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Rudresh Mahanthappa - Codebook

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Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa

Album: Codebook

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Apr. 24, 2007

For the past several years, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has – along with his frequent partner-in-crime pianist Vijay Iyer – delivered several recordings which can rightly be seen, for better or worse, as “concept albums.” This is certainly the case for his previous recording, Mother Tongue, each of whose compositions was rooted in one of the many dialects of India. And it’s also the case for this disc, where Mahanthappa – seemingly partaking of a bizarre cultural fascination with codes – explores the various ways in which the craft of code-making might have musical analogues: in the transmission of information, in breakdowns existing between signs and signifiers, in the idea of truth cloaked in words and symbols. These are very suggestive ideas, and Mahanthappa has even purportedly applied cryptographic ideas to the compositions themselves. While that’s a bit beyond the scope of my understanding, you don’t necessarily need any of these ideas to enjoy this kick-ass jazz.

With a steady quartet comprised of Mahanthappa, Iyer, bassist Francois Moutin, and drummer Dan Weiss, this is becoming one of the finest working groups out there. The arch, circuitous phrasing favored by the leader – hard, punchy articulations that animate the often complex rhythmic structures – continues to recall early 1990s Steve Coleman (whose Five Elements work and the M-BASE in particular constitute major influences). But there’s an openness and fluidity to this music, almost a lightness, that is this group’s own. This is heard especially in Mahanthappa’s playing against, above, or outside the pulse – it’s an exciting style.

The band delivers an hour’s worth of dense, at times unrelentingly complex music that must melt the tiles in a live context. Tunes like “Wait It Through” and “Enhanced Performance” spotlight these fellows’ adroitness at combining very complex polyrhythms into a sinuous whole: the music’s tiny little clusters, cellular shapes, and densely packed harmonies do suggest a need to break some kind of tightly wound code. At times the music is almost exhausting, and it’s tough to digest all the detail at times. But just when you think you need a break, along comes a tune like “Frontburner,” whose darting cross-rhythms grab you by the lapels and won’t let go (almost like a bunch of jazz guys playing Zappa’s “Little Green Rosetta”).

Thankfully, however, there is considerable variety as well. The group gets spiky and minimalist on “Play It Again Sam”; they brood with melancholy on “Refresh,” whose elliptical patterns return to home position but always from a different angle (Weiss awesomely emulates hand-drumming here too – Weiss’ tuned drums are key to this group’s sound, and he and Moutin have a wonderful exchange on the rests-and-release-heavy “Further and In Between”); and they even sound sweet but not sugary on the closing ballad, “My Sweetest,” where Mahanthappa’s tart lyricism recalls the great Jackie Mac.

Challenging, absorbing, and increasingly singular, this record offers more proof of these musicians’ importance to contemporary jazz.

By Jason Bivins

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