Nextbop Interviews Rudresh Mahanthappa

Last October, alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa reunited his trio, the Indo-Pak Coalition which features guitarist Rez Abbasi and tabla player Dan Weiss, for a new LP entitled Agrima, the long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Apti. For this record, Mahanthappa and the group are seen expanding aesthetic horizons: adding a modified drum set, incorporating effects and electronics, and working with a broader audio canvas overall. The core of the band’s sound, the vibrant presence of Indian rhythmic and melodic elements in a charged, modern improvisational framework born of the New York jazz scene, remains firmly in place, but Mahanthappa’s alto is transformed in places by software-driven effects to create strange processed timbres, echoes, decays and soundscapes. We caught up with Mahanthappa to discuss the release.

Sébastien Hélary: You say you want everyone to think of Agrima as if it were “a rock album”. What does that mean to you? How does a rock album differ from a jazz album?

Rudresh Mahanthappa: That was something I said to the band but I guess it would apply the listener as well. For me, that means playing harder and thinking more about the sonic aesthetic. For example, I didn’t want Dan to play any swing feel and I did not want Rez to ever use a clean guitar sound. I also wanted to put a strong emphasis on the written melodies; I want to feel those in the same way I feel a Nirvana song. Aside from the sonic aspects, it’s maybe more of a state of mind than anything else.

SH: You released three albums on ACT, a very prestigious European label. You’re self-releasing this album. It is available as a $2.50 digital download exclusively on your website or as a $40 limited edition double LP. Why go this route? Why are you and more and more musicians going independent?

RM: It’s a big experiment. I was between albums and between labels and had some resources to help release Agrima in this way. It’s been a lot of work but perhaps a good template going forward. This focus of this format is to develop the direct-to-fan relationship. I’ve had albums that sold thousands of copies on iTunes but I have no way of reaching those people who purchased my work directly. I can’t tell them that I have a new release or that I’m going to be on tour in their area, etc. I am dealing with folks who enjoy and support my work in an almost face-to-face fashion. I think that’s pretty cool. It’s a lot of work though!

SH: You also sell very unique merchandise on your website, namely socks and shot glasses (Not something you’d expect from the Director of Jazz at Princeton University) but no T-Shirts or hats. What’s the story there?

RM: I was looking for something unique to sell. The socks finally arrived yesterday and they look great. The indie rock folks are also smart and creative with merchandise. They are far ahead of the jazz world on many fronts.

SH: You don’t hear about a lot of professional musicians coming out of Princeton and it’s not really a renowned jazz program. Can you tell us more about the work you do at Princeton University? Who are your students? What do you teach? What are classes like? What makes you unique as a music program?

RM: Princeton is well known for its graduate programs in Composition and Musicology. Many folks don’t know that the performance programs are quite strong. Most of the students are not music majors and are there to study something else. However, jazz is important to them and it’s my job to provide an enriching program that feeds that need. The scenario is actually better than being at a conservatory or one of the big jazz schools as we are really viewing this music within a larger picture of art, culture, and life. I would love for my students to be able to play Cherokee in 12 keys but it’s ok if they cannot. We can still do interesting things that will promote their creativity and depth. Since most are not planning to play professionally, we are not burdened by the traditional jazz education canon. We can talk about Basie, Zorn, and Steve Lehman all in the same breath and not worry about which music will actually “help” our career. I direct the program and coach two small groups. The top small group is about to have Danilo Perez as a guest in February. We had Walter Smith III in last year. I hired Darcy James Argue to run the Creative Large Ensemble. Last year, we commissioned Billy Childs to write a piece for us and we just performed the Attica Blues Suite with Archie Shepp last week. We have several other ensembles both vocal and instrumental, as well some jazz theory classes a jazz history class. I also created a new advanced improvisation class this semester. We are unique because are in a position to allow ourselves to enjoy and examine jazz as a living art in all of its forms and tap into its creative and spiritual energies without the concern of making a living from it.

SH: On Agrima, you added a modified drum set and incorporated effects and electronics. You released your first album 20 years ago. Why resort to electronics at this point in your career? What made them appealing to you?

RM: I always loved electronics. One of the most influential albums for me is the Brecker Brothers’ Heavy Metal Be-Bop. I used a ton of electronics on an album called Samdhi back in 2011, but that album kind of flew under the radar. The chance to manipulate my sound in this way proposes an endless universe of sonic possibilities.

SH: You say that working with electronics is like learning a new instrument. What motivated you to take on this endeavor? How difficult was it for you to learn this new instrument?

RM: As I said, playing with electronics is not new to me on Agrima but it is something that I have not done a lot. It’s very difficult. Balancing the acoustic and processed sounds is an artistic challenge. The actual physical nature of stepping on pedals and turning knobs while playing is also very hard. It’s a lot to keep track of and something can always go wrong.

SH: As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be?

RM: Good health for my family and me, enough money to not worry, and an educated and compassionate humanity that will actually take care of its own in meaningful and effective ways.

Agrima is out now and can be purchased exclusively on rudreshm.com