Exclusive interview: Sax player and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa talks about new album 'Bird Calls'
Courtesy of ACT Music

In the world of music and among jazz fans in particular, the simple one-syllable word “bird” is enough to inspire unparalleled reverence. “Bird” is the nickname of the late, highly-influential saxophone player and composer Charlie Parker, one of the most-enduring musical legends of all time. It is not an easy task to emulate Parker but there are players who take what Parker started and make it their own by expanding on his ideas, style and nuance. One such player is sax man and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa has been intrigued by Parker’s music since grade school, and now the award-winning artist has released a Parker-inspired album, appropriately entitled Bird Calls. Even better news for fans, Mahanthappa is embarking on a brief North American tour, a jaunt that’ll bring him to Phoenix for a show at the Musical Instrument Museum on Oct. 14.

We spoke with Mahanthappa via email, asking him about Bird Calls and some of the other things he’s up to right now. His commentary below is given exclusively to AXS.com

AXS: Your latest album Bird Calls is inspired by the work of Charlie Parker. Can you share with us the details of your first exposure to Bird, and did you “get it” right away, or did that come later?

Rudresh Mahanthappa: I first heard Charlie Parker when I was in sixth or seventh grade. He was instantly an inspiration, a motivation to practice and be the best I could possibly be. I’m not sure I “got it” right away, but what that means is quite malleable. There’s something to be garnered from Bird for anyone and everyone who hears his music. I still feel like I learn so much when I hear him.

AXS: You were recently appointed the Director of Jazz at Princeton University. What’s the most fun part of the job, and what’s the most challenging?

RM: Well, the job just started very recently and our first rehearsals are just beginning. It’s always fun to interact with students of this music. There’s something to be learned from all of them and it’s refreshing to me to experience the joys of playing jazz through others’ eyes and ears. The challenges are more technical and logistic. Most of the students I have are not music majors but are incredibly smart and talented nonetheless. The challenge lies in motivating them to make time to participate in all the program has to offer within their extremely busy collegiate lives. There are also administrative duties that I am not used to, yet.

AXS: The first couple shows of your upcoming tour will feature different lineups of the band from the guys you’ll be working with for the remainder of the tour. Considering the particular style of, for example, Matt Mitchell (piano) or François Moutin (bass), will this allow you to play songs that otherwise won’t be heard later in the tour?

RM: The repertoire is always the same, like music from the Bird Calls album. Matt vs. Joshua (White) or François vs. Thomson (Kneeland) both lend a different but important voice to the band. All of these guys play on a very high level so the music always resonates as strongly as I always wish.

AXS: You’ll be touring Europe after the US leg of your fall tour wraps up, and Belgium is where Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone 170-years ago. While your tour route won’t take you to Belgium this time out, do you like to, as time allows, seek out significant jazz-related places while on the road?

RM: I don’t normally seek out such places. Time rarely allows. I have been to John Coltrane’s birthplace in Hamlet, North Carolina and of course Charlie Parker lived on Avenue B in Manhattan. I did however play a special series in 2014 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels for Adolphe Sax’s 200th birthday, and our show was exactly on his birthday, Nov. 6. The series was in conjunction with a great exhibit of his instruments. 

AXS: You’ve won an incredible amount of prestigious awards including the coveted Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Do you ever think about this while in the studio or while preparing for a concert? Does having accrued the accolades put any pressure on you?

RM: Those are interesting questions that surprisingly no one has ever asked. I try to be at the top of my game at all times. There can be a pressure to “prove oneself” or a thought that the next album has to be “bigger” than the last in its reception and recognition. But the moment I think along those lines is the same moment at which I am not fully present to be the best that I can be. It all ends up being a distraction and a detraction from doing good creative work.

AXS: One of the stops on your upcoming tour is at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, where they have a huge collection of instruments from every country in the world. Have you seen the collection, and if so what pieces would you really love to get your hands on?

RM: I have actually never been to Phoenix even though I grew up in Colorado. I’m really hoping to see the galleries. Having such a great collection in the U.S. is truly amazing and invaluable.

Follow Rudresh Mahanthappa here.