East is East and West is West and the twain met in a whirlwind of sound Monday night as alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet opened Winnipeg International Jazz Festival's mainstage series with a blast.
Mahanthappa, known for his seamless melding of jazz and South Indian classical music, opened with a repeated phrase on alto before the rest of the band joined in on Waiting Is Forbidden from his current CD, Gamak.
And when the band kicks in, it really kicks, especially guitarist David (Fuse) Fiuczynski, who alternated between wailing and comping throughout the show.
Fiuczynski's guitar is the perfect foil to Mahanthappa's saxophone and they traded off solo spots during the two-hour concert, and were intensely attuned to each other when playing together.
Mahanthappa showed his greatness on the alto saxophone with his ability to play delicately in one musical section, then with a fiery intensity in another. He has the quick-fingered dexterity and clarity of bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, if not the penchant for using songbook standards as a stepping stone to tour de force, rapid-fire performances.
Mahanthappa's songbook draws from influences such as Indian ragas and Javanese gamelan.
Abhogi, another tune from Gamak, for example, is drawn from South and North Indian traditions, "but we didn't follow either tradition," he explained of the number that featured intense alto playing, slide guitar and a tasty duo section by Canadian bassist Rich Brown and drummer Dan Weiss.
The saxophonist has an open, engaging smile that was evident throughout the show as he enjoyed the solo spots of band members.
Mahanthappa played a simply beautiful, lyrical solo on Stay I, a composition inspired by a highway sign on the New Jersey Turnpike that was supposed to read Stay In Lane but gave a very different message with its malfunctioning lights.
On the other hand, he played at breakneck speed on Lots Of Interest, whose title comes from a phrase Mahanthappa heard on an NPR business show.
The band's wall-of-sound style worked well, for the most part, but there were a couple of spots where Fiuczynski's in-your-face playing threatened to overpower some great alto playing by Mahanthappa.
It is an intense band, performing music far removed from the Broadway show-tune canon of so much jazz, which is what jazz should be about. There's nothing wrong with familiar music performed well, but the base has to expand and Mahanthappa is helping stretch the borders. Besides, he plays a hell of an alto sax.