Rudesh K. Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Rez Abbasi (guitar, sitar); A. Kanya Kumari (violin); Kadri Gopalnath (alto saxophone); Carlo DeRosa (bass instrument, acoustic bass); Royal Hartigan (drums); Poovalur Sriji.
Kinsmen is a groundbreaking project by alto saxophonist Rudresh
Mahanthappa (roo-DRESH muh-HAHN-tha-pa) that melds jazz with
South Indian music into a single organic whole. Mahanthappa,
recently named a Top 10 alto saxophonist in the 2008 DownBeat
Critic's Poll, is one of the most innovative young musicians in jazz
today. Kinsmen is his collaboration with Kadri Gopalnath, a living
legend of Indian music known as "The Emperor of the Saxophone," a
true innovator in bringing the saxophone to Indian classical music.
The music on Kinsmen, featuring their co-led Dakshina Ensemble,
is exemplar of successful multicultural, transnational collaboration.
Utilizing his extensive knowledge of both jazz and the traditional
melodic and rhythmic concepts of Indian music, Mahanthappa has
masterfully provided a framework that has brought out the best in all
the musicians, resulting in spectacular interaction and virtuosic
displays from Gopalnath, A. Kanyakumari on violin and Rez Abassi
on guitar. The band also features Poovalur Sriji on Mridangam
(South Indian barrel drum), Carlo de Rosa on acoustic bass and
royal hartigan on drums.
For Mahanthappa, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado to Indian
immigrant parents, the pull of Indian classical music didn't come until
his college years, when he toured India with the Berklee College of
Music All-Stars and was lucky to attend an all-night concert outside
of Bangalore where he heard both Carnatic (South Indian) and
Hindustani (North Indian) music performed by greats such as
Parween Sultana and Chitti Babu. As a young jazz musician,
Rudresh saw the parallels between Indian music and jazz with both
being improvised art forms with inherently strong rhythmic
propulsion. Though he grappled for a way to embrace his Indian-
American identity through his music, Rudresh could not find a clear
entry point as he had no awareness of any saxophone tradition in
classical Indian music. Then one evening, moments after the
conclusion of one of his recitals at Berklee, Rudresh's older brother
gave him a CD (as congratulatory gift and as a joke) called
Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Golpalnath. A complete eyeopener,
the CD provided a doorway into the realm of musical
possibilities for Rudresh through which he could finally engage the
music of his ancestry.
A few years later, Mahanthappa managed to meet Kadri backstage
at a Carnatic concert in Boston. Golpalnath was not only ecstatic to
meet an Indian-American jazz saxophonist, but one of South Indian
roots with a name that he deemed to have a powerful Hindu meaning - Rudresh, in Sanskrit, refers to a fierce incarnation of Shiva who
saved the human race and Mahanthappa is derived from the same
roots as "mahatma," or "great soul." Though not trained in jazz,
Gopalnath too saw the similarities between the art forms and was
enthusiastic about the possibility of joining forces at some point.
This became a reality when, with the help of a Rockefeller Grant and
a commission from New York City's Asia Society, Rudresh traveled
to Chennai (Madras) in 2005 to work with Kadri at what would
eventually become the music on Kinsmen.
Mahanthappa set out to create a body of music that draws on the
strengths of both the American and Indian musicians - a music that
embodies the rhythmic diversity and harmonic complexity of jazz and
the melodic and metrical rigor of Indian classical music. Utilizing
Indian ragas, songs, and rhythmic cycles as a starting point, he
composed new melodies and harmonies that connect them with a
jazz sensibility. About the collaboration, Rudresh says, "The piece is
really about finding this middle ground where we're both comfortable
playing in this setting that is half-Western and half-South Indian, and
maybe pushing to a point where it actually becomes neither."
Because there is no real tradition of composing new works in Indian
classical music - the songs are typically ancient and derived from
the Vedas - Mahanthappa initially encountered some hesitation from
Golpalnath. Rudresh continues, "Eventually though, I would just ask
Kadri to think of something contrapuntally to play with my parts, and
he'd sit there and think for a minute and then come up with these
beautiful melodies, these lines weaving in and out of each other. It
was really amazing."
After several months of working together, they collectively
assembled the Dakshina Ensemble and premiered the piece in New
York City in May 2005. In Kinsmen, Mahanthappa has effectively
created something that both stretches the musicians while at the
same time, enables the musicians on both sides to bring their best to
the table. The music burns with passionate interplay:
Mahanthappa's biting attack intertwined with Golpalnath's staccato
outbursts; Kanyakumari's slippery portamento and Abbasi's
Mahavishnu-like single note runs. Rather than "Indo-Jazz fusion,"
the music harmoniously synthesizes the cultural and musical divide,
creating a sound that truly transcends labels and genre.