Rudresh Mahanthappa – Samdhi (2011)

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Photo credit: Ethan Levitas

Despite his heritage, American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa didn’t start out as a practitioner of a unique blend of American jazz and traditional Indian music, he started with the jazz style of the America he grew up in and worked his way back to the music of his forbears’ native India. Doing this informed with the jazz of his life’s training resulted, among other things, in one of jazz’s most innovative records in recent years, Kinsmen (2008), a crafty, unusual but very listenable hybrid of traditional East Indian music forms with jazz. Three years later he’s taking another bite out of the Indian/jazz hybrid apple with Samdhi.

Samdhi, which translates from Sanskrit as “twilight,” is not Kinsmen, Redux in the least. This time, Mahanthappa’s insatiable curiosity has him tinkering with adding Subcontinent sensibilities to electronic jazz, or fusion. Nominally, this is part of the the so-called “electro-acoustic” trend we’ve been seeing lately in jazz, but with a twist: it’s also part of a trend to bring ethnic folk music into jazz.

The idea of mixing East Indian music with fusion isn’t a new one; it’s been with us at least since Dave Pike Set’s “Mathar” in 1969. But it takes someone with a deep understanding of both worlds to take it to an entirely different place. Enter Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Taking this approach requires using an entire different ensemble than his all-acoustic Indian jazz experiment from three years ago. Thus, David Gilmore is on electric guitar, Rich Brown plays electric bass; Damion Reid mans the drums and the lone member from India, “Anand” Anantha Krishnan, handles the mridangam and kanjira (Indian percussion).

Using Indian melodies and rhythms, Mahanthappa came upon something that, intentionally or not, has a lot in common with the furious, whiplash fusion of the 70s, especially the faster bands like Mahavishnu, Return To Forever and Billy Cobham’s early records. Like those pioneering outfits, the Samdhi band races along sometimes at breakneck speeds and nearly always using knotty time signatures. The primary difference is that the song constructions are largely derived from old Indian music, not the newer Western music. “Killer” is great demonstration of that kind of intensity this band is capable of, where Mahanthappa and Brown join together on impossible note progressions At one point the leader applies affects to his sax as he’s going at a rapid pace, making the horn sounding like a whole orchestral section on speed.

It’s not all showy stuff, though. “Playing With Stones” grooves with another, brighter, Indian inspired melody alternating with a circular pattern. “Breakfastlunchanddinner” has a more conventional jazz sound to it, even breaking out into bebop in spots, but the unconventional rhythms underneath often hints of the Indian influence.

The “electro” part of the electro/acoustic equation is most evident on “Parakram #2,” which is basically just Mahanthappa with his sax and a laptop looping, sampling and processing. The gentle, misty “For All The Ladies” ends the sequence of songs with a Western melody, but it’s a nice one, and Mahanthappa retains a tinge of the Subcontinent in his tone.

Though the two albums sound completely different, the triumph of Samdhi is the same triumph of Kinsmen: a combination of East and West that never feels forced, it sounds like musicians playing as a single unit and playing a single style of music: Mahanthappa music.

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Samdhi was released on September 27, by the ACT label.

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