When alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa lived in Chicago he took his cues from Ornette Coleman, who opened the door onto free jazz in the late 50s, and hard-bop altoist Jackie McLean, who stepped through it. His Indian heritage didn't really evidence itself in his music. But a few years ago, around the time of his move to New York, Mahanthappa began an association with Vijay Iyer--an Indian-American pianist based there--and together they've undertaken an explosive and exciting investigation into Indian-inspired jazz. They've done their best work so far in the Manodharma Trio, in which they're joined by Indian-born veteran Trichy Sankaran--the most spectacular percussionist most of us will ever hear. A generation older than his bandmates, Sankaran is widely considered the greatest living master of a south Indian drum called the mridangam. Like its northern cousin the tabla, the mridangam uses two hide drumheads tuned to different pitches, with thin discs at their centers to aid in the production of harmonics. But unlike the tabla, the mridangam has one head at each end of a single long body; it looks like a conga that doesn't know which way is up. This arrangement gives the instrument a deeper, less tinny sound, and since it has only one resonating chamber, the tones from the two heads interact. Seated with the mridangam across his folded legs, Sankaran spills mesmerizing patterns with an intensity that belies his years; he drives the ensemble's playing with brittle accuracy, and the multiplying rhythms of his solos suggest the intricate mandalas found throughout Indian art. The trio performed at HotHouse last spring, settling into complex, raga-influenced compositions and improvising with a disciplined adherence to form--and though it was one of their first concerts, they occasionally approached transcendence. In the two decades or so since guitarist John McLaughlin successfully merged jazz and Indian music with his group Shakti (which reunited for an album and tour last year), jazz musicians have paid little attention to the subcontinent, despite a burgeoning interest in so-called world music from other climes. That leaves the Manodharma Trio poised to lead a resurgence--and they've got the firepower to pull it off. The trio plays as part of the Jazz Institute of Chicago's 23rd annual Jazz Fair, headlined by Kurt Elling with Von Freeman. See the Fairs & Festivals listings for the full lineup. Friday, January 26, 7:45 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-427-1676.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.