Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is best known for his prowess at applying the principles of Indian classical music to contemporary jazz. But don’t pigeonhole him as the academic type. Reared in Colorado during the ’70s, Mahanthappa, now based in New York, is the child of another tradition entirely. His skill with ragas is acquired. His love of funk and progressive rock is seemingly innate.
Thursday night at Blues Alley, the first evening of a two-night stand, Mahanthappa performed mostly tunes drawn from his newest album, “Samdhi.” The compositions artfully blend knotty subcontinental rhythms and modern jazz harmonies, with a dash of bluesy honking thrown in for good measure. How complex are they? Between songs, there were moments when guitarist Rez Abbasi looked a little overwhelmed, riffling through pages upon pages of musical charts as if they were worksheets in a trigonometry exam.
Mahanthappa’s take on fusion is a unique one, pleasantly devoid of the spacey new-age, cliches that have historically stricken the jazz world’s East-meets-West endeavors. By studying with Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, Mahanthappa solidified his command of Indian scales and microtones — the notes between the notes — which are difficult to produce on a saxophone, which has a fixed scale. And he has some creative work-arounds, too. “Circus,” an older tune, which opened his second set on Thursday night, draws its ping-ponging Eastern-sounding melodies from transcriptions of Indian-American speech patterns.
But many of the second set’s finest moments came when Mahanthappa and his fellows skewed into funkier territory, blasting out solos over gnarled prog-rock riffs that splayed out across alien-sounding meters. Mahanthappa has worked hard to gain an authentic understanding of the music of his heritage, but it’s nice to know that he hasn’t forsaken Mahavishnu Orchestra.