Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green Apex (Pi Recordings, 2010)

This was one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year, pairing a bright young alto saxophonist with a lesser-known veteran of jazz. No pressure or anything.

As if realizing the weight of expectation, Mahanthappa and Green open the album with “Summit,” delivering the bobsled run that listeners would be hoping for. They trade lightning-quick lines on alto saxes, then combine on a bubbling little theme. Brief solos follow, starting with Green’s, and you’re opened to another layer of depth, as he throttles down just slightly for a more sophisticated kind of communication.

What’s nice about the album is the sense of team spirit. Mahanthappa is in the left channel, often favoring lower registers on his alto, and Green is on the right — but you don’t get a formulaic sense of “Here’s my solo, here’s yours.” They mix it up, and they fully showcase their powerhouse band, which includes pianist Jason Moran and drummer Damion Reid. Reid adds a stormy power surge that helps accent the strong sax work. He turns “Eastern Echoes,” a slower song, into a big, crashing wave, and he’s a propulsive force on “The Journey,” a suspenseful, dynamic Green composition. (UPDATE: Actually it’s DeJohnette playing on “The Journey.”)

I’d mentioned before that Green’s “regular jazz” compositions often get contrasted with outward-bound soloing. That’s apparently on his “Rainer and Theresia,” where Mahanthappa, in particular, tears it up with his solo. But on “Little Girl I’ll Miss You,” a Venice-canal-style ballad which seems to be Green’s trademark composition, his fast, breathy solo sticks closer to the chords, something he doesn’t always do (see 2008’s The Salzau Quartet: Live at Jazz Baltica on Traumton).  It shows how much adventure can be unearthed from a song while still coloring within the lines.

But of course, that’s not the story of the album. Much of the soloing is fast, crazy, and delightful — particularly on “Who?,” which spins ferociously against what starts as a skittery backdrop. Everyone gets a solo, except maybe bassist François Moutin — they make up for that by giving him space for an incredible solo to start “The Journey.”

I also liked Mahanthappa’s “Soft.” It opens slowly, loosening the boundaries for some interesting sax exploring, then abruptly shifts into a gallop that showcases the choppy, percussive style I associate with his and Vijay Iyer‘s previous work.

Am I quibbling if I say that Green hits the occasional very-high note that I’m not in tune with? Part of it is technique — he scrapes against that highest-note barrier with a tone that’s a bit ragged, although that might be on purpose (or an effect of the effort it takes to get to that note). Part of it is personal choice; in soloing on “Soft,” he grabs for a couple of long, high notes where I’d have hoped for a different direction. Quibbles. That Green is 75; still making music; still soloing with such intensity, accuracy and feeling; and getting this much publicity — it’s all cause to celebrate. This is a terrific album that very much delivers on the promise of its all-star lineup.

Speaking of which — Mahanthappa’s brief liner notes offer some insight into how they compiled this band, which includes Jason Moran (who was soon to become a MacArthur Fellow) on piano and Jack DeJohnette (drums) on four tracks. The short story is: They’ve all known each other for a while — and Green and Mahanthappa have a relationship that goes back 20 years, although they’ve only recently done any work together. To those of use who know these guys only through their records, these connections are invisible. As they strengthen over the years, they can produce some amazing results.

For more about the album, check out Pi’s preview video from this summer:

3 thoughts on “Apex

  1. After hearing this one, I’d like to contrast it with Dual Identity, the album Mahanthappa did with Steve Lehman. I’ve given that one only a brief glance, and my initial reaction was more like, ‘GAAAAAAH!’ It’s insane, in a good way.

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