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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Jazz musicians have been fascinated by South Indian music at least since the early 1960s when John Coltrane had his droning tune "India" and flutist Bud Shank and bassist Gary Peacock recorded with Ravi Shankar. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says those were baby steps compared to what saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa gets to.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet sounding like they're a cross-pollinating Indian classical music and vintage Captain Beefheart. That befits a bicultural saxophonist who grew up in Boulder, where his Hindu family had a Christmas tree. For a long time, Mahanthappa resisted combining jazz and Indian music - it was almost too obvious a trajectory. But then he got serious about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: South Asian influences had been planted in jazz decades ago, just waiting for further development. The super-complicated rhythms and fast solos of '70s jazz-rock fusion owed a lot to Ravi Shankar's "India." Global beats and fusion both contribute to modern jazz musicians' astonishing fluidity with complex rhythms. Mahanthappa's drummer Dan Weiss is an adept tabla player, at home with India's expanding and contracting beat patterns, and ready to adapt them to the trap set.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: On his new album "Gamak," Rudresh Mahanthappa takes off from Indian rhythms, but also the gamakas: the specific ways classical virtuosos tailor individual notes or move between them. They might attack a pitch from just above or below, or sweep upward as it trails off, or oscillate between notes.

In these original tunes, as in traditional Indian music, those deviations are essential to the feeling, not mere decoration. Mahanthappa, who's worked with Indian classical saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, can get inside that authentic South Indian sound while turning it to his own ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Francois Moutin on bass. This is music of subtle inflections - Indian modes have more shades of sharp and flat than you find on a piano - and Mahanthappa has a perfect partner in guitarist David Fiuczynski, who worked closely with him in developing the concept.

Fiuczynski is a microtonalist, sometimes playing in the cracks between the notes of the western scale. He makes Indian swerves and bluesy string-bends sound like part of one big continuum. The guitarist and saxophonist had been honing their rhythmic interplay in drummer Jack DeJohnette's band before recording "Gamak."

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WHITEHEAD: Other musicians have tried to bind jazz and Indian music at the molecular level. In England in the '60s, saxophonist Joe Harriott and Calcutta-born composer John Mayer had their over-simple but occasionally inspired Indo-Jazz fusion.

Guitarist John McLaughlin, after leading the loud Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early '70s, put together the Anglo-Indian acoustic band Shakti, whose fast stuff is still scarily good. Rudresh Mahanthappa plays other music besides this blatantly cross-cultural stuff, but it's easy to hear he's on to something. And the timing is right, when there are well-versed virtuosos around who can keep up with him wherever he turns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Gamak" the new album by saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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