CD review: Rudresh Mahanthappa – Hero Trio 2020: Video, CD cover

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In the chordless trio tradition of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins on A Night at The Village Vanguard (1957) and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz with his Motion (1961), alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa offers up his Hero Trio, a saxophone, bass and drums outing nodding to his influential musical heros.

Mahanthappa began his career in the shadow of Vijay Iyer, playing on the pianist’s Panoptic Modes (2001), Blood Sutra (2003), and Reimagining (2005). But he blew out of that shadow with excellent recordings under his own name like Mother Tongue (2004) and CodeBook (2006) and consistently successful forays into incorporating the music of his ancestral India into his sound. His searing and propulsive tone on the alto sax is distinctive. Listen blindfolded and five notes in you know who it is, whether it’s inside Arturo O’Farrill’s Latin Afro Jazz Orchestra or on Bob Belden’s Miles From India project, or on one of Vijay Iyer’s sets or one of his own.

The sound of his Hero Trio, with bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston, breaks out with a loose-jointed distinction, too. A companion piece of sorts to Mahanthappa’s 2015’s Bird Calls (ACT Records), which featured the alto saxophonist’s original compositions inspired by the work of the ever-inspirational Charlie Parker. Hero Trio is Mahanthappa’s first recording of non-original works. It pays tributes to more of his heros: Stevie Wonder, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, and, again, Charlie Parker, opening and closing the disc with Parker tunes—”Red Cross” and “Dewey Square,” respectively.

The sound is free and lively, the up-tempo tunes seeming like a soundtrack to video of major league hitters trying to hit the impossible and unpredictable wobble of an incoming knuckleball. Long, lanky hitters, lots of knee and elbows and flailing bats, seasoned pros engaged in a difficult task with a contortionist’s grace, Mahanthappa’s alto tracing the flight of the ball, bass and drums goosing the batters into their rubbery attempts.

Freedom from the chords and a collective gusto gives the music a rollicking, loose-jointed feeling. The opener, “Red Cross,” is a joyful, bursting-with-life assault. “Barabados/26-2,” puts Parker and Coltrane together, in a menacing mode, like a squall rolling in off the ocean.

The group takes on some standards with “I Can’t Get Started” and “I’ll Remember April,” the former a lassitudinous dirge, the latter a burner that could fit in on Mahanthappa’s previously-mentioned Codebook.

Then there’s the Johnny Cash hit, “Ring Of Fire,” saying there’s no reason why you can’t take the music seriously and have some fun at the same time. The trio plays it straight, with a bounce in its step, perhaps a tongue in its cheek, shining a new light on the sound that evolved out of Sun Records.

1. Red Cross (6:29)
2. Overjoyed (6:43)
3. Barbados/26-2 (6:40)
4. I Can’t Get Started (5:31)
5. The Windup (4:42)
6. Ring of Fire (3:57)
7. I’ll Remember April (5:46)
8. Sadness (3:08)
9. Dewey Square (2:43)

Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone
François Moutin – acoustic bass
Rudy Royston – drums

Hero Trio | Rudresh Mahanthappa

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