As Princeton’s new director of jazz studies, internationally known alto saxophonist and innovator Rudresh Mahanthappa shows his hands-on involvement when he says, “I play with all my groups in rehearsal and sometimes in performance.”
That includes the university’s jazz septet, quartet, an 18-piece big band led by multiple Grammy Award-nominee Darcy James Argue, and two jazz vocal collective ensembles led by Trineice Robinson, executive director of the African American Jazz Caucus’s Greater New York City Area.
Mahanthappa arrived at Princeton for his first academic appointment in the 2016 fall term and succeeds program founder Anthony Branker — a trumpeter, composer, and conductor who retired after 27 years.
A fistful of Princeton jazz performances arriving over the next several weeks reflects Mahanthappa’s intent.
“It is important for students to see that jazz is a living art form,” he says. “Engaging the present means having one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are as relevant today as ever. I want to expand the jazz curriculum and make sure that this music is not being discussed as a museum piece but as a forward-thinking contemporary voice of beauty, change, and inclusivity.”
Decreasing the distance between professional jazz artists and students is one of Mahanthappa’s goals. “I continue to have a full career as a performer, and I think it is very vital to bring that experience to the classroom,” he says. “I want the students to be regularly exposed to as many practitioners of the music as possible.”
Increasing collaborations between Princeton jazz students and those outside the jazz program is another of Mahanthappa’s goals. He foresees opportunities for jazz students to work with classical and electronic musicians, with African-American musicians, with dance and theater programs, and others. He told the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “Jazz isn’t just playing in clubs and making records and playing jazz festivals. If people can think outside of their immediate box, there’s a lot of meaningful work that can be done.”
Mahanthappa would like Princeton’s jazz program to include students who did not win a place in auditioned jazz ensembles. “There should be a place for people to get better,” he told the Alumni Weekly.
Known as a practitioner of “progressive jazz,” Mahanthappa is leery of the label. “I’m more interested in reaching people than finding a name for what I do. If somebody wants to find out what kind of music I play, they should just go and listen to it,” he says during an interview in his Princeton office. That’s easy enough to do; Mahanthappa has recorded more than a dozen albums. He particularly recommends three of his albums as samples of his style: “Gamak” (2013), “Kinsmen” (2008), and “Apti” (2008).
Mahanthappa pronounces his name with the accent on the second syllable, and a silent second “h”: MaHANtappa. He grew up in an academic Indian family in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s a pretty white community,” he told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross. He didn’t think about his ethnicity when he was growing up.
“I see everything in multiple perspectives,” Mahanthappa says. “I’m Indian, and I’m American, and neither and both every second of every day. The way in which I listen to Indian music and to jazz is the same. I don’t think consciously of whether it’s Indian or western.”
His music is a hybrid inseparably blended from the Carnatic traditions of south India, and western jazz. “My music is a unity,” Mahanthappa says. “It stands on its own. There’s always the notion of Indo-jazz fusion. It’s like my mom serving Indian food while we’re unwrapping Christmas presents. There’s no point in trying to analyze the music. That would be like thinking of slamming two things together, as opposed to making something new.”
A look at some of music’s basic ingredients reveals the challenge of fusing two alien traditions.
Take rhythm, for instance. The two traditions organize beats differently. Sixteen beats in the west are commonly organized into four groups of four beats. In India, various patterns are possible, for example: six plus three plus five plus two.
And then there’s the question of harmony, which blends simultaneously sounded pitches in the west. Harmony does not exist in Indian music. Nevertheless, Mahanthappa says, “Harmony is a component in my music. It could be challenging when you’re working with Indian material. It could be cheesy or hokey.”
Or consider pitches: The saxophone is designed to produce the fixed pitches used in western scales, while Indian melodies frequently use pitches that fall between the pitches of western scales.
Elaborate ornamental procedures, known as gamaka, decorate melodies in Indian music and create varying moods. A slide between pitches is such an ornament. “The saxophone is a closed hole instrument,” Mahanthappa explains. “Sliding is a way of ornamenting. It took me eight to ten years to figure it out [on the saxophone].”
