Neither a traditionalist nor an avant-garde free-blower, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has made a name for himself working in a variety of formats that embrace jazz traditions and blend them with his ethnic heritage, without blunting the impact of either. His albums include music inspired by cryptography (2006's Codebook) and Kinsmen, released last month, which found Mahanthappa collaborating with musicians from India -- including another alto saxophonist -- to create something that can't be described simply as jazz, Indian music or world music.
Which brings us to Samdhi: Diasporic Connections, the composition Mahanthappa will premiere at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, and which will likely expand on this meeting of the musical worlds. The piece is so new, the saxophonist was still composing early last week when he took a break to speak with CP. He says Samdhi will likely consist of seven different sections, drawing on the music lessons he acquired during two visits to Southern India over the past year.
An Indian-American who grew up in Colorado, Mahanthappa, now based in New York, was recently named one of the top 10 alto saxophonists in Downbeat's Critics Poll. After studying at the Berklee College of Music, Mahanthappa moved to New York in the late 1990s. Among his influences, he cites Steve Coleman, who not only plays alto but also integrated another source of music into his jazz. "The way he dealt with West African drummers and integrating it conceptually into [his band] Five Elements, definitely served as an inspiration for the way I want to deal with Indian music," Mahanthappa says. "[I want to] recontextualize it and create some sort of hybrid."
He describes a section in Samdhi as one that he says could easily veer off and sound like fusion. That's something about which he has mixed emotions. "There's part of me that doesn't want it to [sound like that], there's part of me that thinks it's hilarious and there's part of me that doesn't care," he says. "You know, that '80s fusion stuff was impactful on me as much as classic jazz stuff. That was my entry point into music. ... Grover [Washington] and those early David Sanborn records inspired me to physically play the saxophone."
Mahanthappa received a Guggenheim Fellowship last year that supported the travel to India. There, he was able to learn more about the theory behind ragas, the series of notes used to build a melody in Indian music. "They're actually very complicated. They have rules that go along with each one," he says. "There's all this ornamentation of the notes. It's very specific and I wanted to get inside of that."
His proposal bore the title "Samdhi: Diasporic Connection," which inadvertently became the name of the piece as the festival performance took shape. The word samdhi has multiple meanings in Sanskrit, he explains. "It refers to twilight, or these mysterious moments between daytime and nighttime. It also refers to the Hindu calendar. There are these long ages, very specific numbers of years, and they're called yuga. The period between yugas is supposed to be filled with tumult and chaos, kind of a renewal going into the next stage. And the period between yugas is also called samdhi."
One thing the saxophonist wants to avoid is "the kitchen-sink approach," wherein each tune would be filled with every rhythmic and melodic nuance he discovered abroad, making the piece sound like a travelogue that tries to pinpoint everything he learned during his Guggenheim research. "When I was in India, I learned a lifetime of stuff to deal with as a composer and improviser," he says. "I just want to temper the whole thing, picking and choosing what particular things I'm working with conceptually from tune to tune.
"It's not so important to prove something on every tune," he says. "The whole body of work sends a message in its entirety, as opposed one piece showcasing all these different melodic aspects I like."
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. 9 p.m. Fri., Oct. 10, and 9 p.m. Sat., Oct. 11. New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. $20. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org