Your Life Flashes
Pi Recordings PI 05

Black Water
Red Giant RG 012

Sooner or later, with CD retailers subdividing even jazz and improvised music into smaller and smaller segments — Afro Cuban, Asian improv, Jewish Alternative Movement, to mention three — someone is bound to notice that two of the major soloists on these two discs have a South Asian background. But the quality playing and writing of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa on BLACK WATER, and of pianist Vijay Iyer on both CDs, is much more responsible for the sessions’ universal appeal than their shared ancestry from the Indian subcontinent.

That said, Fieldwork, a collective trio filled out by tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee only obliquely suggests an Indian sound in a couple of the pianist’s compositions. Mahanthappa, on the other hand — whose duo with Iyer as Raw Materials, draws on African-American and South Asian musical heritage — is more upfront about his Indian ancestry. The CD title, black water or kala pani — kala = black, pani = water — is an idiomatic expression that was common in colonial India and the Indo-Caribbean regions referring to a loss of identity experienced upon leaving one’s homeland and crossing the black water of the ocean. Furthermore, the writing on BLACK WATER, and especially the alto saxophonist’s improvisations reference ethnic sounds and scales.

Fieldwork’s CD is one of those inside-outside sessions that should be regarded as modern mainstream if the neo-con influence hadn’t lowered the bar back to early 1950s standards a few years ago. Operating at a go-for-broke high energy level during all 10 compositions the cooperative equally expresses the talents of each member. Rare for a tenor saxophonist of his relative youth and lineage — he has been featured in the bands of pianists Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams as well as on a couple of reedist Anthony Braxton’s pieces — Aaron Stewart sometimes exhibits a breathy Ben Webster-style tone as well as more modern influences. He has played with Iyer in saxophonist Steve Coleman’s group and in their co-op sextet.

Resourceful drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee was musical director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe and specializes in new works for dance and theatre. He has performed with musicians such as Taylor and Coleman plus saxophonists Francis Wong and Henry Threadgill. Iyer, who wrote eight of the 10 selections on YOUR LIFE FLASHES, not only leads his own bands, but worked extensively with Coleman and is also currently a member of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory and poet Amiri Baraka’s Blue Ark.

Unbridled power is the first adjective you apply to Fieldwork as on many numbers Stewart fires off phrase after phrase, double and triple tonguing; Kavee exercises his cowbell, woodblock and cymbals without slackening the constant beat; and Iyer’s rhythmic thrust encompasses Thelonious Monk-style key clipping, rolling bass lines and sliding swinging forward motion. Is it any wonder that one of the tunes is called “Step Lively”? Still that’s a bit of a misnomer because the track sounds no more or less lively than many of the others.

Of the two pieces that may have some reference to Diasporic themes, only one, “Generations” was written by the pianist; the other, “Mosaic” is a Stewart line. The first, a flowing andante melody is based around the dark coloration of the piano’s bass cadenzas, using lots of sustain pedal. Kavee’s ride cymbal pressure signals the frequent tempo changes, while Stewart’s solo is all straightahead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who has studied composition with Abrams, and internalized the Chicago master’s ancient-to-future ethos, “Mosaic”, Stewart’s R&B- styled piece sails along on heavy drumbeats. It’s modern, but like its title takes in influences from the street as much as the academy. Iyer’s busy piano work is filled with nervous energy, exhibiting locked hands choruses as the tune gets faster and more relentless as it goes along. Elsewhere the pianist’s blizzard of right-handed notes offers up Taylor inferences, or maybe echoes of legendary West Coast pianist Horace Tapscott who is honored in the final piece. That tune is also the only time that Stewart finds it necessary to move into reed screech mode.

The other notable composition is Iyer’s “The Inner World”, which is the closest to a ballad the trio comes to on this disc. Slower moving and initially framed by unison tenor sax and piano, two themes often appear at the same time. One emerges from Stewart’s long-line legato tenor solo; the other is double-timed by Iyer’s piano.

All and all, YOUR LIFE FLASHES is a dazzling debut session. Still if Fieldwork is going to continue to evolve and impress in the future, some of its nervous energy must be muted. Maybe next time out a few ballads and/or more dissonant material could be explored as well.