“People like to think that I was influenced by cross-cultural melding,” Mahanthappa says. “That’s not true. I was influenced by the founders of jazz — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.” Mahanthappa respects them as improvisers and composers.
“We all improvise every day,” he says. “You slip in the snow and figure out how to get up again. One of the biggest improvisations ever is moving to a new country and having to bring up children there.
“Interaction is where the best improvisation happens. Improvisation is a matter of listening. The more information you have coming in, the more possibilities you have for improvising.”
“Jazz improvisation has become an industry,” Mahanthappa says. There are hundreds of books. But you need building blocks — you need to know scales, chords, and harmony. You need to master the technique of your instrument. You have to listen to a good improviser, like Charlie Parker, who knows the technique of his instrument, and play along with him. You can’t learn jazz without listening to Charlie Parker.”
Mahanthappa’s latest recording, “Bird Calls,” is a tribute to saxophonist Parker, whose nickname is “Bird.” A generation after Parker’s death in 1955, when Mahanthappa was in sixth or seventh grade, he discovered Parker, who has constantly inspired him.
Born in Trieste, Italy, in 1971, while his father, an Indian-born physicist with a specialty in high-energy particles, was on sabbatical from the University of Colorado, Mahanthappa is the second of three sons. His mother, he says, was a homemaker, “very busy successfully chasing and whipping three boys into shape.”
He has a tenuous Princeton memory coming from the period in the mid-1960s when his father was a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. “We grew up with my older brother’s Princeton bib that was passed on to all of us,” he remembers.
Mahanthappa’s older brother, Nagesh, played clarinet and his younger brother, Mahesh, played flute. “My parents stressed an overall engagement with art and music, but I can’t say they were musical,” Mahanthappa says.
Nagesh, who has an MBA and a Ph.D.in neuroscience, is now the head of a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mahesh is a professor of chemical engineering and material science at the University of Minnesota. “I would have become a number theorist or economist if I hadn’t gone into music,” Mahanthappa says.
When Mahanthappa was in fourth grade, Nagesh advised him that learning saxophone could get him into a jazz band, which would be a lot of fun. Mahanthappa took the advice and signed up for lessons at school. He graduated from the jazz training-ground Berklee College of Music in Boston, in 1992 and received a master of fine arts degree in jazz composition from Chicago’s DePaul University in 1998.
When Mahanthappa graduated from Berklee, Nagesh gave him, as a joke congratulatory present, a CD called “Saxophone Indian style,” recorded by south Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. Mahanthappa converted the prank into a Guggenheim Fellowship and worked with Gopalnath in India in 2007 and 2008. Mahanthappa’s 2011 album “Samdhi” was the result of the Guggenheim.
Mahanthappa and his family live in Montclair. His wife, Pooja Bakri, is a painter and a creative arts therapist. The couple has two children. Mahanthappa says he is a hands-on father and adds, “My son Talin is 4. He’s extremely musical and probably possesses more natural talent than I ever had. My daughter Freya is almost 9 months old. She likes music a lot and has been good audience for Talin’s musical exploits.”
Montclair is where Mahanthappa keeps his clutter, he says. His office is austere with not a single saxophone in sight. He wants to minimize the effort of moving when Princeton’s new arts complex near the McCarter Theater is finished. The target date is this summer.
Meanwhile, Mahanthappa maintains a breathtaking pace. Interviewed on a Tuesday, he had a full plate of Princeton commitments before leaving for a Saturday jazz festival in Capetown, South Africa. He has scheduled no solo Princeton performances for 2016-’17. But he will be performing with the jazz groups. Stay tuned.
Princeton Program in Jazz Performance, Jazz Quartet, Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall, Princeton. Wednesday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. Free.
Jazz Quartet, Princeton Public Library, Princeton. Sunday, April 23, 2 p.m. Free.
Jazz Vocal Collectives with special guest Darmon Meader of New York, Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall, Princeton. Thursday, April 27, 7:30 p.m. Free.
Jazz Septet, Communiversity, Nassau Stage. Sunday, April 30, free.
Creative Large Ensemble with special guest Billy Childs and including the world premiere of “Rejoice,” commissioned by Jazz at Princeton University, Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall. Saturday, May 13, 8 p.m. $15. 609-258-9220. music.princeton.edu