With his Indian heritage having guided much of his original music, Rudresh Mahanthappa is thoroughly
steeped in the music he heard in his youth growing up in Boulder, Colo. There he acquainted himself with the American musical mainstream, later refining his jazz chops at Berklee College in Boston and emerging in his own right as an educator directing jazz studies at Princeton University.
The facetiously named (and costumed) Hero Trio is serious about applying heroic bravado to pieces by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman (the leader's alto-sax messiahs) and others on "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings). The Coleman piece, "Sadness," is taken out of tempo throughout, and represents how firmly Mahanthappa and his mates (bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston) can hang together while still projecting individuality.
As an arranger, Mahanthappa is unusually creative. The old standard beloved of our grandparents, "I Can't Get Started," is treated with respect despite eschewing its conventional chord changes. Without the harmonic motion of the original, the Vernon Duke tune becomes even more meditative and sheds new light on the song title.
Similarly insightful, the trio's "I Remember April" opens with a pointillistic introduction, as if distant memories were gradually being assembled. When the melody emerges, it's with quick, buoyant confidence. A more unusual choice, perhaps, is an adaptation of the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire," which has a distinct Sonny Rollins feeling, both as if paying tribute to a saxophone giant who put a fresh stamp on "I'm an Old Cowhand" and other unlikely songs and in this version's calypso rhythms.
Moultin puts a fruitful line in contrapuntal dialogue with Mahanthappa's alto in Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." And Royston is key to unifying a spirited dash through Charlie Parker's "Barbados" mashed with John Coltrane's "26-2." The performance is raving but coherent, thanks in large measure to the drummer.
The trio's unanimity passes another test glowingly in the stop-start patterns of "The Windup" by Keith Jarrett. Funky without cliche, the performance features the bandleader at his most explosive and a powerful Moutin solo.
It took me a while to get used to Mahanthappa's sound, but the nuances became evident amid all his powerhouse playing. But no repeated listenings were needed to be immediately charmed by the Hero Trio's romp through Charlie Parker's "Red Cross." Mahanthappa's arrangement brings in supportive independent phrases as commentary, somewhat reminiscent of the function of tropes in medieval liturgy.
From his own playing as well as his inspired adaptations of material by other musicians, Mahanthappa has fashioned a winner with his two masked men. The Hero Trio may be having fun with its name, but it also has the right credentials to inspire hero-worship.
Admired for understated elegance and seductive pathos, the songs of Alec Wilder can be treated imaginatively without a sung word. That's what "Night Talk: The Alec Wilder Songbook" (Capri Records) exemplifies, thanks to the responsive arrangements for jazz octet by Mark Masters and the showcase solos of baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.
The Mark Masters Ensemble also includes Don Shelton and Jerry Pinter, reeds; Bob Summers, trumpet; Dave Woodley, trombone; Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums. The set of nine tunes ends with Wilder's best-known song, "I'll Be Around." Setting this love ballad at a fast tempo makes clear Masters' declaration of independence from convention.
The smooth integration of Smulyan's agile, deep-toned instrument and the ensemble is immediately sealed on the opening track, "You're Free." Masters never fails to give both the band and the featured soloist essential material to indicate that no one is restricted to accompaniment functions alone.
There's always careful attention to Wilder's supple phrasing. In Masters' arrangements, the tunes always
The band moves with the easy swing of the master interpreters of the Great American Songbook. "Moon and Sand" is a dreamily paced samba exercise; Smulyan's soft-focused tone leads the way, which doesn't keep him from kicking up his heels in the solo.
Solo outings for other players move the spotlight off Smulyan occasionally. I especially enjoyed Woodley's soaring trombone in the song "Ellen," which ends in appropriate bass-and-brushes murmurs before the out-chorus. In "Baggage Room Blues," there's practically a round-robin format to expand the conversation. Short solos are especially effective in the peppy "Lovers and Losers."
With extensions of his legacy as well thought out and executed as this one, the music of Alec Wilder will be around for a good long time.