Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 11, 2008

Review of Samdhi by Rudresh Mahanthappa

Sun Ra(ga)

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Rudresh Mahanthappa




For several years now, the unifying concept behind much of jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s music has been language.On Mother Tongue, he addressed this directly, changing the voices and passions of peoples’ linguistic differences into pieces of music. On Codebook, Mahanthappa abstracted this ritual by a few steps: cryptography became, similarly, the basis for his musical voice.

With the world premier of Samdhi, as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts last night, the New York City-based, world-renowned musician has taken a further step back, building a new musical grammar by slotting the improvisational-jazz mastery of his quintet into the grammatical playbook of Carnatic Indian raga rules. And the result is not just new and beautiful, it’s physical; substantive; a music that moves the air almost visibly, enveloping the listener in its own performative microclimate.

What Mahanthappa learned on his sojourn to India to study the hydra-like tradition of Carnatic music, seems to be that there is an unknowable power within earnestly kept traditions; that the “rules” of music, which creative jazz so frequently seeks to work outside of, have often survived as “rules” for a reason. So, when bassist Rich Brown studiously plucks away at his bass strings, creating a percussive replication of a classical raga’s drone notes, it might prove more of a physical than a musical challenge. (At times, Brown seemed ready to implode from his constant task.) But linked to Damion Reid’s drumming – melding the frenetic flurries of Indian percussion to an Art Blakey-like time keeping – and Anand Ananthakrishnan’s impressionistic mridangam, the result is a canvas of complexly interwoven series of melodies and rhythms.

For most of Samdhi‘s pieces, this canvas is one upon which Mahanthappa and guitarist David Gilmore add layer upon layer of colors and shapes: Mahanthappa has certainly not missed out on Indian classical music’s love of a grandiose build-up. And few musicians could call upon such a complementary melodic partnership – Mahanthappa and Gilmore are yin and yang, completing each other’s musical sentences, stabbing forward and pulling back with instinctive aplomb.

With any brand-new set of music – particularly one, like Samdhi, in a new grammar – there are gears yet to be aligned. Mahnathappa’s interstitial experiments with saxophone, laptop and pedal-driven sequencers seem more like first shots in a basement compared to the exquisite body of the primary pieces.

But the freshness of the music can also provide unforeseen brilliance. The wink-and-a-nod addition of flourishes and emphases to various phrases – at one point, Ananthakrishnan and Brown nodded to one another and, of their own accord, locked into a momentary Carnatic-funk groove that really ought to be the basis for a band in and of itself. And when Ananthakrishnan, on mridangam, and Reid, on drum kit, performed their percussion-only duet, each copying the other’s language on his instrument, it seemed only more likely that a new, furious rhythmic music was ready to be born: A highlight of the night.

Samdhi, in its debut live performance, proved that there is an almost spell-like power lent to jazz when profoundly creative musicians choose to apply an ancient modal and rhythmic grammar to their abilities. As though, by repeating and reworking these musical phrases, Mahanthappa & Co. were able to conjure something both ancient and futuristic; a musical golem, assembled from the air by the nonverbal speaking of a Sanskrit word: Samdhi

One more chance to see Samdhi – tonight at the New Hazlett Theater! Click through for more information and tickets.


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