Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Rudresh Mahanthappa
You could spend damn near a year listing all the jazz alto saxophonists who owe a debt to bebop icon Charlie Parker. The alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is quick to acknowledge Parker was one of his main musical influences. 

To this very day, Parker influence remains a big part of Mahanthappa's playing. He has a new album that was released nationwide Tuesday. He titled the album “Bird Calls” and it is a tribute to the late bebop icon. Mahanthappa opted not to put his spin on some of Parker’s well-known bop classics. 

Instead, he infused new compositions with snippets of Parker’s works, and then he assembled an excellent group to execute the new material. The result is a Charlie Parker tribute album unlike any other. 

I Dig Jazz emailed a batch of questions to Mahanthappa about the making of “Bird Calls” and the impact Parker has had on him as a player. Here’s how Mahanthappa broke it down.

How has Charlie Parker influenced you?

It’s hard to sum up in a few sentences.  His innovative spirit and joyful presentation are the most influential traits.  He was obviously a genius but the ways in which I am affected by his work go beyond the music and transcend more towards a template for overall communication and expression as an artist and as a human being.

Can you recall your first exposure to Parker's music?

Of course, it was an album called "Archetypes" that my first saxophone teacher had loaned me.

Has Parker always been your chief influence? If not, where does he rank among your musical influences?

I don’t think it behooves anyone to rank ones influences.  The palette of impactful moments and experiences is so wide ranging.  He’s a very strong influence and maybe more importantly, an early one as I first heard his work when I was very young. Those artists who first inspire one to play or practice are so significant. 

What inspired "Bird Calls"?

The concept behind Bird Calls was an idea that had been marinating in my brain for several years.  I had always considered that further dissection of Parker’s work could yield fresh and intriguing compositional ideas beyond the normal extraction of “licks” that have become be-bop cliches.  "Donna Lee" was the most blatant example to me of a piece that contains a plethora of modern material that defies genre and style.

How long did the album take to make, and were there any obstacles you had to overcome?

The music was constructed in several phases over 1½ years as I had other projects going simultaneously and did not yet know that I would be recording this Bird experiment. The process started with writing a few tunes for a concert at Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s Lost Jazz Shrines series where I had been asked to put together a program that somehow paid homage to Charlie Parker. 

A few months later, I presented this project again with a few more tunes at The Stone in NYC. The band debuted in its full formation with the album set of material at the Newport Jazz Festival this past year and we recorded a few days later.  The main obstacle concerned finding myriad modes and strategies to convey Parker’s musical wizardry while maintaining my own voice as a composer.

Why did you decide to compose new music instead of playing some of Parker's signature works?

I don’t believe playing Parker’s music adequately pays tribute to the gifts that he bequeathed to us.  It’s much more important to show his lasting impact on the shape of modern music.  That is something that goes well beyond the scope of performing his compositions.

How challenging was it working chunks of Parker's music into your original compositions?

Working in “chunks of Parker's music” is an over simplification. Each of my compositions for this album has a unique strategy in how Parker’s music is utilized. Sometimes it’s rhythmic content of something he played, other times it might be a snippet of a melody that has been re-contextualized.  Each piece is tied to a particular Bird tune or solo but that tie varies greatly from piece to piece. So keeping that in mind, it was very challenging to keep my approach fresh through out the album.

Do you see yourself someday making an album of Parker's compositions?

No. That does not interest me at all.

You have a world-class group in trumpeter Adam O'Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin, and drummer Rudy Royston. Adam O'Farrill's playing throughout the album was exceptional. How important was he to the project?

It was important to me to have a trumpet player on the album, as I wanted to maintain that front line sound of Bird and Diz (or Miles, Herb Pomeroy, etc).  I had been hearing about Adam for a while so I did some YouTube research and was blown away. Beyond being a forward-thinking prodigy, Adam is a wonderful human being and perfect fit for the band. I hope that we will play together for years to come.

if you had the chance to meet Parker, what would you have said to him?

I would say “thank you” and probably give him a kiss and long hug.

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