New albums

Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa – Agrima

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition returns after a long absence with a great new album.

Jazz has frequently sought inspiration from musical traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Improvisation heavy Indian classical music has meshed well with the ethos of jazz exploration. John Coltrane imitated the drones of Indian music on his aptly named composition “India”, augmenting his band with an extra bassist to help maintain the tonal center of the piece as he improvised (and would name his son Ravi after Ravi Shankar). Guitarist John McLaughlin formed a band, Shakti, with Zakir Hussain on tabla and L. Shankar on violin, himself playing a custom made guitar with drone strings and a scalloped fretboard to allow him to better emulate the sort of bended notes of a sitar. More recently Indian-American artists, such as saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa or pianist Vijay Iyer have continued the conversation between jazz and Indian music.

Rudresh Mahanthappa has been blending Indian elements into jazz for more than a decade. Sometimes the fusion has been subtle, as on his fabulous collaboration with the Chicago based saxophonist Bunky Green Apex  – Mahanthappa’s compositions for that record frequently incorporated Indian harmonic notions (the connected album openers “Welcome” and “Summit”) or rhythms (“Playing with Stones” with a 22 beat cycle) into the affair – while sometimes it has been overt, such as on the album Kinsmen with Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, a collaboration which Mahanthappa tells us in the liner notes began with his brother giving him an album of Gopalnath’s, Saxophone Indian Style, as a joke. The results have been consistently engaging.

Agrima is the second album of the Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio of frequent Mahanthappa collaborators including Rez Abbasi, who also appeared on Kinsmen, on guitar, and Dan Weiss on tabla and drums. The Coalition’s first record came out ten years ago and in the last decade the band has expanded its tonal pallet. Weiss is a rare drummer who is successful on both a western trap set and tabla, and uses the two to great effect: halfway through songs like “Snap” and “Can-Did” he transitions smoothly from tabla to drum set. Abbasi, who previously favored a clean tone, occasionally turns up the distortion, lending his solo on “Snap” a twisting, rock-like flavor. Mahanthappa has a clean, bright tone and a quick touch on saxophone, which he also augments with electronics, opening the title track up with looping, overlapping synth lines and placing a chorus like effect on his saxophone.

All of this adds up to an exceptionally dynamic album. The band is smaller than it was on Kinsmen, but the sonic range is much greater. Each band member can turn on a dime, switching instruments or bringing in electronic or ambient effects, and the compositions are crafted to take advantage of the combinations and shifting focus from one musician to another. I found myself re-listening to a moment four minutes into the song “Revati” which so well exemplifies the sort of transitions the compositions could make: the tempo shifts down, guitar replaces saxophone on top of the melody and drums morph into tabla, yet somehow the transition is smooth and seamless.

Agrima is full of satisfying moments like that, always surprising in its twists and turns. It is available only directly from Rudresh’s website either on vinyl or as a digital download for $2.50. It is an absolute steal for that price. Four Stars.

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