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Rudresh Mahanthappa's brand of Indian-American jazz coming to UCLA

Zak Shelby

The easy way to describe Rudresh Mahanthappa’s music might be as East-meets-West jazz.

Easy, sure. But also wrong, says the saxophonist.

“Actually, quite inaccurate,” he says. That's both the East-meets-West part and the jazz part. 

Not that he has a concise alternate description. Which is the point.

“I’m concerned with really expressing who I am, as an Indian-American,” he said by phone from his new home in New Jersey, where he moved with his wife and young baby after 15 years in Brooklyn. “It’s about feeling both Indian and American, but neither, being at the forefront of a first generation of children of Indian immigrants. And I’m a child of the ‘80s. I listened to Twisted Sister and Prince and Peter Gabriel.”

Well, you may not detect much Twisted Sister in his music. But as for what you’d call it, judge for yourself with this, one of the key tracks on his startlingly inventive new album Gamak, debuting his quartet of the same name, which pairs his sax with the stunning microtonal guitar of David Fiuczynski in front of bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss.

Gamak is making its Southern California debut on Saturday at UCLA's Royce Hall, a concert that will showcase two different Mahanthappa takes on his personal hybrids. The first half of the evening will see him with the Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with Weiss on tabla and drums and Rez Abbasi playing a combo sitar-guitar drawing on the raga traditions of India but with clearly distinctive twists. The second half will be devoted to Gamak’s alternately driving force and lyrical interplay.

“I think it will be a really nice presentation of how many different ways you can approach this thing we call jazz in 2013. Kind of funny to be using that term these days.” 

And these are just two of the eight projects he’s been anchoring, each with its own distinct character — not to mention being a regular member of iconic/iconoclastic jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette’s band, in which he first collaborated with Fiuczynski, who shares his hunger for music that’s not just two things, let alone one.

Funky grooving musicians

“He’s played with some of the most funky, grooving musicians on the planet, and at the same time studied Western contemporary classical music,” he says. “We can talk on about Chinese music or heavy classical music — he has a master’s degree in that. That’s the right kind of musical personality for me, seeing one thing from multiple perspectives at once, which is what I always try to do. And the other guys in the band, same thing. That’s what I gravitate to.” 

That hasn’t stopped him from getting recognized as a rising star in the jazz world. He’s won several of jazz magazine Down Beat’s prestigious annual polls, including being honored as 2011’s top alto saxophonist. And he was named alto saxophonist of the year from 2009 through 2011 by the Jazz Journalists Association. On the other side, he was awarded a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship to explore new ways to bring Indian Carnatic inspirations into jazz.

Truth is, both jazz and Indian music entered his musical life relatively late in his development. Growing up in Boulder, Colo., he gravitated at first not to jazz per se, but to the jazz-tangential world of instrumental R&B — Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Bros. et al. Until he encountered the music of bebop titan Charlie Parker, that is.

“Then I heard Bird, and there was no going back,” he says.

By 14, at the urging of his father, he was already busking in Boulder’s noted open-air shopping district, playing pop tunes, standards and, eventually with a band, some more challenging jazz compositions for the passers-by and doing pretty well on the tips tossed into his open case.

“I came into Indian music a bit later,” he says. “I felt like I was in a situation where I couldn’t deal with the music on my own terms. There was great pressure, some of it self-inflicted, because I was supposed to understand this music just because of my last name. People assumed I knew about ragas and tablas and all that. No! I was raised in Boulder, Colorado!”

Identity crisis

But as he matured, an almost inevitable identity crisis took hold, intensified when he enrolled in the jazz program at the University of North Texas, a school he says had a big African-American presence.

“That’s when I figured that masquerading as a white person wouldn’t work any more,” he says. “I’m not black and not white. Who am I? Working with improvisation and rhythm, all this started cooking in my head.”

But after moving to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he confronted the other side of his identity puzzle when in 1994 he went with a school band on a performance trip to India, his first trip there as an adult and first without his parents. On one hand, relatives in Bangalore wanted to know why he didn’t speak their language. On the other, he attended an all-night Indian classical concert which, he says, “changed my life.” And from there he was determined to create his own musical approach that involved all of his identity. That was boosted when he was introduced a year later to another Indian-American who had been grappling with many of the same issues, pianist Vijay Iyer, starting a partnership that continues to this day via various collaborative projects. 

With Gamak, though, he feels he has the band that at this moment offers the chance to best evolve his musical vision — not that he’s abandoning his other ventures, including a concert planned this summer in New York that will be his salute to Charlie Parker — not a straight tribute, per se, but “reconfiguring Bird and his music.”

“I see it all as a continuum,” he says. “Gamak is really just another step in the direction I’ve been going in for the last 10 or 12 years. I’m very pleased how it turned out.”