Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls

By Will Layman 

3 March 2015

Jazz looks forward very well.

If playing and improvising with a personal sound and genuine feeling are the hallmarks of the music, then a great musician is always firmly in the moment, not looking backward. And because the music demands so much and moves pulsingly, dancingly through time, jazz players are always a step ahead.

Rudresh Mahanthappa is a forward-thinker, to be sure. His playing is ripe with feeling and never sounds like a string of licks that he leans back on out of habit. And for his latest, Bird Calls, he has gathered a band that is equally advanced: young and nimble Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Matt Mitchell’s hyper-alert piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums. This record sounds utterly like 2015 in jazz: complex, rhythmically vital, free in spirit while still criss-crossed with mutating structures, and exciting.

For all that rush into the moment, Bird Calls also serves as a peek into history. Mahanthappa has taken melodic and other elements from his greatest jazz inspiration, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and reworked them with the vocabulary of today’s music. Listening to Bird Calls, you will be hard pressed to find specific Parker tunes or licks, but the recording abounds with an abstract refraction of the quicksilver phrasing that made Parker so modern in 1945. There is no “Ornithology” on Bird Calls, but instead Mahanthappa has created a study of the spirit of Parker, an expansion of the essence of Parker, an essay on how current jazz musicians relate to him.

“Birdcalls #3”, for example, is a series of solo saxophone cadenzas that begin or come home to a tricky rising and falling motif, connected by variations and explorations that cut straight into Parker territory (mainly: earthy blues playing that is simultaneously harmonically sophisticated) but also are tinged with personal connections to Mahanthappa’s roots in Indian music. It is both a tour de force and a coherent statement. It also leads into a throbbing minor composition (“Talin is Thinking”, name-checking the leader’s son) that connects harmonically to its introduction while giving the band a thrilling, dramatic set of harmonies to play with. As the leader’s also sax surges through his improvisation, it seems to be parting waters, leading O’Farrill and the rhythm section toward these harmonic shifts. As the band pauses to return to the theme, you have to remember to start breathing again.

Most of Bird Calls is structured in this way, with a short introductory statement, often a solo or duet, that serves to set-up a longer composition for the full band. “Birdcalls #5” is a ruminative piece of solo balladry for Matt Mitchell’s piano, and it leads us into a sumptuous ballad in which Mitchell and Royston’s drums color in sunset hues behind a plaintive theme for alto, trumpet, and the horns together. “Sure Why Not” doesn’t remind me of Charlie Parker directly, but it is harmonically beautiful, and when Mahanthappa’s playing rises out of a bass solo it sounds as ripe and as dramatic as Parker sounded to my ears the first time I heard him. The leader and O’Farrill trade improvised statements, and the two horns sound simpatico like Bird and Diz or Bird and Miles did. That same back-and-forth is featured on the brief closing statement, “Man, Thanks for Coming”, where an urgent up-tempo feeling lets Mahanthappa and O’Farrill jab and parry, probe and prod, dancing across a modern tempo that won’t relent.

Most of Bird Calls works at this faster tempo, as a Parker-related project might be expected to. “Both Hands” gives us a breakneck line played in ensemble by trumpet, alto, and piano, something akin to the sizzling bebop lines that Parker used to play in unison or tight harmony with his bandmates. The thrill of this speed is accentuated by Mahanthappa alternating the fast lines with luxurious half-tempo lines that make the band sound lush and flowing. “Chillin’” comes in at closer to a mid-tempo, but Rudy Royston keeps up a busy accompaniment in double-time. Moulin and Mitchell sit for long stretches on a pedal-point tone that suddenly releases to great, dramatic effect. The music surges and rises. It feel like music as an irresistible force.

On that tune and its introduction (“Birdcalls #2”, which is a saxophone trumpet duet), Mahanthappa is finding strains of Parker in the music of India, sure, but the syncopated drum accents that jab beneath the solos also burble with hip hop rhythms, and the clarion sound of O’Farrill’s trumpet also alludes to the purity and creativity of Freddie Hubbard soloing on “Maiden Voyage”. Similarly, on “Maybe Later”, the reference point seems like the bluesy swagger of a mid-‘60s Blue Note date. Bird Calls works as a summation of the great music that flowed from Parker as much as it is a distillation of Parker’s own work.

And that is how Rudresh Mahanthappa pulls off a forward-looking glimpse at history. the arrow starts with Bird but is moving toward tomorrow most certainly. And while I don’t know that this record feels like it is breaking some new ground, it does feel like the debut of a band that utterly needs to record again. Mitchell and Royston are partners in Dave Douglas’s current band, and their chemistry with Moutin is sublime. And Adam O’Farrill, just a kid, feels like a headline flying off the front of the Times: sizzling and sharp, assured the way you dream of being, and unable to play an obvious line, a cliche, a standard phrase.

The Rudresh Mahanthappa quintet is cracking good on Bird Calls and feels like a band to hear in person, a band that might just spin your head around—twice—their next time out.

For now, we have this astonishing recording, which is everything a band’s debut could hope to be.