Musical Masala

Wall Street Journal
April 20, 2006; Page D7
By Martin Johnson

New York

Ten years ago, when saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was introduced to pianist Vijay Iyer, both men were shocked; neither had imagined that the other existed. Both musicians were American-born with family roots in Southern India, and both were 25 years old and passionately interested in playing jazz with an Indian twist.

"I thought I was the only one," said Mr. Mahanthappa with a laugh from his Brooklyn apartment.

The two also had a common mentor, saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, who introduced them at a Stanford University jazz workshop. Mr. Mahanthappa had traveled to California from Chicago, where he was pursuing a master's degree in music at DePaul and playing on the local scene. Mr. Iyer was working on a doctorate in music and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, and touring with Mr. Coleman. It's an understatement to say that the young musicians became fast friends.
[India Jazz]
Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer.

Before long they were playing in each other's bands and building an impressive body of work, which includes two world-premiere concerts in Manhattan this week and a duo recording, "Raw Materials" (Savoy), that will be released next month.

Tonight, at The Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, Mr. Mahanthappa will present the second of two performances of "Code Book," a new work for his quartet, which includes Mr. Iyer on piano plus bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss. The work, which was commissioned in part by the New Works Program of Chamber Music America, merges Mr. Mahanthappa's interest in jazz, Indian classical music, modern classical harmony, math and cryptography.

"I've been interested in codes and cryptography since I was very young," Mr. Mahanthappa said. He used the John Coltrane classic "Giant Steps" to illustrate how his interest works in "Code Book." "'Giant Steps' is a very systematic piece. It divides octaves into thirds. Whether the audience knows that doesn't really matter -- it was a way for Coltrane to get across what he was hearing," he said. "I took 'Giant Steps' and ran it through some cryptographic methods," he continued. "It still feels like 'Giant Steps' to me, but I don't know if it will feel that way to the audience."

Mr. Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, Colo., and studied music at North Texas State University and Berklee College of Music. Not feeling ready to tackle the rigors of New York life in the early '90s, he settled in Chicago, where he taught and performed for several years. He took great inspiration from Mr. Coleman's work.

"You could hear the depth of the jazz tradition in his sound, but it sounded unlike anything else," he said of Mr. Coleman's music. In particular, Mr. Mahanthappa was fascinated by the different meters and complex rhythms employed in Mr. Coleman's groups. He traveled to Palo Alto, Calif., to meet and spend some time picking Mr. Coleman's brain; he met Mr. Iyer, and their interest in Indian music proved complementary.

"I was more fascinated by the ragas, the melodic approach, trying to evoke the sound of the double-reed instruments or the singers of Carnatic music," said Mr. Mahanthappa. "Vijay was more into the rhythmic aspects."

Later that afternoon, from his Morningside Heights apartment, Mr. Iyer agreed.

"My approach to the piano is on the percussive side. I've been inspired by James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and percussive traditions from India," he said.

Mr. Iyer also cites pianist Randy Weston as a key figure. Mr. Weston fused aspects of West and North African percussion traditions into his playing. "I wanted to do something similar but with Indian drumming -- bring it into dialogue with American piano tradition."

Mr. Iyer was born in Rochester, N.Y., and although he showed musical skills at an early age, they took a backseat to math and science studies until he got to Berkeley, where he won a local jazz competition and soon after was hired to perform with Mr. Coleman's band. Like his friend, Mr. Iyer moved to New York in the late '90s.

He sees math as a key undercurrent in his musical pursuits. "There's a lot of mathematical structure in our work," he said. "The notion of permutation and combination at the arithmetic level is omnipresent in Indian music."

Although both men are fluent in technical vernaculars, the first impression I take from their music is its meditative elegance. Mr. Iyer favors gentle clusters of insinuating rhythms, and Mr. Mahanthappa's tone swings with jazz authority but with an unmistakably Indian inflection. Only some of their music is in the 4/4 walking beat of straight-ahead jazz, but little of it will feel foreign to jazz fans.

Blends of jazz with Indian classical music have had a longstanding niche and, parallel to the rise of Messrs. Mahanthappa and Iyer, that genre is growing again. Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain was invited to perform at last summer's Montreal Jazz Festival, and he appears on a stellar new recording, "Sangam" (ECM), by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd first pursued this fusion in the '70s, when he recorded with Indian musicians, and he returned to it as a tribute to jazz drummer Billy Higgins. Of the recording, Mr. Lloyd said that the merging of jazz and Indian traditions created a unique tapestry of sound.

Mr. Mahanthappa and Mr. Iyer are emblematic of their generation of jazz musicians. They have found ways to tweak conventional forms to find their voice, rather than laying waste to the structures that preceded them. Most of jazz's new movements in the past 60 years have been either revolutions or counter-revolutions, but what the current jazz lacks in "change the world" thunder, it makes up for in imaginative, accessible music.