Mother Tongue

Rudresh Mahanthappa

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Mother Tongue Review

by Don Snowden

If there's any complaint about the creative bond (symbiosis? telepathy?) between alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and pianist Vijay Iyer, it's a mutual tendency towards the cerebral and conceptual. It's impossible to deny the freshness of the music but their focus can bring an aura of severity that at times makes you wish the two would just lighten up and have some fun playing.

Mother Tongue, Mahanthappa's third disc as a leader, offers no indication of anything other than business as usual at first glance. The disc is part of a larger suite based on the different languages spoken by people from India, supported by grants from major arts-funding organizations. It's an intriguing idea, using the speech patterns drawn from interviews to fashion the music, but still a bit daunting -- severe side again, no?

Well, surprise, folks -- maybe it's that good old human dimension, but "The Preserver" takes off like a shot with Mahanthappa's alto flashing a lighter, brighter tone than his familiar tartness. There's something like an orthodox "jazz tune" structure here and Iyer actually comps in a vaguely Monk-ish vein with a light touch. It's way more freewheeling blowing than we're accustomed to from these two, and Mahanthappa blows up another serious storm playing the kind of extended scale runs he rarely employs on the fractured-with-flow "Telugu."

The stabbing melody lines to "English," intricate and extended, is more Mahanthappa's norm, with Fran├žois Moutin's bass prominent as counterpoint. The lighter, lyrical tone returns for the up-tempo "Gujarati," where the cadences of the speech rhythms are apparent. "Circus" is a journey with Elliot Humberto Kavee's drums typically light beneath Iyer trills and Mahanthappa's climbing scalar runs as he explores all the melodic strands he can find. The dynamics drop down for a brief Kavee break-out while Moutin and Iyer support him with fractured near oom-pahs, before it heads for a lush, stately finale except for double-timing on out on the fade. Your basic head-solo-head composition, in other words.

Like "Circus," the fragmented "Konkani" finds Iyer filling in some holes in the melody line Mahanthappa is playing -- or maybe it's vice versa because the way these two fit their lines together, you never know what, where, when, or how they're going. And the way the extended, rippling lines tone down behind Moutin's bass lead on "Malayalam" shows it's all four players, because there's little soloist/rhythm sections distinction and who is soloing and who is supporting is pretty much up in the air.

"Kannada" is a gorgeous long melody line with a yearning ballad flavor by Mahanthappa -- his tonal range has expanded greatly since Black Water. Iyer's solo there goes cascading down scales, while the slower "Tamil" goes outside with rumbling left-hand clusters that Mahanthappa extends farther. "Change of Perspective" opens with the saxophonist blowing a cappella, picking his spots before unfolding into a gentle ballad that progressively unwinds, speeds up, goes free, and winds back down to a soft landing while remaining organic all the way.

Mother Tongue sounds like a major advance from the far-from-shabby Black Water for Rudresh Mahanthappa. As a player, there's a greatly expanded range to his playing and a much wider tonal palette. Technical stuff aside, the human speech element worked wonders, lightening up the music and making it more dynamic. Bet the musicians had some fun developing the ideas and playing around with the material, and that's always nice to hear, especially with these guys.

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