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Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green Lock Horns at the Jazz Standard

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One of the great jazz stories of 2009 and 2010 has been the partnership between alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green. The career of Mahanthappa, a Guggenheim Fellow and Downbeat Rising Star, has taken off, thanks to some strong post-Coltrane style playing of his own and his association with Vijay Iyer and other new bright lights on the jazz scene. Green is a different animal altogether—now 75, the saxophonist had a brief stint with Charles Mingus and played around Chicago and Milwaukee, and then in 1989 he became the head of the University of North Florida's jazz program. A teacher at Berklee School of Music heard Mahanthappa warming up for class one day around that time and noted similarities between the two's playing and loaned the student a few of Green's out-of-print albums. What Mahanthappa heard blew his mind, and he reached out to Green to tell him so.

The two remained in touch throughout the years and there was talk of playing together, but it didn't happen until 2009 as part of the Made in Chicago Festival. After the performance, both saxophonists agreed that they needed to do something more. Flash forward to New York City's Jazz Standard and the two are on the final night of a scintillating run from Oct. 14 through 17 that celebrated the release of 'Apex.'

As with the album, the two saxophonists are joined by pianist Jason Moran, bassist François Moutin and drummer Damion Reid (Jack DeJohnette played on half the album, subbing for an ailing Reid). On paper this looks like an all-star band, but really it's a tangled New York jazz scene kind of thing where everyone but Green had played together in various groups, and Moran actually has played with both saxophonists and appeared on Green's 'Another Place' from 2006.

The early set on Sunday opened with the first four songs from the album. The brief 'Welcome' began with an open Middle Eastern line that hangs in the air until it resolved by going into an Albert Ayler-esque march that was the seamless jumping-off point for 'Summit.' Here the two horn players traded lines and play in unison, and it's a perfect introduction to how the two are alike and unalike. Tonally speaking, Green's sound was brighter and more crisp, seemingly jumping off the bandstand. Mahanthappa's, on the other hand, was smokier and more nuanced while still filling the room. After everyone solo-ed, the band circled around to the march again, putting an emphatic exclamation mark on a dazzling first 15 minutes of the set.

The aptly named 'Soft' followed with a nice bass solo. The tune recalled the soulful songcraft of Atlantic-era Coltrane, with elegant melodies and rich harmonies that provided a broad canvas for improvisation. After the first solo established itself, the bass seemed to anchor the quiet section, but then Moran and Green starting piling on triplets and eighth notes for a chaotic middle section that was jarring (in mostly a good way) as it destroyed the spell of the opening. Then things settled in for the final section, seemingly with a fresh canvas once again filled with possibilities.

From there the band went on to what was the best and most confounding song of the night, 'Playing With Stones.' With long horn lines that again recalled North Africa and the Middle East out front, the tune's meter was nearly impossible to figure out (I would later find out from Mahanthappa, who composed it, that it's a “21-2 with a hiccup"). It was impressive to see the rhythm section, and Reid in particular, manage the odd pulse on his kick drum, never flagging and sometimes pushing the other players if they seemed to lose the thread. At times during the set he resembled a polyrhythmic mechanical monkey, leaving his head and body completely still amid the flurry of limbs, never was it more apparent than here.

The band finished out with Green's 'Eastern Echoes' and 'Who.' Both seemed to build on the ideas already put forward earlier in the set, melding hints of South Asian and North African compositional structures, as well as finding a solid balance between knotty compositions and soulful balladry. They always seemed to find that sweet spot between not going far enough and going too far.

Perhaps it's the dual leadership of this group that gives the music its tasteful zing. Rather than trying to outdo one another on some macho ego trip, the band's music and its two alto players play with respect, both for each other and the music itself. With an album fast-tracked for year-end accolades, the two altos will likely get a chance to share their music with more fans as word spreads of this incredible project.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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