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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa on his East-West musical fusion project

Why fiery NYC jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's blend of jazz, rock and Indian classical music Gamak stands out from the nauseating ranks of world fusion.
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahant​happa performs at NYUAD on Tuesday November 24. Photo by Jimmy Katz
Saxophonist Rudresh Mahant​happa performs at NYUAD on Tuesday November 24. Photo by Jimmy Katz

“The reality is, there’s plenty of East-West musical projects that are horrible,” says Rudresh Mahanthappa, expressing a sentiment open-minded listeners of global sounds are often afraid to voice.

The New York City saxophonist is introducing his own East-West musical fusion, Gamak, who he leads in a performance at New York University Abu Dhabi on Tuesday November 24.

The ensemble’s music is anything but horrible – although it is demanding.

A fiery, phenomenal improviser who was once crowned Alto Saxophonist of the Year by leading jazz magazine DownBeat, Mahanthappa’s playing is exhaustingly inventive.

Backed by a rock-influenced rhythmic section of drums, bass and electric guitar, his sax spits spiralling, jagged phrases that skirt scales drawn from both sides of the globe.

The Gamak project – realised on the 2012 album of the same name – is the latest step in the 44-year-old Indian-American’s exploration of Indian classical music.

This began during his studies at leading jazz school Berklee College of Music a quarter of a century ago, and culminated with a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Carnatic music, resulting in the ensemble Samdhi in 2011.

“Exploring Indian music was something that came out of that early-adulthood confusion – trying to understand to what degree I was American and to what degree I was Indian, and how these things can occur simultaneously, in concert, as opposed to in conflict,” he says.

Gamak is named after the term for South Indian melodic ornamentation, but Mahanthappa’s playing also seeks to examine how tunes are traditionally embellished by players of Chinese, African and Indonesian music.

“The way melody is decorated is what gives it the human quality,” he explains. “I was always fascinated by this very specific, almost-science of how this melodic ornamentation occurs. It’s not random at all, it’s very stylised. People always say: ‘You shouldn’t play the melody straight, you have to give some life to it’. Well, that’s all well and good, but how about making a larger conversation about what that actually means, and exploring how it occurs in different parts of the world.”

Mahanthappa changed direction on this year’s Bird Calls, a set of new compositions each inspired by a specific solo or tune by the alto legend Charlie Parker.

For this 16th release, the restless spirit is contemplating either recording music from children’s TV shows from around the globe, collaborating with a comedian and live video artists on a politically-motivated performance piece, or recording a collection of Michael Brecker compositions that the late, great saxophonist never had the chance to record in his lifetime.

“It’s all part of one big journey,” says Mahanthappa. “I still say: ‘I’m a professional musician’. I make albums and tour and perform and do all these things, but sometimes I think the music is just a by-product of me continuing to get myself, to understand who I am as a citizen of the world.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Gamak perform at East Plaza, The Arts Centre, at NYUAD on Tuesday November 24 at 8pm. Limited free tickets available on arrival or from nyuad-artscenter.org

rgarratt@thenational.ae