Recuerdos de Bohemia,” “Soledad,” and “Variaciones sobre una melodia popular de José L. Padula”) while Saluzzi also celebrates the music of Argentina’s countryside by revisiting older pieces of his such as “Son Qo’ñati,” and “Gabriel Kondor.”

These are three superior musicians, smartly listening to each other and to the sounds and the silences between them, letting the pieces reveal themselves.  The music in Navidad de Los Andes emanates from the recording like a perfume.

* * * * *

Further Thoughts: The Jazz Tweaker.

In a piece titled “The Tweaker” in The New Yorker issue of Nov 14, writer Malcolm Gladwell reviews Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

Gladwell takes an intriguing tack. He starts by asking why the industrial revolution started in England and not, say, France or Germany — and he cites the explanation of a couple of economists. The answer: Britain had “tweakers.”

These were “…resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them, refined and perfected them, and made them work.”

“Such men … provided the ‘micro inventions necessary to make the macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”

Jobs “borrowed,” to use Gladwell’s term, from the work of engineers at Xerox for his Macintosh, did not invent the portable digital music player or the smart phone.  But he did come up with improved versions in the iPod and the iPhone, and the idea for the iPad “came from an engineer at Microsoft.” By Issacson’s biography, Gladwell’s concludes, Jobs was more of a tweaker than the visionary and inventor celebrated in his eulogies.

Which brings us to Miles Davis.

From his beginnings in bop to his experiments in cool jazz and modal music to the electric fusion of the 70s, Davis had an uncanny feel for his time. (The long coda after his return in 1982 is a wholly different matter for another day.) And throughout his career, he surrounded himself with the best players for that moment, putting his imprint on the music, and the music-making, with such imagination and force as to make it his.

Davis wasn’t a distinguished composer. Put aside songs of disputed authorship and count his memorable pieces. In fact, he wasn’t actually the generator of some of the ideas behind the profound changes in music that he was given credit for. Rather he was, to put it in Gladwell’s terms, an exceptional tweaker, a ruthless, brilliant editor, both in the studio and on stage, when he prodded and cut on the fly, turning editing into a high-art improvisation.

Of course, none of this diminishes Miles’s contributions. It just places them, and our notions about creators and the creative process, under a different light.

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