Jazz CD Reviews

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Kinsmen – Pi Recordings

May be the best East Indian/jazz hybrid ever recorded.

Published on September 11, 2008

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Kinsmen – Pi Recordings

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Kinsmen – Pi Recordings PI28, 69:17 *****:

(Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; Kadri Gopainath – alto saxophone; A. Kanyakumari – violin; Rez Abassi – guitar; Poovalur Sriji – mridangam; Carlo de Rosa – bass; Royal Hartigan – drums)

Many have sought to blend jazz with East Indian music, with varying success.  Of the better efforts, one thinks of Horn OK Please by the Indica Project, a very fine recording; John Handy’s Musical Dreamland, also worth hearing; Martin Speake’s Journey, one of my favorites; Ry Cooder’s famous Meeting by the River; John Hassell’s perennially popular Fascinoma and its companion, Hollow Bamboo, by Ronu Majumdar; John Wubbenhorst’s brilliant Facing Beloved; the recent  hit Miles From India; and my favorite up till now, drummer Royal Hartigan’s Blood Drum Spirit.  (Interestingly, Hartigan, who hasn’t recorded that much, appears in the drum chair on this disc.)

But none surpasses Kinsmen by Rudresh Mahanthappa.

What makes this session so great is that it retains the best of both East and West even as it brings about a genuine meeting of musical minds.  What often happens is these attempts at world jazz is that one of the partners—usually the world one—is clearly subordinated, making for a kind of musical carpetbagging by the Western jazzers.  That doesn’t happen here, mainly, I think, because leader Mahanthappa, though thoroughly grounded in the world of jazz, is of East Indian descent and makes sure that his ethno-musical heritage doesn’t get short shrift.  The fact of the matter is that jazz and East Indian music share an important element—improvisation—though it works quite differently in each setting.  The trick has been to find ways to fully integrate the two improvisational approaches, and no other recording has ever solved this dilemma more successfully than Kinsmen.  The key is that leader Mahanthappa has assembled a band whose core members (himself, guitarist Abassi, and drummer Hartigan) are thoroughly familiar with both forms of improv.  It’s unlikely that saxophonist Gopainath, violinist Kanyakumari, and mridangam player Sriji have ever played jazz before, but their presence signifies a high level commitment to preserving the integrity of the East Indian piece of the puzzle, and the others find ways to map a genuine jazz sensibility onto their Indian partners’ stylings, something I’ve never heard before.

The high water mark here is certainly “Convergence (Kinsmen),” brilliantly set off in its middle section by a simply amazing progression of solos, first from Rez Abassi, then somehow surpassed by leader Mahanthappa.  When Kanyakumari unleashes his violin solo, much different but strangely continuous with the previous two, we’re in musical territory never before assayed, at least to this listener’s ears.  It’s followed by a mind-blowing passage of “trading eights,” “fours,” and “twos”—solo statements from each player consisting of eight-, four-, and two-bar segments—capped off by some righteous drumming from Hartigan and ending with magical ensemble interplay.  Kinsmen represents the full coming into flower of Rudresh Mahanthappa, a man whose long association with pianist Vijay Iyer has given him a firm grounding in Eastern-tinged jazz.  On this disc he’s taken that formidable legacy and brought it up to a whole new level.  Truly a groundbreaking disc of enormous consequence!

TrackList: Introspection, Ganesha, Rez-Alap, Longing, Snake!, Carlo-Alap, Kalyani, Kadri-Alap, Kanya-Alap, Convergence (Kinsmen)

- Jan P. Dennis




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