Rudresh Mahanthappa to perform ‘Bird Calls’ selections tonight

by Kylee Sibilia | 1/27/17 12:00am

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s newest album, “Bird Calls,” may have started as an homage to his lifelong hero, renowned saxophone player and icon Charlie “Bird” Parker, but since its inception, the record has evolved into a fusion of jazz, bird-like motifs and Mahanthappa’s own Indian heritage. Mahanthappa, an accomplished alto saxophonist, will perform a selection of songs from “Bird Calls” tonight at 8 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium. While Mahanthappa composed all of the songs on this album, his performance tonight will be accompanied by Josh Evans on trumpet, Thomson Kneeland on bass, Matt Mitchell on piano and Dan Weiss on drums.

While all of these musicians have received high praise for their work, this particular collaboration is not the group that performed on the original recording of “Bird Calls.” However, Mahanthappa praises the unique sound quality of the new combination.

“Everyone’s energy always adds something different to the spirit of the music, so it’s always exciting for me to pair up different people,” Mahanthappa said. “It’s always fun to see how those combinations play out.”

Mahanthappa certainly knows his way around new combinations, having collaborated on 11 different albums with numerous musicians. In addition to his strong background producing music, Mahanthappa also has experience teaching his craft. In 2016, Mahanthappa was named the director of jazz and the associate director of the program in musical performance at Princeton University. As part of his visit to Hanover for this performance, Mahanthappa taught a master class in saxophone playing in Faulkner Recital Hall on Wednesday. After playing solo for a few minutes, Mahanthappa taught a collection of students how to learn a new solo by ear rather than by transcription.

“It sounded like a structured chaos,” Zoe Guttendorf ’17 said, regarding Mahanthappa’s solo portion of the lesson. Mahanthappa combined several different forms of music for this section, creating a dynamic combination of sounds.

In this respect, Mahanthappa teaches the way he plays — he combines different forms of music to create an entirely new piece. Mahanthappa remembers the exact moment of the inception of his interest in putting different sections of music together.

“I was working on [Charlie Parker’s song ‘Donna Lee’] with a student of mine about twenty years ago, and we were taking little bits of the melody kind of in isolation,” Mahanthappa said. “And we were talking about how, taken out of context, these little snippets can sound very modern.”

It was this moment, then, that also eventually led to Mahanthappa’s interest in reviving the work of Charlie Parker, a famous American jazz saxophonist and composer known for his contribution to the development of the bebop movement during the 1940’s.

“It had always been in the back of my mind that maybe there was a way to reexamine Charlie Parker and kind of put all the great things that he gave us in a very modern context, and I think that’s what the album really does,” he said.

Parker’s nickname, “Bird,” led to Mahanthappa’s interest in bird-like motifs. However, despite his influence on the album, Mahanthappa did not cover any of Parker’s songs in the recording. However, Mahanthappa explained that Parker’s influence still permeates the inner workings of each song on the album.

“Every piece on the album is literally tied to a piece of his or a solo of his,” he said. “Are [audience members] going to hear it? I don’t know if they’re going to hear it, but I think I could probably break it down and explain it in a way that somebody would understand.”

With a post-performance discussion following the “Bird Calls” performance, listeners will have an opportunity to question Mahanthappa and other band members on the nature of their music.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Laura Walk ’20 said. “It’s really great when a performer gives you an element to listen for during the performance.”

Downbeat named “Bird Calls” its number one album of the year, and it tied for the same honor in National Public Radio Music’s 2015 Jazz Critics Poll. Mahanthappa, a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2015 United States Artist Fellow, is excited for young people to hear jazz and appreciate its vivacious qualities.

“Jazz is very much a living art form,” he said. “I think there’s a sense that jazz is your grandfather’s music, and I think it would be great if [Dartmouth students] could come to the show and see how jazz is just as relevant to them as it is to anybody else.”

Attendees of tonight’s performance will be exposed not only to the lively sounds of jazz music but also to the fascinating personality of Mahanthappa, who treated those who attended his master class to a glimpse of this charisma while explaining the importance of working hard to perfect one’s musical craft.

“We should all be the best at what we’re trying to do, whether that’s playing the saxophone or making chocolate cake,” Mahanthappa said. “It’s worth being great at something.”