Personal code

By JON GARELICK  |  February 12, 2008

Mahanthappa had been taking saxophone lessons since fourth grade, and by ninth grade he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. A summer-school session at Berklee sealed the deal, and by junior year of college he had transferred and was living in Boston. Although he had played in funk and jazz bands, his epiphany came in 1994 when he visited India with a Berklee student ensemble and heard a concert in Bangalore by the classical North Indian singer Parween Sultanta. “It was incredibly soulful, emotional but totally virtuosic and amazingly complex music. And she had some of the best rhythmic sense I’ve ever heard, period.” That’s when he began to dig into Indian music in earnest. “I had needed to hear the music completely on my own terms, and when I was able to do that, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is as amazing — if not more amazing — than my favorite John Coltrane bootleg from 1965!’ ”

To a jazz fan’s ear, though, the India in Mahanthappa’s own music may be secondary. By now, Indian music has been thoroughly absorbed into jazz through Coltrane and others, and the raga-like spinning of complex melodic and rhythmic patterns in “exotic” scales over droning static harmonies has become commonplace. But Mahanthappa’s work is just as much in the vein of latter-day composer-improvisers like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby (both of whom he’s worked with), with their jumping, angular lines and odd-metered excursions, and the use of drones mixed with chord-based patterns and free improvisation. Since 1996, he has been collaborating with the Indo-American pianist Vijay Iyer (who will be part of the quartet at the Gardner), and their music is its own branch of the current avant-jazz style.

What’s often surprising is finding out how Mahanthappa arrived at some of his musical tapestries. On Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004), for instance, he made the Indian connection explicit. To the question he’d heard all his life — “Do you speak Indian?” — he prepared a script. He’d ask the question and his interviewees — about a dozen, including his mother — would answer some variation of, “No, there’s no such language.” He recorded their answers and “transcribed the melody of their speech,” which served as material for the 10 tunes on the album.

The result sounds like . . . jazz. Angular, oddly accented in the Coleman/Osby manner, but with Mahathappa’s keening Indo-flavored melodies and Iyer’s bop-to-raga-to-free piano style. His 2006 Codebook takes another tack: using math and cryptography to create rhythms and melodies. “I’ve always liked codes and number theories. It’s been part of my music in more subtle ways, but I thought it would be fun to be more blunt about it.” So in “Play It Again Sam,” the members of the quartet (with bassist François Mouton and drummer Dan Weiss) spell their names in Morse code at different speeds. “Wait It Through” is a play on the address of Mahanthappa’s wife’s old graphic-design studio at 36 West 37th Street in New York — alternating thirds and sixths with thirds and sevenths. “Frontburner” feeds the notes of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” through a cryptographic formula.

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