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Balancing Influences: Saxophonist Mahanthappa Blends Styles

By NPR Music | NPR
Sunday, May 12, 2013

When a single review compares an artist's work to both Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Stooges, hardcore rock music fans sit up and take notice.

That's the high praise the Los Angeles Times bestowed upon saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

You'll find the Indian-American's work filed under jazz, but it's hard to find a style he doesn't touch. Elements of hip-hop, country, metal and soul fuse with traditional sounds from India, Africa and Indonesia.

And he makes it rock.

Mahanthappa, whose latest album is called Gamak, talks to Arun Rath, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about his influences, Indian rhythms and "embracing" confusion.

Interview Highlights

On Mahanthappa's recent rock leanings:

"You know, I'm a child of the '80s, so I grew up with a lot of great rock. I mean, '80s wasn't the best, but ... I still had access to '70s rock. And a lot of progressive rock stuff has been very influential: Yes and Gentle Giant and Rush and Genesis. So I wanted to bring that element to more of a forefront with this particular band."

On working with Western musicians on Indian rhythms:

"In Indian music, you talk about cycles of seven beats or 13 beats or 21 beats. And those are constructs that I really relate to. And the best thing is when you feel free within those structures. ... Everyone in the band developed a sort of rhythmic vocabulary. They can deal with these structures, and they can internalize them very quickly. Some people think of the beat cycles - the Indian talas - as being difficult, but if you find a way to internalize it, you hear it as if you're hearing blues, as if you're hearing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'"

On balancing his influences:

"I'm trying to express what it means to be Indian-American, so I'm not interested in doing anything that's overtly Indian because I don't feel overtly Indian. I feel Indian and American and neither and both, all at the same time, every second of every day. I feel like the music should reflect that, too. ... I think the interesting thing is embracing the confusion. If you own the confusion, then you've won."

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