One thing’s become clear in last 30 years or so: there are endless ways to address jazz repertory. From Hal Willner’s upending of Monk on 1984’s That’s The Way I Feel Now to last year’s inflection-by-inflection photocopy of Miles’ Kind of Blue by Mostly Other People Do the Killing, options continue to spill forth. The most fetching of them bend iconic material towards a personalized view, and you can certainly place Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls in that number. Here, the saxophonist and his quintet bring their collective temperament to pieces inspired by Charlie Parker nuggets. The music- both inspired and explosive – squeezes the orthodoxy of bebop into something more modern.
The tack is inventive. The 43-year-old bandleader doesn’t tackle Bird head-on; he rearranges high-vis titles such as “Now’s The Time” and “Dexterity” to suit the needs of his crack ensemble (pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin, drummer Rudy Royston and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill comprise the group), honing in on a melodic phrase or a thematic lick and then scripting the action from there. So you never hear an overt Parker tune, but echoes of their impact consistently crop up. The saxophonist spent his early year’s absorbing Bird, and while the genuflection is passionate, it’s anything but pious. From the ensemble frenzy of “Chillin’” (a nod to “Relaxin’ At The Camarillo” to the daredevil swoops of “Copuram” (based on “Steeplechase”). A charged charisma is front and center.
Mahanthappa has previously investigated the music of his South Indian heritage, and intimations of that sound help individualize several of these pieces. The album is also bolstered by six curt tracks (each deemed “Bird Calls”) that intersperse the band tracks with pithy improvs and consistently revitalize the record’s flow.
Perhaps the group gets closest to Parker’s original whomp on “Both Hands,” which takes its cues from “Dexterity.” The fleet intro, the stormy unison lines between the leader and O’Farrill (who’s uproarious throughout) – bop’s aggression stands in the center spotlight and it’s there you can most easily recognize the prototype’s bold character. Just like Bird realigning elements of 1940s standards to fuel his muse, Mahanthappa grabs what tickles him from these tunes – could be a handful of notes, could be an attitude – and puts it to work. Just call it thriving on a riff.
Mahanthappa plays at the Jazz Standard on March 24.