Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls [TrackList follows] – ACT Music 9581-2, 61:52 [2/10/15] ****:
(Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone & producer; Adam O’Farrill – trumpet; Matt Mitchell – piano; François Moulin – acoustic bass; Rudy Royston – drums)
Charlie Parker’s music continues to resonate. His performances still stimulate other musicians; his compositions are covered on new albums each year; and his creativity circles through various aspects of jazz. Parker was revolutionary and evolutionary. Just ask fellow alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. “I was blessed to first hear Charlie Parker’s music when I was 12 years old,” explains Mahanthappa. “My world was forever changed. His sheer virtuosity and innovative vocabulary were obviously astounding but what moved and continues to inspire me is the joy, humor, and beauty that he portrays, evokes, and instills.” On Mahanthappa’s latest outing, the hour-long Bird Calls, Parker is alive and radiant; his spirit imbues the 13 tracks. But this not a covers project, and there are no Parker-penned pieces. You can perceive Bird’s impact on each of Mahanthappa’s original compositions. But make no mistake; this is not a tribute album. And yet each tune is directly based on a Parker composition or solo, so both Parker fans as well as Mahanthappa devotees will appreciate this material. Bird Calls was issued in vinyl and CD formats. This review refers to the CD.
Parker’s legacy is central to Bird Calls. That can be immediately understood on the opener, “Bird Calls #1,” a blissful, candid cut which starts out in sublime space fronted by François Moulin’s arco bass introduction, and then Rudy Royston’s rolling drums (he’s quite a capable percussionist who has also recorded with Bill Frisell, Bruce Barth and Linda Oh) and the twinned horns of Mahanthappa and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (of the O’Farrill Brothers Band). The title track is recast throughout the CD as five, short segments interspersed amid the other tunes: some appear as interludes, others as improvised intervals.
There’s an uplifting, bop-ish characteristic to many tracks, which is no accident. The eight-minute “On the DL” is loosely based on Parker’s “Donna Lee,” and shows the same sort of energy, dynamism and velocity as Parker’s well-known classic. The incendiary interplay between sax and trumpet is breathtaking, and the rhythm trio of pianist Matt Mitchell (who, at times, recalls McCoy Tyner’s skillful backing in John Coltrane’s band), Moulin and Royston is a non-stop display of differing time signatures and fast-paced, percussive qualities. Another eight-minute number, “Talin Is Thinking,” is another highlight and was prompted by “Parker’s Mood.” O’Farrill goes for broke, scaling the upper register of his trumpet like Dizzy Gillespie, pulling out the emotions from every note. Mahanthappa follows suit, with sax soloing which echoes Parker and Coltrane: it’s a stellar moment which combines much inventiveness. The quickened tempos are maintained on the invigorating “Both Hands,” which is based on Parker’s “Dexterity.” The horns, piano, bass and drums all sustain a rapid inclination but, like Parker’s work, the melody is never abandoned, even when it flashes past at full throttle.
Subtleties are an undercurrent on many pieces. The mid-tempo “Chillin’,” based on Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” surges with a strong melody and etched harmonics. When O’Farrill takes the helm with his rich trumpet soloing, one wonders why he hasn’t been the go-to-guy for anyone who needs or wants a scorching trumpet. There is a deft arrangement during “Gopuram,” which was kindled by Parker’s “Steeplechase.” The title nods to Mahanthappa’s cultural background. A gopuram is the name given to a monumental tower, usually ornate, at the entrance of any temple, especially in Southern India. In keeping with the compositional title, there is a supple ornateness, with complex rhythmic channels, and intricate communication between bass and piano, by trumpet and sax, and elsewhere. There’s also understated South Indian harmonics which come and go, and provide a slightly exotic undertow and hint at Mahanthappa’s previous records, which have often blended non-Western music with jazz. There is a picturesque trait which drifts through the lovely “Sure, Why Not?,” that commences with a poetic solo preface (“Bird Calls # 5”) which presents Mitchell’s most transcendent chordal handiwork. “Sure, Why Not?” was designed around two of Parker’s tunes, “Confirmation” and “Barbados.” Mahanthappa’s solo spotlight has a lyrical perspective, O’Farrill shines brightly when he improvises and Moulin showcases his genteel acoustic bass during his solo section. Moulin gets a lengthier limelight stretch during “Bird Calls # 4,” which acts as a solo bass introduction to “Gopuram.” Bird Calls is a satisfying listening experience. It demonstrates that Charlie Parker’s music endures and persistently rouses the senses. It’s an interesting return to roots for Mahanthappa, who clearly has not lost his affection and admiration for the artists who imparted in him what is great about jazz. And Bird Calls exhibits a quintet at the top of their craft performing music teeming with life, imagination and exultation.
TrackList: Bird Calls; On the DL; Bird Calls #2; Chillin’; Bird Calls #3; Talin Is Thinking; Both Hands; Bird Calls #4; Gopuram; Maybe Later; Bird Calls #5; Sure, Why Not?; Man, Thanks for Coming.