Rudresh Mahanthappa, one of his generation's best jazz musicians and the June 17 mainstage opener for this year's Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, admits to less than spiritual reasons for picking up the alto saxophone.
"I chose sax in band class at nine because I heard the bari (baritone sax) could rest on the floor and vibrate and shake ornaments. My mom had ornaments from around the world," Mahanthappa says from his home in New Jersey.
"And my brother played clarinet in band class and he determined the jazz players seemed to be having more fun. I wish I could say I heard Charlie Parker and had a life-changing moment, but...."
But Parker, the legendary alto saxophonist known as Bird, did play a part in Mahanthappa's ultimate jazz path.
Mahanthappa, hailed for his seamless melding of jazz and South Indian classical music, credits a great teacher in Boulder, Colo., where he grew up, for showing him how to make music with integrity. He exposed him to the sound of Grover Washington Jr., Sidney Bechet, Ornette Coleman, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers and the Yellowjackets.
"Then I heard Bird and my fate was sealed," Mahanthappa says. "I was determined. In the seventh grade I had a band playing Bird tunes. In the ninth grade I was writing my own tunes."
So, that explains the love of jazz. His parents had a few North and South Indian records which, he says, are the equivalent of Christian hymns.
"It's great music," he says. "That's where Indian classical music comes from, those spiritual songs."
It's difficult to meld the two, however.
"The music has to represent how I relate to it," Mahanthappa says. "I feel Indian, American, both or neither, 24 hours a day. So many fusion projects didn't work. Any avid listener has heard the superficial use of Eastern music in Western music."
But breaking these musics down into their conceptual building blocks allows the saxophonist and composer to create a successful fusion.
"People always expected me to be an expert on Indian music because of my name and the colour of my skin," Mahanthappa says. "That put pressure on me. It was a disaster.
"A way to address my ancestry was by picking apart the music and putting it back together in a way that felt right. I had to get to a point with my knowledge of Indian music and my musical maturity.
Mahanthappa is the recent winner of the Doris Duke Performing Artists Award and was named for the fifth straight time the Jazz Journalists Association's alto saxophonist of the year. At 42, he's part of the first large generation of Indians to make an impact on American culture.
His latest recording project, Gamak, is a prime example of that. His band includes guitarist David (Fuze) Fiuczynski, bassist Rich Brown and drummer Dan Weiss.
Fiuczynski is a vibrant guitarist and a spark in the Gamak recording, which features melodies written for the sax-guitar pairing. Fuze is a perfect fit for Mahanthappa's musical vision because he already is a microtonal guitarist, so he doesn't have to adjust his style to play the South Indian themes.
It is a multi-hued recording with adventurous, driving sounds.
Mahanthappa's prowess on the alto, and the deluge of musical ideas, is what makes the disc so enjoyable and what promises to give the fest's opening concert some kick.
Rudresh Mahanthappa performs June 17, 8 p.m., at West End Cultural Centre; tickets $28. Other mainstage shows include: Patricia Barber Quartet, June 18, at the WECC; Bettye Lavette, June 19, Burton Cummings Theatre; Preservation Hall Jazz Band, June 20, the Burt; Jane Monheit, June 21, the Burt; The Roots, June 22, Centennial Concert Hall; Courtney Pine, June 22, WECC; and George Benson, June 23, the Burt.
Tickets for the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, which runs June 13-23, are available at jazzwinnipeg.com, 204-989-4656 and at the Jazz Winnipeg office (007-100 Arthur St.). Tickets for Burton Cummings Theatre and Centennial Concert Hall shows are also available at Ticketmaster.
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Winnipeg saxophonist Walle Larsson will give Winnipeggers a taste of his new CD, One Step Closer, on June 23 when he opens for guitarist George Benson's jazz festival show.
The disc, which was recorded in Stockholm and Los Angeles, will be released at The Nugget in Reno, Nev., on June 5 with a Winnipeg release on July 14, 7:30 p.m., in a free concert at the Lyric Theatre in Assiniboine Park, Larsson says.
The disc features performances from Steve Oliver on guitar, Tony Moore on drums, Darryl Williams on bass and Tom Schuman (Spyro Gyra) on keyboards, the saxophonist adds.
On Sunday nights in July and August Larsson and his band will host artists such as Carol Welsman, Brian Simpson and Nick Colionne at the Lyric.
A single, Beaches, recently hit No. 1 on New York's Music Choice singles chart this week, he said.