Indo-Pak Coalition boldly crosses the boundaries of jazz and South Asian music, with a distant nod to Barry Manilow

As Director of Jazz Studies at Princeton University and as leader of the Indo-Pak Coalition Trio, Rudresh Mahanthappa embraces traditional and contemporary music. That he does so with his Indo-Pak coalition by merging current jazz and age-old South Asian genres is perfectly in the character of this award-winning saxophonist, who was born in Italy, raised in Colorado and attended college. in Boston, Chicago and Denton, Texas.

But before gaining international fame with his vibrant music, all styles are equal, Mahanthappa was a 12-year-old busker. He played his alto saxophone for advice on the Boulder Pedestrian Mall, where his Indian-born father was a physics professor at the University of Colorado.

“I was in seventh grade and at first I played themes from Barry Manilow TV shows and hits, like ‘Mandy’ and ‘I Write the Songs’. Every once in a while I would try to play a Charlie Parker (jazz classic), ”recalls Mahanthappa, 47, who performs Tuesday with the Indo-Pak Coalition in UC San Diego’s intimate venue, The Loft.

“Then it evolved into a trio, with a keyboardist and a drummer. We played standards and wrote originals best described as “smooth jazz”. People liked these songs too, and they didn’t seem to differentiate between styles. We played like there was no tomorrow!

Mahanthappa lives near Princeton, New Jersey with his wife and two children. He chuckled as he remembered what had prompted him to start street playing in the first place.

“It was my dad’s idea, ‘Why don’t you go over there and try to make some bucks?’ He didn’t realize he was promoting a career (in music), much to his disappointment! the saxophonist said, chuckling again.

“I come from a very scientific and academic family. Part of me has always wanted to follow all the other things I was interested in – mainly math, cryptography, and number theory – and of course I tried to incorporate those ideas into my music.

A prime example of this approach is Mahanthappa’s exciting 2008 album, “Codebook,” which features compositions based on concepts from cryptography and number theory. He is one of the few musicians in the world who can speak with such authority about the music of Sonny Rollins, Johnny Cash and Alicia Keys as he does the work of pioneering physicists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr.

The elements Mahanthappa combines with his fellow Indo-Pak Coalition – Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi and New Jersey-born drummer and tabla player Dan Weiss – draw from jazz and South Asian music, including especially the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions of India. .

The result is a captivating, moving and complex mixture, alien and familiar. Best of all, the trio’s music sounds entirely natural and organic, befitting the work of dedicated artists who perform with a captivating combination of fluidity and precision, intensity and playfulness.

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and drummer Dan Weiss are featured at a concert in Los Angeles.

(Photo by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Age-old tradition meets laptops

These characteristics permeate “Agrima”, the stunning second album from the Indo-Pak coalition, released in 2017. It builds on the considerable promise of the trio’s debut album, 2008 “Apti”, which had a similar base, but no did not embrace technology. as openly as “Agrima”, on which Mahanthappa plays the saxophone through a laptop that uses various programs.

“Indo-Pak’s debut album was more purist and Dan only played tablas,” Mahanthappa said. “The music evolved and Dan started incorporating tablas into drums, which added another dimension and greater dynamic range. And, because we don’t have a bass, it gives me a lot of room to do some cool stuff with the audio processing and fill in the textures in a way that isn’t bass-oriented.

“Our music always carries the palate of frequencies of a classical Hindustani trio, in the sense that it is located in the high notes between the sax, the guitar and the tablas. But the frequency is fulfilled in a different way. And, along with the fact that I’m processing stuff on my sax in real time, it adds another level of improvisation to go with what I’m doing. It can also go completely wrong, which is exciting and scary. “

Totally wrong? How? ‘Or’ What?

“Regarding Indo-Pak, there were times when the computer crashed right before we had to play, so I was trying to figure out how to play and restart the computer at the same time,” replied Mahanthappa. “My challenge was, ‘How can I keep playing (sax) with one hand, while trying to fix the computer with the other? “

“It was pretty exciting, even though – at the time – I was ready to throw my saxophone across the stage! Now, looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow, we made it out.’ Rez doesn’t use a laptop like me. But he has a whole slew of effects and pedals for his guitar, which gives him access to quite a few things in terms of sound. So we can both create more sounds and a greater variety of textures than if we were left on our own.

At Abbasi and Weiss, Mahanthappa has two equally talented and daring counterparts. They all share an appetite for sonic adventure and the ability to shine in different stylistic contexts.

Weiss has studied music and tabla extensively with Pandit Samir Chatterjee, whose former collaborators range from Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan to Branford Marsalis and the Dance Theater of Harlem. Abbasi, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, moved to Los Angeles with his family at the age of 4 and skillfully fused Western and Eastern music for years.

“We’ve all been listening to these different types of South Asian music for a long time, and I don’t think the basic vocabulary for any of these genres is really that different,” Mahanthappa said.

“The important thing is that we can still talk about this music in two different ways – conceptually, from an Indian place, although I won’t call myself an Indian musician – and from a jazz point of view. And that has always been incredibly unique in this project.

Renowned saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has performed in San Diego before, but never with his trio Indo-Pak Coalition.

Renowned saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has performed in San Diego before, but never with his trio Indo-Pak Coalition.

(Photo by Jimmy Katz)

South and north go west

The classical musical traditions of the South Carnatic and the Hindustani of North India are both oral rather than written and have been passed down from generation to generation. Both are complex and use complex time signatures that can take a lifetime to master. Both also use constant drones as a musical foundation.

“I stayed away from creating an electronic drone,” Mahanthappa said. “There is even an iPhone app that creates great drone sound and some Indian musicians are using it. I avoided that, because there is something cheesy about it. And, one of the things with this set is that we never wanted to pass ourselves off as a classic Indian trio. The moment I fire a drone, I feel like I’m trying to ape something.

One of the main differences between the two traditions is that Hindustani music encourages improvisation, while Carnatic music is more akin to the structure of a given composition. However, Mahanthappa points out, this is not a problem for him, Abbasi and Weiss.

“The challenges aren’t whether his Hindustani or Carnatic music, it’s that none of these musical forms really deal with harmony,” the saxophonist said. “Both are more about intertwining melodies. Would we call it polyphony? I’ll have to think about the right term.

“So the challenge is – coming from a western background – what do you do with music that basically doesn’t have chords? It’s a big challenge. The initial reaction (by others) was to take ragas (Indian) and treat them with western scales. And, with a few exceptions, it looks horrible.

Tuesday’s performance at the Loft will mark the anticipated debut of the Indo-Pak Coalition. The group’s stage moniker is a devious nod to immigrant-owned family businesses in the United States, such as Indo-Pak Super Market.

Does the name of the Indo-Pak Coalition also have a more serious basis?

“On the serious side,” said Mahanthappa, “the name is a better reflection of how we recreate the culture when we are displaced. Because I think maybe the (older) generation of immigrants really sees big divisions between North Indians, South Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. While my generation is just happy to see other South Asians and doesn’t care so much where they come from. Us are just happy to see other dark people making their way.

ArtPower at UC San San Diego presents Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, with Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Or: The Loft, UC San Diego, Price Center East, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $ 23 to $ 35; $ 9 (students)

Telephone: (858) 534-8497

In line:

Lyle L. Maltby

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