Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls
(ACT 9581-2. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)
Almost 60 years after his death, Charlie “Bird” Parker is one of the most copied saxophone players and his influence pervades much contemporary jazz. In Bird Calls, Trieste-born, New York-based alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa avoids imitation and translates Parker’s classic music into the language of the 21st century.
Even familiar tunes are so rigorously transformed that one has to delve deeply to appreciate what’s going on. For instance, On the DL – which includes an energetic drum feature for Rudy Royston – is based on “Donna Lee”, but the source material is completely deconstructed and only the briefest fragments remain. Maybe Later is built from the rhythm of Parker’s solo on “Now’s the Time” and has a totally different melody; you’d have to be highly skilled to get this without prompting! During Gopuram (the tower at the entrance to a temple), the religious ritual of circumambulation is referenced in a humorously veiled take on “Steeplechase”.
Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill is definitely one to watch. Just out of his teens, the son of pianist Arturo (and grandson of the late Chico) has worked with the likes of Benny Golson and Kenny Burrell and co-leads an ensemble with his drummer brother Zack. Recalling Parker with Dizzy Gillespie, Both Hands – drawn from “Dexterity” – starts with a fast unison figure for alto and trumpet. When the horns separate, O’Farrill plays with the assurance and controlled swagger of, say, Woody Shaw and Charles Tolliver.
There are five short pieces entitled Bird Calls. Some are introductions to more substantial creations, others appear to stand alone. The first, for the full quintet, has echoes of Mahanthappa’s South Indian heritage; the fourth is a bass solo, during which you can visualise François Moutin’s sweat flying as his hands blur over the fingerboard. Another spotlights the excellent pianist Matt Mitchell.
Not everything is obscure. The stately ballad Sure Why Not? dispenses with the metres of “Confirmation” and “Barbados”, yet parts of their themes are left intact. Chillin’ – an exhilarating re-working of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” – is another highlight. Mahanthappa delivers one of his most powerful solos on Talin is Thinking, which is named after his young son and rooted in “Parker’s Mood”. He says, “….what I play still sounds like Bird, just a little displaced. It’s coming from the same language and the same foundations”.
Actually, I don’t think that Mahanthappa sounds like Bird at all; he doesn’t possess Parker’s bluesy rhythmic drive, and his tone is more rounded. But it’s not about imitation. Mahanthappa’s compositions on Bird Calls are an intelligent and timely tribute to one of the greatest figures in jazz, and his new album rewards close attention.