Rudresh Mahanthappa is a killer alto player – you’ve maybe heard his work with Vijay Iyer, that’s where I was first introduced to his sound. But he’s gone on to make over a dozen recordings under his own name and collaborate with other leading lights in modern jazz. Here he pays tribute to some of his musical heroes with an album that features a long-serving rhythm section in what’s known as a “cordless trio” – that very configuration seems a tribute to both Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman; both masters of this format – saxophone, upright bass and drums.
Mahanthappa’s rhythm section is the stalwart drummer Rudy Royston (I saw him live with Bill Frisell a couple of years back – Holy Shit!) and French bassist Francois Moutin (who has worked with everyone! and brings a rich chordal sound to his bass work, creating guitar-like frequencies and textures as well as bringing the deep rhythmic anchor).
It really is a hero trio and it’s an explosive set bookended by Charlie Parker tributes (Red Cross to open, Dewey Square to close). There are lots of lovely standards (I’ll Remember April) – in most cases they’re all but given a nudge down the stairs really, as Mahanthappa goes glottal in chase of Coleman, roars up with that warm-fire Rollins tone and turns tricks in the spaces offered by this sympathetic and dynamic rhythm section (I Can’t Get Started).
One of the really nice surprises here is the version – and arrangement – of Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed. Little splashes of samba colour remain deep within the funk-feel of the tune but Rudresh’s horn pokes out over the rhythm to hint at new directions. It really is lovely, respectful and innovative all at once.
Re-arranging keyboard-driven tunes for horn seems to be a speciality for Mahanthappa as he turns Keith Jarrett’s The Windup into something you might have expected Dave Brubeck’s remaining quartet members to work on while their boss was on break.
Ornette Coleman’s Sadness gives Moutin a chance to work his bow and make all manner of bass noises as soundscape and sound-scrape beneath a mournful dream of saxophone wash and Royston’s rolling toms.
And in the nice-surprise/leftfield-takes category is the other tune from the pop world – or country world even: Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire is here played as a two-stepping straight-ahead rockabilly piece – with bop inflections. Maybe the link is in the cordless trio format; making a jazz-noise version of the slap-back sound of the Tennessee Two and The Man in Black. Maybe it’s just a song they like. At any rate I’m glad to hear Rudresh rushing through a set of songs by many of his heroes. He colours them nicely. He makes new shapes. He reminds you of old wonders. And he and his band are effortlessly inventive here. This is brilliant.
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