Six Degrees of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Gamak

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 02.07.13 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa sometimes looks for ways to bridge jazz and South Indian music, as on his celebrated two-alto collaboration with Kadri Gopalnath, Kinsmen. On Gamak, Mahanthappa's point of departure is the gamakas, the specific ways Indian classical musicians sculpt a note: sliding into it from just above or below, intensifying it with wide or narrow leaps, ending it with an upward swoop; it's these rococo designs that give Indian melodies their distinctive character. Mahanthappa has written striking tunes with the same sort of pungent inflections ("Abhogi," "Stay I," "We'll Make More"), developing the details with input from his frontline partner, microtonal guitarist David Fiuczynski. Mahanthappa's bandmate in Jack DeJohnette's quintet, Fiuczynski makes Indian swerves and blues string-bends sound like they're part of the same tradition. With its Carnatic saxophone jitters and slide guitar, "Abhogi" sounds like a Gopalnath/Beefheart mashup. Dan Weiss applies his knowledge of tabla beat-cycles to the trap set; Francois Moutin is the jazz anchor on bass.

Roots, For The Home Team

Mahanthappa ally Kadri Gopalnath struck out on his own path decades ago, when he began playing Indian classical music on saxophone. India didn't lack for reed players he could look to for inspiration. In the South, musicians play the double-reed nadaswaram; in the North, the shorter quadruple-reed shehnai. In construction, they're similar to the oboe, though the comparison doesn't do justice to their blaring, quavery, insinuating tone. These loud horns were mainly for festive occasions and outdoor use until Ustad Bismillah Khan brought shehnai into the concert hall and spread its fame well beyond India. You know that pinched, nasal tone jazz soprano saxophonists get? You can trace it back to John Coltrane's admiration for Khan, more of an apparent influence on Trane's soprano sound than Steve Lacy or Sidney Bechet. On alto, Rudresh Mahanthappa can sneak into that harsh downhome sound too — one more arrow in his sonic/conceptual quiver.

Guitar As Sitar

Western musicians felt the call of subcontinental music in the early 1960s, when Coltrane recorded his undulating "India," and Bud Shank, Gary Peacock and Louis Hayes jammed with Ravi Shankar on "Fire Night." Rockers carried the torch from there. Before George Harrison plucked beginner's sitar on "Norwegian Wood," the Yardbirds waxed "Heart Full of Soul" with a sitar lead, replaced in the end by Jeff Beck playing the same line with more punch on fuzz guitar. So began "raga rock" — raga being any of India's fastidiously sequenced scales that give a particular color to a performance, the way the blues scale and traditional ways of manipulating it tint that genre. The Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down" was prime raga rock, with Beck's irresistible sitary guitar hook. Its one-chord boogieing had a faint raga feel, obscuring the tune's Bill Haley roots. More of Beck's sting-and-sustain sitar inflections crop up on the 1966 album that hit appeared on, even moreso on the bonus-track version where Jimmy Page joins him on "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," with its psychedelic modern-art sound collage.

East Meets West, More Or Less

Indo Jazz Fusions

The Joe Harriott-John Mayer Double Quintet

India having been part of the British Empire explains why many '60s stylistic fusions took place in the UK. Anglo-Indian composer John Mayer came over from Kolkata, eventually teaming with Anglo-West Indian alto saxophonist (and early free jazzer) Joe Harriott. Their Double Quintet was Harriott's two-horn combo plus an Indian-style ensemble with classical flute, Mayer's violin, sitar, droning-strings tambura and tabla. Mayer wrote the stairstep melodies and called the shots — say, improvise using these six notes, over this 10-beat bass line: Indian music dumbed down for outlanders and insiders alike. The music sounds a bit stiff and bachelor pad-y on 1965's Indo-Jazz Suite, save when Harriott veers out of bounds. By Indo-Jazz Fusions the next year, the sound was more fluid and organic, the collective better integrated and more at ease. Harriott and trumpeter Shake Keane wing across amiably bustling backdrops; the jazz rhythm section and sitarist Diwan Motihar roll with Mayer's (still sometimes dippy) concept.

East Really Meets West

Shakti with John McLaughlin

Shakti with John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is a very fast guitarist, as he demonstrated with '70s-fusion champs the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That band's name spoke to India's influence on speedy metrical jazz rock — just as fusion and India both inform Gamak's precision drills. McLaughlin was especially drawn to India's rhythmic language, built on long complex beat cycles, the talas. Post-Mahavishnu, he put together an unplugged band that was a lot less loud but could be even more intense: the crosscultural Shakti, with L. Shankar bending scales on violin and two or three crackling Indian percussionists including Zakir Hussain on tabla. Westerners may miss how radical the best of their music was. The rocketing "Joy" is Indian music with no time for droning: percussionists from Northern and Southern traditions mesh to set up an Anglo-Irish picker shredding on acoustic.

Bringing It All Back Home


Dave Holland Quartet

Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of many younger altoists indebted to Steve Coleman's slippery time and tonality, his oblique ways of relating improvised lines to underlying chords. Cascading saxophone lines all over Gamak betray the influence. Mahanthappa is also inspired by how Coleman puts his own old-world heritage to personal uses, drawing on the overlapping rhythm cycles in West African choral musics. Such wheels-within-wheels likewise fascinate the bass titan who spotlighted Coleman in the '80s, Dave Holland. His 1989 Extensions was Mahanthappa's introduction to Coleman's playing and composing. Steve's "Black Hole" has his characteristic tumbling phrases, reversible rhythms and twisty melodic motion, while slinky Coleman ballads such as "101° Fahrenheit" echo in Mahanthappa's "Are There Clouds in India?" Rounding out Holland's hip young crew are guitarist Kevin Eubanks at his pre-Leno creative best, and ultra-tasty drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith. Guess Mahanthappa liked the lineup; Gamak has the same instrumentation.