Friday, March 27, 2009

Saxophone East and West

Two recent musical discoveries prompt me today toward a brief exploration of how the saxophone has lent itself to differing interpretations by Rudresh Mahanthappa, a saxophonist raised by Indian-born parents in Boulder, Colorado and now thriving in New York jazz circles, and Andrew Morris, a British practitioner on the same instrument currently living in Bangladesh and performing there and abroad with a local group, "Arnob and Friends".

I first heard Mahanthappa in a dual concert with the South Indian saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath two or three years ago at Washington's Freer and Sackler Galleries, the oriental branches of the Smithsonian Institutution, America's national museum. I was particularly eager to hear Gopalnath, who has miraculously transformed a western instrument which customarily uses fixed pitches, primarily in jazz idioms, into a perfect vehicle for South Indian (Carnatic) classical music, which depends heavily upon microtonal glides and ornaments between notes in a musical line that is exceptionally fluid in its articulation. Examples of his distinctive performance style can be found on the "Shopping" section on his own Website, as well as on YouTube.

(As a momentary aside, a similar transformation of the essentially fixed-pitch western mandolin has been achieved by the prodigy Mandolin U. Shrinivas, whose own fluidly melodic miracles--albeit in a world music fusion style--can be heard on samples from his album "Samjanitha", as well as on various YouTube sites).

But to return to Mahanthappa: the artist was recently profiled in a superb New Yorker article by the senior jazz critic Gary Giddins, who focuses on two of the artist's albums, "Kinsmen" and "Apti", both of which he describes as being nothing short of "astonishing" (click on the links to hear samples). Giddins notes, among other things, Mahanthappa's collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer (of whom more in a later blog), in the process of trying to define his own musical identity in a journey between elements both western and eastern, including a period of study and collaboration with the aforementioned Gopalnath.

I've not yet had the opportunity to listen to the two albums that are so perceptively reviewed by Giddins, but will have my own comments on them once I can obtain copies. In the meantime, I am happy to refer readers to two fine radio pieces: an extended and illuminating interview of Mahanthappa--including performance samples--from the marvelous NPR (National Public Radio) program "Fresh Air", hosted by Terry Gross, as well as another feature on the artist from All Things Considered, NPR's flagship evening news program. (I also hope to have shortly a link to a VOA Hindi Service interview of the artist by Rohit Kulkarni.)

And as for the television interview of Welsh saxophonist Andrew Morris by Ahsanul Haq of VOA's Bangla Service, you can see and hear it--in English--here. Morris speaks of his work with the band Arnob and Friends for the last two years. A concert video of the group at New York's Symphony Space, with Morris on saxophone, can be seen on the BrooklynVoice Website, along with a review and some of the group's lyrics. A lesser-quality video interview with Arnob, along with concert footage, is available on the WashingtonBanglaRadio Website.

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