The Sanskrit word for twilight is “Samdhi,” which now serves as the aptly-chosen title for saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa’s latest ensemble, a fluid melding of jazz, electronic and Indian music.
“Samdhi” also refers to a period between two ages, as one dawns and another passes. Without presuming to know the future, it may not be too much of a stretch to say that Samdhi marks a similar transition in Mahanthappa’s creative life. While it draws on elements and experiments from Mahanthappa’s earlier work, it also marks his initial forays into rich new avenues to explore – particularly in the use of electronics. The ensemble began life in 2008 as the result of a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed Mahanthappa to dedicate an entire year to a single project.
“This helped me realize a plan of following a few specific ideas,” he says in a news release. “I was interested in how I could transfer the Indian music to my saxophone, particularly this special ornamentation which forms the main feature of the melodies of Indian music. Technically this took me to new territories but, at the same time, I also wanted to understand the music functionally and rhythmically.”
This is not the first time the Indian-American saxophonist has explored the intersection of the music that most influenced him – jazz with the music of his cultural heritage. Those experiments have taken many fruitful forms throughout his career, most notably on his critically-lauded 2008 CD Kinsmen with his Dakshina ensemble, featuring Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, voted one of the year’s best albums by more than twenty newspapers, magazines and broadcasters (including The New York Times and the BBC).
Samdhi is an even deeper exploration of some of the areas first mined for Kinsmen, and also grew partly out of a trip Manhathappa took to an immersive Carnatic music festival in Chennai, India.
“I went for two and a half weeks and totally geeked out,” Mahanthappa recalls. “I went into it with a crash course mentality, trying to see as much as I could and then work on it for the years to come. The idea was to integrate all of that into a new piece that wasn’t so blatantly ‘Indian.’ I decided to put it in a whole new context – an electronic context.”
The line-up with which Mahanthappa approached this idea is accordingly versatile and expansive: New Yorker David Gilmore is one of the few guitarists who possesses the technical skills and stylistic scope to master such an endeavor. Damion Reid is one of the best in the league of young American drummers who combine immense power and speed with a lush tonal palette. Toronto bassist Rich Brown – who Mahanthappa considers “one of the best in the world” – no stranger to such multi-cultural hybrids as a member of a Canadian Indo-jazz band.
The least familiar member to jazz audiences is “Anand” Anantha Krishnan on the South Indian mridangam drum. “He is the grandson of Palgat Raghu, one of the greatest South Indian percussionists of all time, and he exhibited this inherited talent very early on. He really grew up in two places – India and the USA – and has worked with all kinds of music. His access to Western as well as Eastern music is the bridge which we are crossing with Samdhi,” says Mahanthappa.