Rudresh Mahanthappa was one of the biggest players in jazz last year: he topped year-end polls at NPR and DownBeat for his explosive album Bird Calls (ACT), inspired by Charlie Parker. But his upcoming gig at The Jazz Gallery will harken back to very different time in his life. He’s reconvened Saturn Returns, a group he formed in 2001 with pianist James Hurt. (The group played at the Gallery in May 2001.) The long dormant group will fly back into action, featuring group originals Hurt and David Gilmore on guitar, as well as Anthony Tidd on bass and Gene Lake on drums.
We spoke to Mahanthappa this week; here are excerpts of that conversation.
The Jazz Gallery: What is the origin of this band?
Rudders Mahanthappa: Saturn Returns is an astrological phenomenon that is unique to every person. From what I understand, it’s a period of your life where the universe is testing you and everything seems to be going wrong. If you look at astrology and destiny and all these things, there’s always the sense that fate is written. But the interesting thing with this idea is supposedly, how you negotiate this horrible reckoning will actually determine your future. If you negotiate Saturn returning into your sign well, and constructively, ideally you’ll have a great life. It’s supposedly something that happens in your early to mid 30s.
I had hit a point around then when I didn’t know what was going on with my life on a professional and personal space. James Hurt was one of the first people when I moved to New York in 1997. We ended up sharing a cab, as strangers, after a gig at the Knitting Factory. James and I were on the same wavelength about what we were thinking about musically, both as composers and improvisers. We talked about co-leading this band.
I think before that Jazz Gallery gig, we had steady Sunday nights for a month or two at the Izzy bar. It was kind of the electric rock band that I always wanted to have: very groove oriented. It wasn’t about playing tunes. James was investigating a lot of electronics, and I had no sense of how that worked. We would set up a mic for me that actually would pipe into his effects. He would manipulate these effects while I was playing. There would be a suddenly a harmony or delay would come on. It was really fun to have somebody else being in charge of that.
TJG: What your life was like at the time?
RM: I wasn’t married. I was single in Carroll Gardens. I had one album under my belt, which I had recorded in Chicago in the mid-90s—but by 2001 that was ancient history. So for all intensive purposes, I had not made an album. I was still primarily doing little local gigs in the East Village. I was trying to figure out how to make rent. I was teaching lots of private lessons. I was writing… what was I writing? I was just getting started! I was continuing to think about how I could deal with my ancestry in a musical way that was authentic, what being Indian-American meant. I look back at some of that music, and I remember what I was thinking when I wrote that stuff: taking these real specific elements of Indian music, and putting it very much in a contemporary light of groove and funk. It’s wild to think I’ve made 15 albums since then.
When Rio approached me about returning, I was like, ‘Wow! Are we doing this? This is crazy!’ I take it for granted, but these are the guys. I kind of forget about how blessed I should feel to be in their presence. The reality was that in 2001, I couldn’t believe those guys even wanted to play with me. It was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m playing with David Gilmore! These are the guys that were playing with Steve Coleman when I was in college!’ I never imagined we’d be doing stuff together.
TJG: What advice would you give to the 2001 version of yourself?
RM: It wouldn’t be so much musical advice as career advice. I think I would say, don’t compare your career to anyone else’s. Forge your own path and be confident in that path. If you keep using other people as measuring sticks, it’s just destructive. You end up not really developing. A lot of people move here and want to have a career in jazz that’s modeled after someone else. People want to be Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner. That just ends up stunting you even in ways that you don’t realize until much later in life.
The other thing is embrace to all technology. As a businessman, I took way too long to join Twitter and Facebook. These are all tools that you don’t have to be a slave to, but can be very productive. Music technology too: electronics are great. Learning how to make beats is great. It’s all part of the jazz continuum. The more you look around you to see how civilization is moving forward, the better off you are. (more…)