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Rudresh Mahanthappa: “Bird Calls”

Jazz at its best: exciting, exhilarating, entirely inventive in the hands of five thrilling musicians.

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Rudresh Mahanthappa (Photo credit: Michelle Smith-Lewis)

Rudresh Mahanthappa (Photo credit: Michelle Smith-Lewis)

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

The return of Rudresh Mahanthappa, composer and alto-saxophonist, to the Jazz Series at Miller Theatre at Columbia University was fabulous. With colleagues Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), Matt Mitchell (piano), Thomson Kneeland (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums), Mahanthappa performed his 2015 Bird Songs, a thrilling collection of pieces that claims a happy descent from the music of Charlie Parker.

Before the concert began, Melissa Smey, Executive Director of the Miller Theatre, offered holiday greetings and thanks for the support and enthusiasm for evenings like this from “adventurous audiences like you.” Adventure is a multi-directional event; it requires both trust and daring among all participants. Both these elements were on full, intense display in this performance.

Mahanthappa’s elegant and exciting compositional voice is well established. His jazz combines the full development of the genre since its inception with the idiom of South Indian classical music which is his personal inheritance. Mahanthappa – among other jazz artists featured in recent years in the Jazz at Miller Theatre series, such as Anat Cohen and Miguel Zenon – has already contributed to an expanded vision of jazz as an American art form that can incorporate global influences; Mahanthappa has indeed been both exemplar and participant in the necessary and welcome twenty-first century examination of the fluid meanings of “American” and “global.”

In Bird Calls – with its lovely double-meaning title – Mahanthappa adds to this examination by placing inheritances from Parker into his own richly textured, complicated writing: his evocation of the Bird’s inventions emphasizes the development of jazz not merely across cultures, but also backwards and forwards across eras. Mahanthappa highlights Charlie Parker’s contributions and also reframes them, lavishing upon them fresh and sweet affection for now and the future.

However, Mahanthappa does not achieve this alone, and part of the vibrant, high-speed and expansive open-heartedness of this performance lay precisely in the fact that Mahanthappa does not claim this music as his only, but shares the creation of it with his remarkable colleagues.

From song to song and sequence to sequence within songs, as the music passed among the individual musicians in solos and in various combinations, each individual artist brought his own style, sensibility and instrumental voice to the music: all contributed to it in a way that made of Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls not merely a convergence of divergent musical influences in composition but also a genuine collaboration in performance. The communication among the musicians was fluent and fluid, sometimes sensuous and sometimes fire-jumping swift; the artists’ appreciation of each other’s playing was palpable.

Mitchell, Kneeland and Weiss are all accomplished composers; even the barely 21-year-old trumpeter O’Farrill has started composing. On the Miller Theatre stage, Bird Calls alternately swayed and crackled, loped and dazzled as the five men created music on Mahanthappa’s score. Pianist Mitchell moved around the whole of the keyboard generating near liquid sound, magically imbued with percussive precision. Bassist Kneeland made the plucked low voice of his instrument sultry and elegant on the one hand and witty and world-weary on the other. Weiss’s drumming embodied a constantly shifting compound of different rhythm traditions, offering, as a result of his own extensive tabla studies, an invariably imaginative partnership with Mahanthappa. And the brilliant young trumpeter O’Farrill combined wild technical skill with a preternaturally wise and wide sense of both artistic values and human stories.

All of this … with Mahanthappa’s own unique and breathtaking virtuosity, his ability to bring a whole world of melodic story and rhythmic invention to a single, sustained explosion of breath, his unerring intelligence and his creative energy.

The jazz of Bird Calls is fun and electrifying; it stays in your bones and is endlessly welcoming. The speed, density and variability of the complex rhythms made listeners simultaneously want to dance and submit to the currents and pulses; tunes, including allusions to Charlie Parker’s songs, connected up jazz’s traditional accounts of human experience with the musicians and the listeners’. In spite of the formidable reputations of these five composers, there were no greedy egos on display in this performance. Instead, this was an evening of musical hospitality, of energy, excitement, and happily shared, exhilarating musical adventure.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls (December 12, 2015)

Miller Theatre at Columbia University

2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan

For more information: call 212-854-7799 or visit http://www.millertheatre.com or http://www.rudreshm.com

Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission

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Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (128 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about music for twenty years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Terepka serves on the Executive Committee of the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and on the Board of National Episcopal Historians and Archivists; she is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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