Long before alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa topped numerous jazz critics' polls for his fiery playing, he was a kid growing up in Boulder, studying with Mark Harris, now a teacher at Metro State University. Harris was a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder when he took on Mahanthappa, then a fourth-grader, as his first student.
“I consider him the best teacher I ever had,” Mahanthappa says of Harris, with whom he studied for eight years. “He was really on top of saxophone and jazz stuff, per se, but he just had this whole attitude of openness. I’d see him play all the time I was studying with him. He might be playing with a trio, like with another saxophonist and a drummer, playing some really out-there shit; then I'd see him with the Afropop band, then see him with a big band, and then see him playing classical saxophone.”
Hearing Harris play with a variety of groups gave Mahanthappa the sense that music was wide open and that it was about doing stuff with integrity and honesty.
“I don't think I was thinking those words when I was eleven years old,” he says, “but essentially, that's what it was.”
From fourth grade until his senior year at Fairview High School, Mahanthappa not only got lessons in how to play the sax, but Harris brought over a wide range of recordings, introducing his student to Igor Stravinsky, Gentle Giant, Sidney Bichet, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Ornette Coleman.
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“I had this sense from early on that all this was really good music, and I wasn't thinking about subgenres, like avant-garde and hard bop,” Mahanthappa says. “I mean, obviously I knew what be-bop was since I was listening to Bird. But the idea of actually drawing these divisions — like categories and biases — that wasn't really something I experienced until I went to college, because to me, Ornette and Bird and Michael Brecker were all playing their asses off. It had nothing to do with the format or the vehicle or the structural nature of the music. That was secondary to the fact that...they were playing great.”
While Mahanthappa, who’s deftly fused jazz and South Indian classical music on previous albums, paid homage to Parker on 2015’s Bird Calls, he says his new album, Hero Trio, draws directly on the music of his formative influences; both albums include drummer Rudy Royston, whom Mahanthappa met in 1991 while jamming at the Hotel Boulderado, and bassist Francois Moutin, whom Mahanthappa met not long after he moved to New York in 1997.
On Hero Trio, Mahanthappa’s first recording in the trio format, the three play songs by Parker, Coleman and John Coltrane, and there are also renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” Keith Jarrett’s “Wind Up,” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” as well as standards like “I’ll Remember April” and “I Can’t Get Started,” which pay tribute to the saxophone trio work of Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz.
“Seeing folks like Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash or even Ella Fitzgerald,” he says, “all the people that we saw on Sesame Street when we were really young — I think those are super impactful musical moments that have nothing to do with playing music, about wanting to be a musician. It's about seeing something when you're five years old and thinking that that's really awesome. If we can tap into that, that sort of energy in anything that we do with our lives, we've succeeded.”
Mahanthappa has succeeded in other ways as well, from busking on the Pearl Street Mall, playing at Penny Lane and sitting in with a Dixieland band while growing up in Boulder to being an internationally acclaimed saxophonist who’s now the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Director of Jazz at Princeton University.
While the trio was his favorite playing format while he was in college and where he felt the most at home, Mahanthappa says it’s weird that it took nearly three decades to finally get around to making a trio album.
“I feel like these guys can really vary the density of what they're playing,” Mahanthappa says. “The danger with the trio is that the texture, the sonic palette, can have a sameness to it, like it's hard to keep some sort of variety or variation in there. But with these guys, it’s really easy, and playing in a trio is second nature.”
Mahanthappa says that with Hero Trio, he wanted to make an album that was just about feeling good — not that his other albums weren’t about that, but there might have been other agendas, missions or something else tying the music together.
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“I feel like almost every album I've done has that,” he says. “And I guess this has that too, but it's more just about playing music that's meaningful for me, that makes me happy and healthy — and hopefully that comes across.”
Hero Trio was recorded for Whirlwind Records in January, just before COVID-19 went worldwide and, more recently, Black Lives Matter protests swept the globe.
“I think I'm even more glad to have this coming out during a time like this,” he says, “where people are definitely mobilized and active. I think people also need a break, and they need stuff that kind of takes a load off, and I'm hoping that this album does that.”
Hear Hero Trio at Rudresh Mahanthappa's website.