By Don Heckman
At first glance, Saturday night seemed to offer one of the intriguing jazz events of the season: alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa appearing with his groups Indo-Pak Coalition and Gamak in a CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall. Over the past decade, Mahanthappa, a second generation Indian American, has received significant recognition from the Down Beat Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association, as well as grants from the Guggenheim foundation and the New York Council on the Arts.
His West Coast appearances have been rare. But anyone who’s dipped into Manhanthappa’s numerous far-ranging, eclectic recordings – as a leader and a sideman – had a fair idea of what to expect at Saturday’s performance.
Even so, his first soloing with his Indo-Pak Coalition ensemble – a trio consisting of Mahanthappa, Pakistani guitarist Rez Abbasi and American drummer Dan Weiss – had a startling impact. The alto saxophone is almost never heard as an instrument of Carnatic music. One of its pioneers in that genre is Kadri Gopalnath, who partnered with Mahanthappa in the crossover 2008 album, Kinsmen. Both have found ways – perhaps using softer reeds – to bend pitches to the semi-tonal demands of Indian ragas. And Mahanthappa’s playing began from a close Carnatic perspective filled with bright slashes of jazz lighting, enhanced by Weiss’s extraordinary rhythmic mobility as he moved from a standard drum kit to tabla drums.
The rest of Mahanthappa’s set with the Indo-Pak Coalition moved easily across boundary lines. His alto saxophone solos, which dominated much of the entire performance, expanded its Carnatic aspects into something resembling the free jazz saxophone methods of the ‘60s associated with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, among others.
In the second half of the program, Mahanthappa performed with Gamak, which also included bassist Francois Moutin, guitarist David Fiuczynski and Weiss, who played drum set, without the tabla drums. The genre scale weighed more heavily in the direction of jazz and jazz-rock with this ensemble. And, although Mahanthappa reigned at center stage, the powerful guitar of Fiucznski played a vital role in every selection, often enhanced by dynamic duo exchanges between various members of the group – especially those between Fiucznski and Mahanthappa.
At its best, the music showcased a compelling interaction between East and West, finding the common linkages while maintaining firm contact with each genre.
In its less appealing moments, virtuosity appeared to be the prime goal, especially for Mahanthappa, who displayed extraordinary technique. Often the fast fingers, multi-phonics and semi-tonal melodic phrases were fascinating, especially to other musicians.
Ultimately, however, he clearly authenticated why he has received so much attention from the jazz media and jazz support groups, becoming one of the most compelling saxophonists of his generation. But, in this performance at least, one couldn’t help but wonder where, and whom, the real Mahanthappa was, amid the surging rhythms, Indian references and blurring bundles of notes.