Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls

As its title intimates, Bird Calls is a Charlie Parker homage, this one courtesy of celebrated alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. But it's not simply a collection of Parker tunes affectionately rendered in straightforward fashion; instead, it's a bold re-examination of the legend's music that updates it for the twenty-first century. Put simply: though Bird Calls does feature the playing of a standard acoustic quintet much like the kind Parker himself would have assembled for one of his own recording sessions, and though eight of the album's thirteen pieces do reference Parker-associated tunes, Bird Calls is anything but a retrograde exercise, especially when the musicians involved dig into the material with such ferocity.

Needless to say, the leader's South Indian heritage enables the musician to bring a distinctive slant to Parker's music in the way the legend's seminal bebop is refracted by Mahanthappa's contemporary sensibility. Just as Parker was accompanied on the front-line by Dizzy Gillespie (Miles Davis, of course, also), Mahanthappa is joined by an equally extroverted trumpeter, namely twenty-year-old prodigy Adam O'Farrill (son of pianist Arturo O'Farrill), plus pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin, and drummer Rudy Royston. As stated, Bird Calls isn't a tribute recording of Parker covers; in fact, the album consists entirely of new music Mahanthappa composed especially for the project. However, 'Bird' is present, compositionally speaking, in one important sense: each piece draws for inspiration from a particular Parker melody or solo, which is then re-imagined and re-contextualized by the musicians.

Interspersed throughout the hour-long recording are miniatures titled “Bird Calls” that feature the musicians in solo, duo, and group configurations and provide more open-ended explorations of the material (a generous leader, Mahanthappa grants solo spotlights on two of them to the bassist and pianist). After “Bird Calls #1” inaugurates the album with full-throated declamations from Mahanthappa and O'Farrill and textural flourishes from the others, the group digs into “On the DL” with fervour and precision, the saxist and trumpeter navigating knotty phrases across an ever-shifting rhythmic base. Though Parker's the primary inspiration for the album, it's hard not to hear echoes of M-Base players like Steve Coleman and Marvin “Smitty” Smith in the free-wheeling attack of the sax and drum playing and the intricacy of the composition itself. Something of the same could be said for the high-velocity “Both Hands,” which sees the quintet extricating Parker's melody from “Dexterity” but with all the rests removed. Not everything is taken at a breakneck speed, though, as revealed by the ballad-styled treatment of “Sure Why Not?,” which draws from Parker's “Confirmation” and “Barbados.”

On “Bird Calls #2,” Mahanthappa and O'Farrill duet in ceremonial manner before examining the material in full-group form during “Chillin',” which, in both its compositional material and its solos, draws upon “Relaxin' at Camarillo.” The leader's South Indian roots surface subtly in “Gopuram,” which takes its name from the tower at the entrance of Hindu temples and exudes a contemplative raga-modal spirit. Elsewhere, hints of funk and other styles enter into the music, a move that distances the project even more from its bebop-related origins (the saxist's serpentine solo playing on “Bird Calls #3” even calls to mind The Lounge Lizards' “A Paper Bag and the Sun” from the 1988 album Voice of Chunk). Above all else, one is struck by the volcanic level of the musicians' playing. Bird Calls is no polite tribute to a long-dead master but rather a collection distinguished by musical finesse that roars with barely contained energy from start to finish. And while Mahanthappa rises to the occasion magnificently, so too do the others, with O'Farrill especially matching the leader every step of the way.

February 2015