Rudresh Mahanthappa

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Samdhi Review

by Thom Jurek

In his liner notes to Samdhi, saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa states flat-out that his earliest jazz influences were Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets. What those acts had in common was their direct expression of emotion in melodic forms; their use of electric instruments; and their use of soul, R&B, and funk. Mahanthappa's exploration of jazz eventually expanded to the tradition, from bop to modal to free and post-bop along the way. That said, he's also pointed the way in his journey by adding elements of the Carnatic tradition of South Indian classical music into his playing and compositions. "Samdhi" is a Sanskrit word that translates as "twilight," but its meaning extends to a spiritual context, to the phase that exists between when one age is destroyed and another is born. On this album, Mahanthappa -- who in recent years has also become fascinated with the electronic sounds of dance music as well as hip-hop -- has seamlessly woven together all of his musical interests. This is an electro-acoustic band, whose members include former M-Base guitarist David Gilmore, electric bassist Rich Brown, drummer Damion Reid, and Indian percussionist "Anand" Anantha Krishnan. Mahanthappa plays alto and works loops, sonic processing, and samples via a laptop as well. Samdhi is full of beautifully written tunes, dicey, sophisticated improvisation, and abundant grooves. What's immediately apparent upon listening is how tight and communicative this meld of new jazz, Indian music, and electronic fare really is. While tunes like "Playing with Stones" and "Breakfastlunchanddinnner" get deep into the soulful expression and funkiness of '70s and early-'80s jazz (the latter with a knockout solo by Gilmore), these tunes also have moments when Indian music and its modal spaciousness play a role, too. In "Killer," the swerving, tight-turn head is pure Indian polychromatic invention. And halfway in, Mahanthappa processes his own saxophone solo and doubles it tonally. "Still-Gas" even more effectively marries Indian music to jazz improvisation, even as Gilmore and Brown vamp on forward-looking funk. The ballad "For All the Ladies," with its subdued but rumbling percussion by Krishnan and Reid, is dynamic, melodically rich, and emotionally abundant. Mahanthappa's electric band is completely thrilling throughout Samdhi, playing more as an ensemble than as a soloist's backing group. Ironically, it is their precision that makes this blur of styles a many-colored and textured thing that feels whole and specific as jazz. Fusion? Indeed. But despite the ugly tinge that word has in relation to jazz, it is redefined here because fusion has never sounded like this before.

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