Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green - Apex (2010)


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By Pico

Maybe it hasn't been talked about that much, but in spite of all the advances in the mastery the instrument led by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, the development and evolution of the jazz saxophone didn't end with those guys. Many of the sax players play a modern style that's more intricately articulated, cerebral, sophisticated and, yes, even funkier than most from the prior generations. The progression from Johnny Griffin to, say, Steve Coleman didn't happen instantaneously, however. How did we get from the post-bop geniuses of Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley and Charles Lloyd to the likes of Chris Potter, Greg Osby, Coleman, David Binney and Donny McCaslin?

The unheralded alto saxophonist Bunky Green is one of those missing links between the past and the present state of the jazz saxophone.

Milwaukee-born Vernice “Bunky" Green, born 75 years ago this past April, got off to a very promising start to his career when on Lou Donaldson's recommendation was asked by Charles Mingus to replace McLean in his band in 1960 but by the end of the year, had to drop out and ended up settling in Chicago, while Mingus soon went on to make some of his most important and critically acclaimed records without him. However, Green found he preferred the greater artistic freedom allowed in the Windy City and in the succeeding years he woodshedded and revamped his style. He did make some records in the 60's, the late 70s, and a couple more in the late 80s, but these records went out of print while he pursued a career as a music educator starting in the early 70s. He may have been out of sight, but not out of the ears for a later generation of sax players who emerged in the 80s and 90s. Osby, Coleman, and Gary Thomas. And also an even younger student originally from Boulder, CO, who while still in college in 1989, sent Green a demo tape of his nascent saxophone abilities for appraisal. That young, aspiring jazz musician was Rudresh Mahanthappa.

From there, a friendship developed, with Green's groundbreaking playing style providing some direction in the development of Mahanthappa's own style. However, the two hadn't performed together until 2008, during a jam session at the Jazz Baltica Festival. Another stage union in 2009 at the Made In Chicago Festival was enough to convince Mahanthappa that the two need to get in a studio and make a record with Bunky; on September 28, their collaboration Apex was released.

The two brought in prime support: Francois Moutin (bass) and Damion Reed (drums) were culled from Mahanthappa's band, and Jason Moran had played on a recent Green album. But when Mahanthappa told the eminent drummer Jack DeJohnette about his plans for this record, DeJohnette lobbied to get on the record too, and ended up on four of the ten tracks. As a young drummer in Chicago, DeJohnette knew of Green and was a fan of his since then.

Throughout a program of ten originals—-five by Mahanthappa and five by Green—-the altoists propel each other to play their “A" game, which is above all just what you want to get from a matchup of ace sax players. After starting with the foreboding, almost raga-ish infro of Mahanthappa's “Welcome," the two engage in impeccable call-and-response, chases and unison lines, which combined with the explosive rhythm section of DeJohnette and Moutin, punches through the speakers and grabs holds of the ears. When Bunky blows his solo, he pours out intensity like a guy a third his age, and it's more than enough to stand out between two top notch solos by Moran and DeJohnette. A breathtaking performance, but there's more.

“Soft" may start out way but the spiritual, Trane-like circular melody carefully culminates in a furious, barely tonal commotion by Mahanthappa. “Playing With Stones," where Green sits out, brings out some of the elements of what was so appealing about Mahanthappa prior release Kinsmen, an uncanny ability to inject South Asian ideas into American jazz in a natural, seamless fashion. The drummer, Reid this time, dives headlong into rippling rhythmic changes demanded of this song. “Little Girl I'll Miss You" is Green's showcase, a waltzing number that illuminates his whimsical side, but with a little bit of the “inside-outside" bite that's his trademark. Both of them tackle the ballad form on Green's “Lamenting," which is grounded by Moran's beautifully cascading notes, and the agitation of “Eastern Echoes" comes from the furious fencing that goes on between Reid and each of the sax soloists.

In a recent interview with A Blog Supreme, Green asserted that “there's no such thing as a wrong note. It depends on where you move, harmonically, after you play a note. Because if you didn't have any tension, then there would be no release factor. If everything was so smooth, it would be terrible. There wouldn't be any excitement. So sometimes conflicting elements come together to be resolved. You resolve them, and people go, 'Aaah!'" The excitement that comes when the elements of Green and Mahanthappa come together find resolution from a vision shared. Apex is the kind of record that makes people go “Aaah!"

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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