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.
TJG: With all the accolades and successes, did 2015 feel different to you?
RM: I don’t know. Maybe it should have. I guess I try to see things as part of a larger continuum at this point. All the accolades are amazing and I’m grateful for all of them. But I remember I did an album called Kinsmen in 2008. Everyone was nuts about it: it got a lot of the similar accolades, and even bigger ones. I was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, profiled in the New Yorker.
But it was timed very well with the financial crash. It put me on the map in lots of ways, but it didn’t manifest the way I hoped. I still wasn’t able to get a manager, or good North American agency representation. Everyone was so scared by the economy that no one wanted to take on anything new. In the meantime, people were raving about this album.
I see all the accolades as gifts. They’re amazing and I never feel entitled. Everything is a fluke, really. I didn’t know how Bird Calls would be received. I had this weird idea and made this weird album, and everybody loved it. But does it actually affect one’s career? Does it move things forward? Kamasi Washington is having a breakthrough year. I don’t know what that will mean for him in 5 years. It could mean very little. You have these flashes of activity. So be grateful, but don’t believe the hype.
TJG: So how are you planning to build off Bird Calls?
RM: I want to go back to the Indo-Pak coalition, this trio I have with Dan Weiss and Rez Abassi. We’re recording in August. Whereas the album we did back in 2008 was totally acoustic and has a very Classical Indian vibe, this is gonna be very electronic heavy album. It’s gonna be fun to re-envision that.
I really want to do something with a comedian. I think there’s something very special about comedic timing. It’s very much akin to the way jazz musicians think: there’s this equal ratio of improvization and precomposed material. I was watching a Louis CK special, and there’s so many things about it that are like a set of a really great jazz musician. And there’s this great history of jazz musicians and comedians sharing bills. The Village Vanguard started out as a comedy club. So ideally, the project would be me, a comedian like Aparna Nancherla, a visual artist, and a band, and maybe a rapper too.
Saturn Returns performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, May 26th, and Friday, May 27th, 2016. The group features Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, James Hurt on piano, David Gilmore on guitar, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Gene Lake on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($15 for members), $30 for reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members), for each set. Purchase tickets here.