Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Apex – Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green

As it happened, the last recording we reviewed was led by the most recent DownBeat Critics Poll “rising star” winner for alto sax, David Binney.  I thought I would continue in this vein and have a listen to something by the poll’s “established” alto sax winner, Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is also new to me.  His recording, “Apex,” with altoist Bunky Green, has gotten a lot of buzz, so that’s the one I chose.

“Apex” starts with “Welcome,” with Mahanthappa improvising in an Indian-tinged mode, affecting a nasal sound.  “Summit” is where the band first digs in.  Green is up first with a meandering solo.  Mahahthappa then plays a driving solo, with a cutting tone.  To my ear, his tone is like Vincent Herring’s, though his phrasing is more aggressive, freer, and less boppish.  Pianist Jason Moran comes in and spices things up with his solo.  Jack DeJohnette then adds a cool, controlled solo on drums.  Mahanthappa and Green then trade bars, Rudresh again sounding angry.  Green’s sound is prettier and lighter than Mahanthappa’s, while Rudresh’s sound is slightly stronger and fuller, with more of an edge.
“Soft” starts with some fancy bass fingering by Francois Moutin by himself.  The tune itself is slow, somewhat dirge-like.  Green plays an emotional solo, wailing in the upper register.  Moran then comes in with an abstract, wild solo that ends with some pretty chords.  Mahanthappa plays a furious, virtuosic solo.  The tune ends with the saxes playing the head in harmony.  “Playing the Stones” is a mid-tempo, funky folk song, sort of like an early Keith Jarrett tune, with Mahanthappa and Moran in unison.  Moran takes a solo that even sounds like Jarrett.  Mahanthappa unleashes another furious solo, using fast patterns like musical daggers.  Green lays out on this one.

“Lamenting” is a slow, sad tune, which is mostly a piano interlude that ends with some gentle playing by Green.  Without any break, “Eastern Echoes” begins (“Lamenting” is more like an intro to “Eastern Echoes” than a separate tune) with Mahanthappa joining Green and then Green taking over again, having more time to stretch out and play a fine solo.  Mahanthappa then unleashes his controlled mayhem in an incendiary solo.  Moran comes in after the saxes play the melody to quietly close out the tune.

“Little Girl, I’ll Miss You” is a pretty song.  This time Mahanthappa is a bit looser and more swinging, but still aggressive.  Moutin then solos, playing interesting phrases with very fast fingers.  Moran plays a brief, pretty solo.  Green again lays out on this cut.  As good as the music is with the two saxophonists, I could have gone for a whole album’s worth of jazz quartet playing of this caliber.
“Who?” is a disjointed snippet of a melody that’s just an excuse for blowing.  Mahanthappa is back in machine gun mode, putting on a fireworks show with his solo.  Moran picks things up after Rudresh, and then Green plays another fast, meandering solo.  Drummer Damon Reid finishes the improvising with an energetic solo.  (Reid and DeJohnette share drumming duties on “Apex.”)  “Rainer and Theresia” is a pretty, simple tune in ¾ time.  Green starts things off with a good, smart solo.  Moran comes in briefly before Mahanthappa, then he and Rudresh trade about a half a chorus each for a few choruses, and then they close with a duet.  Green plays the melody to the end. 

“Who?” would have been a fine way to close out the album, but it continues with “The Journey.”  This is an uptempo tune with a slightly Indian feel that starts with some fancy plucking and strumming from Moutin.  After the head, Moran plays a good solo.  Then Green comes in with his most forceful solo of the album; at first, I thought the saxist might be Mahanthappa.  Green’s solo is in the mode of Billy Harper, with Green holding a note and following it with some fast, slashing phrases.  Mahanthappa comes in with his rapid-fire phrases again.  Then DeJohnette solos over a bass and piano ostinato.  This also would have been a good ending for the recording, but Mahanthappa can’t seem to let go; after about 40 seconds of silence, he continues with another five minutes of playing--a duet with DeJohnette, where he unleashes more of his bumble-bee articulation.  (By contrast with the too-brief 55-minute playing time of David Binney’s “Barefooted Town”—see previous post—“Apex” stretches to almost 80 minutes.)
Mahanthappa is a virtuoso player who never lets his lightning-fast articulation overcome his musicality.  His playing is aggressive but not to the point of being slashing, like, say, Billy Harper’s (that’s not meant to be a criticism of Harper, just an observation).  And “Apex,” like “Barefooted Town”, has a really interesting supporting cast who spice up the recording with their own distinctive playing.    

Mahanthappa is a blast to listen to, and I look forward to checking out his other projects. 

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