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Wednesday, Oct 23, 2019

Adding math to jazz

S Rajagopalan introduces us to Mahanthappa, who blends numbers and notes into a rhythmic equation.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2006 05:48 IST
S Rajagopalan
S Rajagopalan

How about number theory and cryptography in a musical form? And some rhythm and melody based on the Fibonacci sequence’s infinite set of integers? If all that goes over your head, you can just sit back and enjoy Rudresh Mahanthappa’s latest CD, Codebook.

The Indian-American jazz composer, named a Rising Star on the alto saxophone by the Downbeat International Critics Poll for the past four years, is decidedly one of the most innovative young musicians in jazz today. And math has always been at the core of what he does.

Codebook, released this past week, is said to blend improvisational jazz with rhythms and melodies derived from mathematical concepts and equations. The drummer, meanwhile, beats out hidden Morse Code messages.

The work has already attracted critical acclaim. Its very first track, The Decider, is projected as a groovy primer on how to turn math into music.

“It’s just out, so we are waiting to see. The initial response has been overwhelmingly great,” says 35-year-old Mahanthappa from Brussels, the first stop in a European concert tour.

Mahanthappa and his pianist buddy, Vijay Iyer, also 35 and American-born, have given the Indian community a different brand image: that there is more to the fraternity than its celebrity status in the world of science, medicine and engineering, not to mention its domination of the realm of software professionals.

“I have always believed that music and math are close cousins. To me, they have so much in common when one looks at the core elements. After all, Pythagoras gave us the fundamentals for most western tuning systems, right?” says Mahanthappa.

His math prowess is no less remarkable. While in high school in Colorado, he pursued several independent math projects dealing with the number theory and topology which he entered at science fairs “with decent results”.

But he does not want to make a big deal about the math in Codebook. “The idea for the album is not earth shattering. It was just a way for me to blatantly use some mathematical and cryptographic concepts in music. Composers have been working with concepts from number theory as far back as the Gregorian chant,” he says and does not forget to highlight Indian music’s math orientation.

Codebook is a product of the Mahanthappa quartet — he on the saxophone, Vijay on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and newcomer Dan Weiss on drums. The quartet earlier released Black Water (2002) and Mother Tongue (2004), with a different drummer, Elliot Humberto Kavee.

It was the release of Mother Tongue that really catapulted Mahanthappa to the forefront of the new generation of composers and saxophonists in jazz. The project received four stars in Downbeat and was named one of the “Top Ten Jazz CDs of 2004” by the Chicago Tribune, Jazztimes, Coda, All About Jazz and Jazzmatazz.

Mahanthappa holds a Bachelors of Music degree in jazz performance from the Berklee College of Music and a Masters in jazz composition from Chicago’s DePaul University. He now teaches at the New School University in New York. He has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Composers Forum. One such grant resulted in Dakshina Ensemble with Carnatic saxophone legend Kadri Gopalnath.

Mahanthappa’s parents came to the US in the 1950s. His father obtained his PhD from Harvard and later taught at the University of Colorado. “My parents encouraged us to be well-rounded. All of us studied music and played in school bands,” he says of his siblings.

International recognition came fairly soon. Mahanthappa, on stage since he was 14, has been performing regularly at jazz festivals and clubs worldwide. “I have played in India twice at the Jazz Yatra festival — once with the Berklee College of Music All-Stars, the other time with Vijay’s band.”

As for his association with Iyer, he says: “Vijay and I have been playing together for 10 years. Our meeting was god-sent as it was important to know that each of us were not alone. It helped that we were chasing similar music ideas.” The duo released a CD, Raw Materials, in May.

First Published: Oct 01, 2006 05:48 IST

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