Bird Of A Feather: Rudresh Mahanthappa On Learning From Charlie Parker

Feb 8, 2015
Originally published on February 9, 2015 9:53 am

In the early 1980s, when a young sixth-grader in Colorado first heard Charlie Parker, his life was transformed. Now a world-class saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa is paying homage to Parker with his new album, Bird Calls. Mahanthappa says it's a tribute to Charlie Parker — but there are no Charlie Parker songs here.

"Each composition is based on a particular Charlie Parker song or solo," he explains. "Really, I feel like the best way we can pay tribute is to show what we've learned from him — not so much play his music."

The idea for the record took root years ago, when Mahanthappa was working with a student on a Parker tune called "Donna Lee" — a notoriously fast and complicated piece that sax players often strive to master, the way a budding rock guitarist might study "Eruption." To make the song more approachable, they broke it into smaller chunks.

"But in hearing these snippets out of context, these snippets started sounding more like Bartok or contemporary classical music, or even elements of something more funk-like — just modern," Mahanthappa says. "And it started striking me that maybe there was more to Charlie Parker than I had previously thought."

Mahanthappa spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about what he's learned from Parker, and why the late master's music always feels personal to him — even on paper. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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RATH: Any self-respecting jazz fan knows that is Charlie Parker - Bird. He transformed jazz, reset its boundaries. In the early 1980s, a sixth-grader in Colorado first heard Charlie Parker, and his life was transformed. Rudresh Mahanthappa went on to reset the boundaries of jazz himself, incorporating classical Indian rhythms and scales. Now, he's paying homage to Charlie Parker with his album "Bird Calls."


RATH: The music on the album is a tribute to Bird. But there are no Charlie Parker tunes here.

RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA: Each composition is based on a particular Charlie Parker song or solo. You know, and really, I feel like the best way we can pay tribute is to show what we've learned from him and not so much play his music.


MAHANTHAPPA: It's been something that's been cooking in my head for many, many years. Actually, you know, there was a moment where I was working on a tune called "Donna Lee." It's one of Charlie Parker's classic compositions.


MAHANTHAPPA: It's a challenging one to play, too. It's kind of a badge of honor if you can play "Donna Lee" I think.

RATH: Because people like to play it fast, too.

MAHANTHAPPA: If you can play it fast - if you can play it at the same speed that Bird played it, then you're doing something right. I was working on that with a student. And we were breaking it into smaller chunks, as you should do if you're trying to learn something. And so we weren't starting at the beginning necessarily. We were - we were just kind of starting in the middle of phrases and working on certain technical aspects of it.


MAHANTHAPPA: But in hearing these snippets out of context, these snippets started sounding more like Bartok or, you know, contemporary classical music - or even elements of something more funk-like or just modern. And it started striking me that maybe there was more to Charlie Parker than I had previously thought.

RATH: Well, let's get into this music to get a sense of how the original tunes inspired what you've done. First, I want to play - here is Charlie Parker's tune "Dexterity" - the original.


RATH: Now, let's hear some of the composition that you say was inspired by that. This is your composition from this new album. It's called "Both Hands."


MAHANTHAPPA: It was actually a very simple transformation. I took most of what Charlie Parker played, and I removed a lot of the rests. So it ends up being like this real kind of machine gun-like stream - ba-da-bup, ba-da-bup, ba-da-bup (ph).


RATH: On this record, you are working in a quintet with a great trumpet player named Adam O'Farrill. Are you guys trying to evoke a little Dizzy Gillespie thing - get a little Bird and Dizz thing going?

MAHANTHAPPA: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, it was really important to me to have a trumpet player on this album. I wanted to evoke that - well, Bird and Dizz or Bird and Miles or Bird and Herb Pomeroy.

I mean, Charlie Parker always had a right-hand man playing trumpet. And often times, that trumpet player was a sort of foil to maybe the density and velocity at which Charlie Parker played. And in some ways, Adam O'Farrill is a great foil for me as well.

RATH: How is that? Talk about your back and forth.

MAHANTHAPPA: Well, Adam is - I mean, he's an interesting guy. I mean, he's only - I don't like the word prodigy so much, but I think he is - I think he is a prodigy. He's 20 years old.

RATH: Wow.

MAHANTHAPPA: And he comes from the great line of O'Farrills. He's Arturo O'Farrill's sons. So that makes him Chico O'Farrill's grandson.

So, you know, it's important to note that Chico O'Farrill was the primary importer of Cuban music to America. I mean, Chico O'Farrill kind of changed everything back in the '40s by introducing Cuban rhythms to American music. And Chico also wrote the "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" for Machito and Charlie Parker, which was one of the first Latin jazz experiments ever. So, you know, there's incredible lineage there and incredible relevance to the project as well.

RATH: Yeah.


RATH: I have to think there's a challenge with some of these Charlie Parker tunes. Can you tell people - I want, you know, the non-musicians, non-saxophone players to get a sense of how you folks study this work. Like, you go to transcribe solos. People have actually sat down and written note for note his improvisations.

MAHANTHAPPA: Right. Well, you know, the best way is to learn the solos by ear yourself from the album. It's like learning a language, right? I mean, you can learn French out of a book, but you're better off going to one of these immersion programs or just going to France for a while and just setting yourself up in a situation where no one is going to speak English. And we as jazz musicians strive to do the same thing.

RATH: Well, I thought I heard or read that some of this music, you saw the transcriptions first before you heard the Charlie Parker record.

MAHANTHAPPA: Right, that is a good point. So there is this iconic book called the "Charlie Parker Omnibook." It's a book of Charlie Parker transcriptions. And if you see these transcriptions having never heard Charlie Parker - you know, let's imagine yourself having played saxophone for only two years and, you know, through the eyes of a sixth grader. I mean, they really look like a black page. I mean, it looks incredibly complicated and unplayable.

RATH: What was it like putting that record on for the first time?

MAHANTHAPPA: Well, just to hear those solos and see them at the same time just brought new meaning into what this man was about. And I felt a connection to it immediately that - and I'm sure other people have had this feeling, too - but when I listen to Charlie Parker, I always feel like he's playing for me. I feel like - yeah, I don't care how many people are in the room, I always feel like he's playing for me. And that's always been something very special to me.


RATH: That's Rudresh Mahanthappa. His new album is music inspired by Charlie Parker. It's called "Bird Calls." Rudresh - loved speaking with you. This is a fantastic album. Thank you so much.

MAHANTHAPPA: Arun, thanks for having me. It's always great to talk to you.

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