Thursday, July 09, 2020

CD Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa - Hero Trio

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Hero Trio

After collaborations with the late Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, bop saxophonist Bunky Green and his peer of staggering technique Stephen Lehman, all of which preceded his Bird Calls album that recast Charlie Parker in a modern light, not to mention his work with the intense Indo-Pak Coalition, the last thing one might expect the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is a cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" that isn't ironic or irreverent in any way. But there it is, track number 6 on Hero Trio.

Mahanthappa explains in the liner notes that he first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder (also covered here) on Sesame Street as a kid: "They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre towards seeing music as a magical force that binds humanity." A post of mine from several years ago, covering similar thoughts about one of those people made a similar point wholeheartedly. So - amen, Mr. M.

However, "Ring of Fire" comes as a bit of digression of the path of Hero Trio, an album of covers that leans heavily towards Charlie Parker, as well as Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. With Rudy Royston (drums) and Fran├žois Moutin (bass), Mahanthappa pays tribute but takes the music down his own path. The focus becomes evident in the opening seconds of the album, when the saxophonist starts to pop off the buoyant melody of Parker's "Red Cross" but suspends the movement in bar two, getting Moutin to bear down on the root and stay there. They eventually get to the "mop-mop" hook of the tune but it comes more than a minute later and they take an back road route to get there. Moutin does similar pedal work in "I Can't Get Started," which adds a darker mood that seems even more disconnected when the melody shows up.

Mahanthappa enjoys playing with time in ways that might not hit on the conscious level right away. "Ring of Fire" has an extra beat added in an early phrase, giving the melody a chance to stretch a little, almost as if it's going to get behind itself, which of course it never does. Wonder's "Overjoyed" turns into a taut 7/4 vamp that the rhythm section dives into. The trio also blends Parker's "Barbados" with John Coltrane's "26-2," which itself was based on a Bird tune.

All the name dropping would point towards little more than a good record collection if the trio didn't deliver with such intensity, happy not with an homage but dead set on exploring new possibilities within the music. Someone once said that Charlie Parker was such an artist that he could change his mind three times about what to play over some changes even before he got to that part of a chorus (I feel like I might have used that nugget somewhere else recently). It wouldn't come as a surprise if Rudresh Mahanthappa can do the same thing now, spinning melodies with speed and clarity, which seem to evolve kaleidoscopically as he does. His partners play on a similar level with him. Moutin plays his instrument with ferocity and Royston swings hard even when he holds back.

The insert photo of the trio dressed in superhero costumes comes out off like a hoot after hearing the music. This is serious stuff and they still have the desire ham it up when all is said and done. Does that make them heroes?

A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich, to borrow a title of a '70s film.

But these guys are really good.

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