Replace Stewart with Mahanthappa and add French bassist François Moutin, who works steadily with pianist Martial Solal and saxophonist Michel Portal, to the remaining two musicians and you have the cast of characters for BLACK WATER.

Obviously the main change results from the leader’s overt emphasis on his South Asian roots. These roots are obviously entwined with American jazz, however. After all, New York-based Mahanthappa isn’t someone like Kadri Gopalnath, an Indian saxophonist who has adopted the horn to traditional Carnatic music. Mahanthappa, who teaches at The New School University, has had extensive experience working with definite jazzers like saxophonists David Murray and Coleman plus drummer Jack DeJohnette. As a matter of fact, his distinct tone seems to echo the styles of Swing master Pete Brown and soul jazz’s Cannonball Adderley. At the same time, though, here his heritage is never denied.

“Balancing Act”, an apt title and like all the pieces written by Mahanthappa, makes this dichotomy clear from the CD’s first notes. Starting with what sounds to Occidental ears like a sharp snake-charming tone from the sax, the composition soon develops jazz-wise as Iyer’s comping and Kavee’s beat move it into the driving mainstream tradition. Here, as elsewhere the pianist adopts a predominant, contemporary Chick Corea/(acoustic) Herbie Hancock style. Perhaps, too, his playing is more conventionally “jazzy” on this CD to counter the saxman’s ethnic tendencies.

“Joe Made the Face” is nearly eight minutes of near bebop, with Kavee forging a shuffle rhythm, Moutin walking the bass in its lower regions and some rhythmic polyphony from the pianist. Working in his horn’s lower regions well Mahanthappa almost sounds as if he’s playing a tenor, producing speedy sheets of sound that still would have been welcoming to players like Adderley. Moutin and Kavee even trade fours at the end of “What’s a Jazz?” after the drummer with his agitated cowbell and bass drum routine suggests an updated Buddy Rich. Meanwhile Iyer speeds out rubato arpeggios and the reedist gets into the soprano range but with an emphasis on split tones.

Conversely, “Viraha”, a Sanskrit word describing grief due to separation from one’s lover come across as a South Asian “I Cover the Waterfront”. On this simple ballad, Mahanthappa adopts a Middle Eastern musette-like tone which again contrasts with Iyer’s accelerated many keyed voicings, Kavee’s cymbal sizzles and Moutin’s low-key accompaniment. Here, as elsewhere, the head is even reprised before the end.

“Faith (intro)” and “Faith” move right into Carnatic territory, or at least that part of the geographic area that shares real estate with John Coltrane’s more mystical works like “A Love Supreme”. Smearing his vibrato and overblowing, the saxophonist maintains the spiritual tone throughout, as Iyer’s chords turn to cadenzas, Kavee exhibits some expansive hi hat and pang cymbal work and Moutin triple stops for his most expressive —and impressive — work on the disc.

But what should one make of “Simonize”? Mahanthappa sounds as if he’s playing bagpipes until he gets into split tones; Kavee snakes out foot-tapping rhythms then some press rolls; and Iyer exposes his pulsating Latinesque persona as he and the saxophonist play with then reprise the theme. Is this song related to yet another black water Diaspora?

Another impressive session, which should appeal to jazzers of many ethnicities, the only drawback in BLACK WATER, is that with a singular front line the alto man has a heavy burden to carry by himself. Maybe next time out Stewart should be invited along as a guest to take some of the burden off Mahanthappa’s reeds and embouchure.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Your: 1. In Medias Res 2. Accumulated Gestures 3. Sublimation 4. Generations 5. Mosaic 6. Sympathy 7. Step Lively 8. Horoscope 9. The Inner World 10. Path of Action (for Horace Tapscott)

Personnel: Your: Aaron Stewart (tenor saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums)

Track Listing: Black: 1. Balancing Act 2. I Like It When You Play the Blues 3. Viraha 4. What’s a Jazz? 5. Rejoice 6. Simonize 7. Joe Made the Face 8. Are There Clouds in India? 9. The Crossing 10. Faith (Intro) 11. Faith

Personnel: Black: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); François Moutin (bass); Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums