Rudresh Mahanthappa on his new album, mentally practicing and growing up in Boulder

Growing up in Boulder, Rudresh Mahanthappa (due tonight at Quixote's True Blue) got an early start on the saxophone and studied with Mark Harris, who opened him to a wide variety of music, before heading to Berklee College of Music and DePaul University to study music. Since moving to New York in 1997, Mahanthappa has gone on to release a number of recordings, either collaborating with others or under his own name, including his brand new album, Samdhi, which finds the fiery saxophonist once again fusing elements of Indian music with jazz.

But with Samdhi, Mahanthappa, who recently won DownBeat International Critics Poll for Alto Saxophonist of the Year for 2011, takes things a bit further than previous albums by exploring electronics and looping with also working within an electro-acoustic format with guitarist David Gilmore, electric bassist Rich Brown and drummer Damion Reid. We spoke with Mahanthappa, who plays tonight at Quixote's True Blue (the show was recently moved from the Oriental Theater), about Samdhi, what he learned from master Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath (who plays on Mahanthappa's 2008 album Kinsmen), his visual approach to practicing, growing up in Boulder and more.

Can you tell about what your initial goal was going into Samdhi?

The record was actually kind of the culmination of this work that I did on my Guggenheim fellowship. There really was this idea that I wanted to take this multi-pronged approach to study some really specific aspects of South Indian classical music, but I just wanted to get deeper into technically... I had never had any formal training in Indian music.

What I know of Indian music I've learned by ear, the same way a lot of people have learned how to play jazz. But there were some real kind of formal things that I wanted to pick apart and have a better understanding of, but at the same time my idea was to take whatever I learned -- take that knowledge -- and really put in a setting that has nothing to do with Indian classical music.

It's really like a setting of the jazz-rock fusion bands that I've always wanted to have since I was in elementary school or something, or junior high, and get back to that electric setting that I really enjoyed being a part of when I was young. I always had a little funk band when I was in high school and we'd play little tunes and stuff.

A lot of the first music that I heard that made me want to play wasn't necessarily straight ahead jazz. When I was really young, it was the Brecker Brothers and the Yellow Jackets and David Sanborn, or the kind of funky electric stuff that Miles was doing in the '80s. So, at the same time, I was also trying to learn some of the audio processing software. I was kind of working on a few very different things always with the idea of the result being music for a band with this specific instrumentation: electric guitar, electric bass, drums and South Indian percussion.

I noticed you were doing some looping on some of the tracks?

Yeah. A couple of them are like that. That was really fun because the rhythms, or how some of the stuff is layered, are actually still very much taken from South Indian rhythmic stuff but, again, in a completely different setting to where it doesn't sound like that Indian stuff.

There was at least one track where it sounded like you were running your sax through some effects.

I had a harmonizer on some things and had a funky delay that takes what you played and plays it up a major third or something. That's something I really wanted to check out too. It's hard to figure out how to use that stuff tastefully. It's a whole other territory. I think some people are really good at that. I think Michael Brecker always had a really good handle on balancing the acoustic and the electric and making music out of it.

Has there been one particular challenge about playing Indian music on saxophone, or have you come across various challenges?

Unless I dedicate the rest of my life to it, I'll never be able to really deal... I mean, I can't really play Indian music, like I could never go and play a concert of Indian music. That hasn't been my focus. My focus is more about grabbing elements of that, but one of my really good friends who I collaborated with -- we did an album back in 2008 -- is this guy Kadri Gopalnath. I mean, he's the man. He's really playing all that shit on saxophone and in a really frightening sort of way.

On the fellowship we worked together a lot, but when I was India on the fellowship there was maybe three weeks or a month where I just went to his house every day. It was almost like a crash course. It would be like, "Okay, tell me how this works" and he'd play something. I'd be like, "Play it slower. Let me try to play it back. Let me record it." And then have him explain to me, "Why does it go like this and not like that?" Or, "How is what I'm doing wrong?"

Picking that stuff apart and then figuring out later how to kind use that use that compositionally, like then you take that and then how do you write tunes in essentially kind of a Western setting that somehow incorporates that.

I read about your brother giving you Kadri's album and how it opened up a whole new world for you?

Yeah. Definitely. Even though I had been listening to Indian music it's like... One of the main things that you hear -- one of the main melodic elements -- is this ornamentation. That really makes much more sense as a vocalist or a string player or an instrument where you can kind of slide. With a saxophone, it's a fixed-hole instrument. You can't really slide around, but Kadri has kind of figured out all these ways of getting around that.

So his approach is really unorthodox. Just his approach to the instrument is unorthodox. So that was one thing I wanted to get into also. I was like, "Play that slowly. I want to watch your fingers." Or, "Play that slowly. I want to watch your mouth. It looks like you're doing something weird with your mouth. Let me get this bend here." It was really fun.

From what I understand, it's a lot about alternate fingerings and embouchure, right?

Yeah. It's a lot of embouchure stuff. There are a few alternate fingerings. But he's also doing stuff where's kind of holding keys half way down, which is really hard to get your muscle memory to do, to train yourself to do that with any accuracy because the keys are open or they're closed. To be able to hold them halfway down and being able to that quickly is kind of insane.

I've heard that you practice mentally sometimes, or kind of think about what you're playing with actually playing your horn.

Yeah. I do kind of a visualization sort of thing. Well, first of all, I felt like I had really bad discipline as far as practicing regularly. I feel like I still have a battle with that where I don't go and practice everyday for a couple of hours. I should, but I think one of things I kind of realized is that there's a lot of stuff.... Let's say your time is precious and there's a lot of stuff you can work on away from the horn, and then when you get to the horn it's kind of like you've already been playing or like you've been kind of already been working on this.

I was talking to Bunky Green, and he was talking about how he kind of did the same thing. When he was a kid he had pneumonia and he almost died. He was bedridden for months and he was kind of practicing in his head the whole time. He was working on playing "Cherokee" in all keys and blues in all keys or whatever. You can really do a lot of that without your instrument, I think. For me, with "Giant Steps" I felt like instead of just sitting down with the horn and running the chord arpeggios or the kind of kind of digital patterns through the chords, I kind of just thought about it.

I thought about it a lot. I thought about the progression and the possibilities and what kinds of things one can do that aren't that kind of digitized kind of thing. I think I did that for a few months and then one day I was just like, "Okay, I'm actually ready to start kind of trying to play 'Giant Steps.'" I'd already done so much work without the horn that when I took it to the horn I was already kind of on a higher level with it. I'd already done the grunt work, you know?

So is it kind of like visualizing what your fingers are actually doing?

I think so, and trying to hear it too. I'm really trying to imagine myself playing the horn. Even though my hands are in my lap or whatever, I'm feeling myself playing the horn.

Do you every approach composing in a similar way where you might think a lot about a tune before actually writing it down?

Not necessarily. One of the things that I try to do, which I think is great with an iPhone and all the technology that we have now, is that if I start singing something or if I hear something I'll try to record it really quick, and then just come back to it later. Or if I find myself singing a melody and it keeps coming back, like the next day that I'm still singing it.

It doesn't necessarily have to be a melody. It could be a bassline. It could be a rhythmic thing. It could be anything. Then I'll be like, "Okay, this is obviously sticking for a reason, so I should probably try to write a tune with it." That's one way and then, you know, sometimes I try to write a tune where it's almost a way to explore a concept or exploring an idea.

For example, just dealing with a lot of odd meters, for me the easiest way to actually work on that stuff was to write tunes that were in thirteen or seven, almost coming at it as if there was this academic goal in a way but you're trying to write a tune with it and you're trying to do writing something that you want to play and that you'd want to hear and that you'd want to play with other people.

So, the organic side of it comes more naturally, but at the same time, you put this challenge in front of you, like I want to write a really cool tune in thirteen or I want to write a tune that uses a particular intervallic structure. Or I want to transcribe the melody of my wife talking for a minute, and then I want to see if I can write a tune with that. There are a lot of different approaches.

Another thing that I've done when I feel really stuck with writing is that I just turn on a tape recorder and play and don't really think about what I'm going to play or how I'm going to play. Just play for a half hour or an hour and then go back and listen to it, and maybe there's something in there like, "Oh wait a minute, that was really cool."

And what might be what's cool is the end of one idea and the beginning of another idea. Because when I'm playing them, I feel myself finishing one idea and staring another idea. But it's almost like if I hear it back I shift my perspective, where I'm hearing the end of one thing and the beginning of another thing as a completely separate thing; it kind of has a different life of its own. It's kind of like if you have two sentences together, you know, start reading halfway through the first sentence and stop reading halfway through the second sentence.

You grew up in Boulder and went to high school there, too, right?

I was in Boulder pretty much since I was born. I was born in Italy only because my dad was on sabbatical. He teaches at the university. I was in Boulder pretty much from about four months old. We lived in Europe a couple of different years because of other sabbaticals. But I was there elementary, junior high, high school and preschool.

Where did you go to high school?

I went to Fairview.

You started playing sax when you fairly young, right?

I started playing when it was kind of offered to us. Fourth grade was the year that band program started. I guess the summer before fourth grade there was kind of a little band camp, like a band day camp for a couple of weeks. You picked your instrument and got a little familiar with it. But I had been taking recorder lessons for a couple of years before that so jumping to saxophone was pretty easy. I was already reading music and I knew the staff and the fingers are really similar so I kind of had a little bit of a jump-start there.

I read how you had a teacher early on who opened you up to a whole bunch of different music.

Yeah. It was Mark Harris. I was Mark's first student, I think, ever. He was a sophomore at CU and I was in fourth grade. He was my teacher until I left for college, actually. Mark is a really amazing teacher.

Are there things that you learned from him that you still kind of take to heart now?

I think it's more kind of a spiritual thing. You know, he didn't really dis much music. He's just a really open guy. The amazing thing with him is that I would go see him play when I could. I was a kid and obviously I couldn't get into the clubs, or sometimes he would actually get me in. I'd go see him play with a prog rock band and then I'd go see him with an Afro-pop band. Then I'd see him play with a real straight ahead big band, and then I'd see him play duo with a percussionist. I mean, he was kind of all over the map.

It was like music was this really wide-open thing and there are all these things that are possible. You don't just have to play in a quartet or a big band. You can do all these other things playing saxophone. So that was really amazing to me. Just the whole breadth of experimental stuff to traditional stuff to a lot stuff that had nothing to do with jazz.

Mark is just a really good person. That really kind of comes through in everything that he does. I think that's something I try to keep in check. It's funny to be forty in New York. It's easy to get dark or kind of get fed up and bitter, depending on what's going on. If you do get into those spaces that comes out through the music. I think in the back of my mind I try to keep that kind of perspective that Mark seems to have.

The other guy who I studied with, who I thought was really good -- I only studied with him for a summer when I was back from college -- was Chuck Schneider. He's a really creative guy and has a lot of really interesting ideas. A lot of things we talked about that summer were more like jazz theory and improv lessons. We didn't actually play that much, but we talked about different ways of dealing with harmonies and stuff. It was pretty eye opening. That was a really good launching point for a lot of things that I still think about now as a composer and improviser.

I would imagine you have some younger players asking you for advice. What are some of the important things you've learned that you'd like to pass along to them?

I would say it's really important to keep open because that's when the magic happens. I think it's really important to develop your own sound and your own voice. I think that's something that's gotten more lost than ever. We've always had innovators and we've always had the stylists, like you have the people that maybe they didn't necessarily copy...

So you have Charlie Parker playing all this stuff, and then you have all these other saxophonists that kind of carry that vocabulary on until the next thing happens. I think Sonny Stitt is a great example. Sonny Stitt is a total monster, but when I think of the innovator, I don't think of Sonny Stiff; I think of Charlie Parker.

What I feel like is happening now is that there are a lot of young people who are imitating people that are my age. They're not going far enough back into the tradition. They're really not looking at the long view of the music. They're people that almost seemingly don't listen anything that was recorded before 1985 or something.

The people that they look up, first of all, are only in their forties, and secondly, it's important to check out what they checked out. I think by really digging deep and seeing where this music came from I think that definitely leads to having a really diverse palette, just a wider palette of things to draw on. That eventually leads to really sounding like you.

The best thing I hear in a young player, I think, is when I close my eyes I can tell who he's listened to but he doesn't sound like anybody. It takes a while to get there but I think you have to want that somehow. I think there's a lot of copying. It seems worse than ever just because there are more musicians that ever.

Now every school has a jazz studies program. I feel like some of the really important aspects of how jazz gets passed on get a little bit lost in academia. I see a lot of people not learning solos by ear. I see a lot of people trying to learn how to play jazz out of books. When I go to the schools I feel like people really aren't playing together that much.

For me, at Berklee there were some classes that were really important and stuff but the really most amazing times were when we were just playing. It had nothing to do with school. We were just playing from 10 p.m. to 2 in the morning and working on something, trying to play some standards. Maybe somebody wrote a tune or trying to figure out how to play "Giant Steps" in five or whatever.

But we were doing it as a group, doing it collectively. And I think that collective energy, that really communicative sort of interface or spirit is getting washed away a little bit. I'm definitely concerned about that. I think there's a little bit of a different attitude out there. And there's a real formulaic sort of thing where you get your bachelor's degree and then you're supposed to move to New York. Not everyone has to move to New York.

If you have people that you want to play with that live in your town establish that. Go play gigs. Go write tunes and go work on that because New York will always be there. So there's this pre-ordained path and everybody seems really eager to make an album as quickly as possible regardless whether they're really ready to make an album. It's like everyone feels like they have to make an album before they're 25 and go get gigs and maybe hire a couple of ringers for the album and blah, blah, blah....

So between the schools and kind of these business aspects, I feel like the music is getting a little homogenized, instead of there being more creative voices. Listen, everyone has to figure how to make a living. We've all been there and continue to be there to some degree, but there is no formula for success in this music. I feel like people are trying to create one. I don't think it's really going to work. I think it's an illusion.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
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