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Balancing Influences: Saxophonist Mahanthappa Blends Styles
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Balancing Influences: Saxophonist Mahanthappa Blends Styles

Music Interviews


If you're just joining us, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. And it's time now for music.


RATH: The L.A. Times recently compared this piece to the jazz fusion greats Mahavishnu Orchestra and proto-punk legends The Stooges. High praise for saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose work defies genres. You can find the Indian-American's work filed under jazz, but it's hard to find a style he doesn't touch. You'll hear touches of western hip-hop, country, metal and soul fused with traditional sounds from India, Africa and Indonesia, and he makes it rock.


RATH: His latest album is called "Gamak."


RATH: I caught up with Mahanthappa backstage after a smoking-hot show in Boston. He should've been exhausted. I was tired out from just watching him play. But he was beaming.

You guys tore it up. That was a rocking set.

RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, I'm glad you enjoyed it. We had a, you know, we had a really great time. And we're very lucky to have already played - I mean, the album came out at the end of January, and we've already played 30 shows, I think, this year. So the band is super tight, and it's just - it's so different from the album at this point, you know?


MAHANTHAPPA: It's jumped, like, six or seven levels.

RATH: Is there something about this type of instrumentation of this group? Because - I mean, you've had elements of rock in your music, but something about this particular group really rocks. Do you know what I mean?

MAHANTHAPPA: Absolutely. And that was definitely intentional. You know, I'm a child of the '80s, so I grew up with a lot of great rock. I mean, '80s rock wasn't the best, but I still had access to '70s rock. And a lot of progressive rock stuff has been very influential, Yes and Gentle Giant and Rush and Genesis and - so I wanted to bring that element to more of a forefront with this particular band.


MAHANTHAPPA: And obviously, having Dave Kaczynski on guitar really brings that out. Dave and I played in Jack DeJohnette's band for about three years. And so when it came time to do something else, we already had kind of a history. And I really gave him free rein to use all the sounds he wanted and to really rock out.


RATH: I saw him quoted somewhere that with this music that he's playing now, he goes to be - it's a great phrase - a microtonal Captain Kirk.


MAHANTHAPPA: Right. Right. Because he gets to go where no man has gone before or something like that. When I'm writing music, I'm never writing for an instrumentation. I'm writing for people, you know? I didn't sit down and write this music for guitar, bass and drums. I wrote it for Dave Kaczynski, Francois Moutin and Dan Weiss. So in saying that, what I'm doing is writing to their strengths and also writing a little bit in a fashion that will maybe push them beyond what we usually do.

And I'm doing that with myself too. I'm always writing stuff that I can't play. I have to - you know, if I write this thing, and I want to play it, I have to figure out how to play it. So I'm always pushing myself as a saxophonist and as a band leader as well.

RATH: What's sort of remarkable, especially seeing you guys play, you know, a show like tonight, you talk about that kind of freedom. But it's very complexly structured music at times, as well, I think, you know, rhythmically and what you're doing tonally as well.

MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, that's true.


MAHANTHAPPA: It is. It is very structured. You know, for the musician, you know, we talk about these odd meters, we talk about cycles. Especially in Indian music, you talk about cycles of seven beats or 13 beats or 21 beats. And those are constructs that I really relate to. And the best thing is when you feel free within those structures. And it's funny because oftentimes, this music is - it can be confused or put in, like, this kind of free jazz category where it's actually quite the opposite. So it's funny to me that those things end up maybe sounding the same to some people.

RATH: What is it about these guys that you can make it sound - it does sound so free?

MAHANTHAPPA: Well, I think everyone in the band developed a sort of rhythmic vocabulary. They can deal with these structures, and they can internalize them very quickly. So, you know, some people think of these beat cycles, for example, these Indian talas, as being difficult. But if you find a way to internalize it, you hear it as if you're hearing blues or as if you're hearing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or - for me, everything is 90 percent awareness. If you're aware of the possibility to be able to do something, you'll be able to do it.


RATH: You're listening to a backstage interview with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa after a recent show in Boston. Mahanthappa is an Indian name, as is mine, Rath. We're both American-born desis, as the phrase goes. I was able to hit Rudresh with a pretty obscure reference when I pulled an old Indian CD by saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath out of my bag.

I'm going to show you something. I know you've talked about this before but...

MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, yeah, "Saxophone Indian Style." You have a - this is the same copy I have. Wow.

RATH: And you can probably tell that's - I didn't just buy that last week. I've had that for a while. It's got the...


RATH: It's got some weathering.

MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah. This is a great album. This is - I mean, this album changed my life in a lot of ways because - I mean, jazz has been institutionalized, and you can go to school for jazz. I went to school for jazz. You can learn all the theory and kind of be spoon-fed this wonderful art form.

But where the real learning takes place is obviously playing with other people, but it's also playing with records, you know, learning John Coltrane's solos, learning Charlie Parker's solos, not from a book where someone else has written them down but really learning them by ear. If you want to learn carnatic or Hindu-sounding music, you go find a guru, and you go study, and you might go live with this teacher for 20 years and - before you're ever allowed to perform.

So for me, I was trying to deal with Indian music that same way - by ear - but it was just so hard to try to emulate what the vocalist and, you know, the violinist, the string instruments, vina, sitar, whatever it was. It was so hard to emulate that on saxophone just because of the nature of the instrument. So when I got this album, "Saxophone Indian Style," I felt like I could play along with it the same way I was playing along with Coltrane records.


MAHANTHAPPA: We do this tune called Abhogi that's really based on the south Indian raga, but it ends up being this boogaloo/country thing, you know? Like, Dave's doing this thing that sounds like a Dobro or something.


MAHANTHAPPA: I mean, the way I see it, I'm trying to express what it means to be Indian-American, so I'm not interested in doing anything that's overtly Indian because I don't feel overtly Indian. I mean, I feel Indian and American and neither and both all at the same time every second of every day. And I feel like the music should reflect that too.

RATH: You were born in Italy, right?

MAHANTHAPPA: I was born in Italy. My dad was on sabbatical. That's why I was born in Italy.

RATH: But are you familiar with the phrase ABCD?

MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, yeah. American-born confused desi?

RATH: Yeah.

MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah. Yeah, it's funny. A cab driver in Chicago turned me on to ABCD, and he was actually referring to me in a very derogatory sort of way. I was like, what does that mean? And then he told me. I was like, I think I'll get out of your cab now, you know?

RATH: But there's something about you, and I was thinking about your music and these wild range of influences. It's similar to what I had growing up in America, but at the same time, it doesn't feel confused. It swings.

MAHANTHAPPA: Well, I think the interesting thing is embracing the confusion. If you own the confusion, then you want.


RATH: Rudresh Mahanthappa. We spoke after a recent concert in Boston. He's playing later this week in New York City, and his new album is called "Gamak." If you want to hear some tracks from the album, and trust me, you do, go to


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