Monday, October 18, 2010

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman - Dual Identity

Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman
Dual Identity
(Clean Feed)

Now that Rudresh Mahanthappa's CD with fellow alto saxophonist Bunky Green has hit the streets, it's starting to generate some buzz, (JazzTimes flagged it on the cover of the latest issue, using the word "collab," no less. Zheesh.) That meeting of two generations of altos deserves some kudos, but a few months ago this release of two almost-peers hit the street and deserves equal amounts of attention.

Pairing up Mahanthappa and Lehman (leader of the octet released the amazing Travail, Transformation and Flow last year, and one-third of Fieldwork) can feel like the equivalent taking two very knowledgeable music enthusiasts, pumping them full of strong coffee and getting them to verbally expound on musicians that are meaningful to them. In other words, both of them have such astounding technique that their ideas come forth in fast, knotty ways in an endless flow that both complement the other one and make it sound a little busy. Sometimes "Duel" Identity might seem more appropriate since it feels like friendly sparring at times.

The horns aren't severely panned to separate channels, nor does the cover give a clue as to which alto player is which. And frankly, that who's-who intrigue keeps the album a little more interesting.

Some tracks use their leaders' astounding technique cleverly, such as "Foster Brothers," whose main riff has the illusion that it's about to shift into double-time, only to be snapped back into half-time, thanks to a tricky time signature. The time and changes of "Post-Modern Pharaohs," on the other hand, sounds a little rigid, like the band can't really relax. Casual listening is out, studious listening is required.

Somewhere I'm sure a reviewer is comparing this alto summit to the work of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who explored similar territory with M-Base back in the '80s. (Mahanthappa has talked in print about Coleman's influence on his work.) Knowing that music only in passing, it's hard for me to draw a direct parallel, but the style of the rhythm section points that way too. Liberty Ellman (guitar), Matt Brewer (bass), and Damon Reid (drums) hold this music down tightly, allowing pretty of room for the altos to run wild - as well as Ellman who is a natural for this music. Sometimes it feels like they're really itching to break into a funk riff if only the tune would let them. On the other hand, the band reveals shows their grace and skill with a ballad ("Katchu," Ellman's one composition) and a short tone poem ("Resonance Ballad"). These different nuances make this album one that keeps begging for repeated listens that will yield new discoveries.

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