Fresh off another round of critical praise for his 2015 album Bird Calls, Rudresh Mahanthappa and his quintet brought their assertive virtuosity to the Providencia Jazz Festival in Santiago, Chile last night. The large outdoor festival was free this year for the first time in over a decade, and the venue sold out days in advance. I managed to catch up with the alto saxophonist in the morning before his performance yesterday. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:
What are your first impressions of Chile since you’ve arrived here?
The people are very good looking; the altitude seems a little high. I wish we could see more of the city; this is really like a surgical strike. We came in last night and are literally leaving right after the gig, because it’s a big weekend in New York with the Winter JazzFest and the American Performing Arts Presenters conference—everyone needs to be back for gigs tomorrow night. Bird Calls played Winter JazzFest last year, and we’re doing something on Monday that’s unrelated to Winter JazzFest but it’s still part of the conference.
So you’re feeling the farness from New York, too?
Absolutely, definitely, and I’m actually enjoying it, to tell you the truth. This is always a hectic weekend in New York, and it’s nice to be away from it—thousands of miles away doing something very interesting that I haven’t done before. Like I said, I just wish we could be here a little longer, but schedules don’t always allow that.
Is this your first time in Chile?
Yes, definitely my first time in Chile.
Well I hope you get to make it back, too.
Yeah, maybe as a tourist.
So I’m not sure if you saw this, but when you were walking in there was the poster for the Providencia Jazz Festival, with a black trumpet player playing directly into a very disapproving-looking bust of Beethoven [pictured, left].
I didn’t notice the bust of Beethoven, actually, but I’m going to take another look at that.
When I saw that as I was coming in here, I wanted to ask you about this: in the context of this being a presentation of “art music,” that comes from that lineage Beethoven pioneered in a certain way, in terms of how it’s being received. I’m curious how you relate to that.
You have to elaborate on that: what do you mean by “presented” like that?
What I mean is that a lot of the people who are coming to hear you play are the same kinds of people who come to hear a Beethoven symphony.
Well that’s interesting. I think we deal with that in the States as well—Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge example of that, to the highest degree possible. Carnegie Hall had their own jazz band, and all these big concert halls have jazz series. So it is a bit odd, but that goes back to Jazz at the Philharmonic and everything that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing as well. I think all of us try to find a balance between playing in clubs and playing in big halls, because we still want to bring this music to people who can afford to see it. I’m not sure what the admission structure is here tonight, but if you’re playing at Jazz at Lincoln Center those tickets are really, really expensive. Unless I’m on the guest list, I often don’t go to those concerts myself, you know—I would rather see people in clubs. So that’s always an interesting thing, because we begin to feel strange if all we’re playing is big concert halls, because that’s not where the music was born. I still think of this music as music for the people that should be accessible to a wide variety of income brackets, and culture and class, and whatever divisions we have in these economic structures of the West. It’s interesting—to think about it as that sort of lineage of presentation makes me a little bit sad, actually, but I think we’ll roll with it.
I should also add that this year for the first time in many years, the festival is free and completely sold out. So in that sense I’m looking forward to hearing what the vibe is. We’re also in an upper-middle class part of the city in this very beautiful old Spanish colonial building [for the interview]. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes at the park.
This year you’re on top of the critics polls—part of the reason why everyone loves it is that it is such a clear personal vision and sound. I’m curious how you’re relating to having that extra publicity, as an artist. Outside of New York, and outside of the people who are already hip to your stuff, a lot more people are paying attention. What does that do for you?
Well, I think it’s all cumulative. It’s nice to be at the top of that poll, but I was #2 on that poll in 2008 (and #1 was a Sonny Rollins reissue.)
That’s good company to keep.
Yeah, so I think these things are cumulative, I never look at one thing in isolation. All that stuff is really great, and as I get older, I notice that all this stuff ebbs and flows. I released an album in 2008 that everyone went nuts about. Then I released some great albums after that, too, that received varying degrees of critical praise. So you just take it in stride. The reality is, there was a time when if you won the Down Beat critics’ poll that actually led to gigs. Now, I don’t think it’s as direct, but it snowballs. I’m obviously doing more than I was five years ago, or eight years ago, and it all kind of adds up. You can’t think about stuff too much—you can bask in it for a second. Sometimes now I don’t even tell my parents. My parents will write to me two weeks later like, “our friends told us about this, why didn’t you tell us?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I was playing with my son.”
Everything helps, though. That’s the interesting thing: I meet presenters and DJs, all sorts of people in myriad parts of the industry who are working in huge cities or they’re working in the middle of nowhere in northern Spain. You have to take all of them seriously. If someone says, “I’m going to play your record,” you make sure that they get your record! I want as many people to hear this music as possible. And I’m more concerned with reaching people that are outside the “jazz-loving community.” I think what I do actually has the ability to reach a lot of people and touch a lot of people. I’m not so concerned with impressing other jazz musicians or kowtowing to what the “jazz lover” or the “jazz aficionado” thinks. And I think this album is unique, because it’s an acoustic album, it’s a quintet, it has this orientation towards Charlie Parker—but Kinsmen, or Indo-Pak Coalition, the people who bought those albums are fans of mine but not necessarily jazz fans. I’m more interested in fostering that direct-to-fan relationship instead of hanging out on jazz blogs or something like that. I’m dealing with NPR, or Rolling Stone, or The New Yorker, The Atlantic—publications that smart and enthusiastic people read, people who love life and culture. Those are the people I want to play for.
It’s clear that’s happening. And for what it’s worth, it seems like that’s where the jazz lovers are, too.
Exactly! They’re in the same space, so you might as well reach them and everybody else.
You’re about to give a masterclass, and people are here who want to learn more about how you do what you do—as a musician, as a saxophonist, and as a musical thinker. Even though it is on the continent of South America, Chile is very isolated—it’s really more like an island than a part of the continent in many ways. One of the consequences of that is that there has been less contact here with the African diaspora than in the rest of the Americas. I’ve noticed this in my work with jazz musicians here that something has really touched them about jazz that connects deeply with them. But I know that some students have this confusion around the issue of the music’s blackness and how that relates to black people. You grew up in Boulder, which is not exactly a hotbed of black musical culture—do you have a message for people here who might be struggling with that?
That’s interesting. It’s also an issue in Europe, where they have developed their “own jazz” which in some cases has nothing to do with the African-American experience. For me, I’m not white, either—I’m Indian-American, my parents came to the US in the 1950s. Jazz has been a multicultural music at its core, from its very birth. It came out of hybridity, and I think embracing what that hybridity means for all of us as individual artists is a very important thing. Jazz is tolerant, if not embracing, of that. But at the same time, yes, it is black music—and you have to somehow engage that as well. It’s interesting that jazz has this international presence, and everyone feels like they can possess it. But it is American music. If you were going to study Indian music, wouldn’t you go to India at some point? I think if you’re going to study jazz, if you really want to get inside of it, you have to go to New York at some point. You don’t have to live there, but go experience what that means. It just has to be acknowledged that it is African-American music. But I don’t think that people should ever feel that they’re not entitled to be a part of the experience. Everyone has that right. The bigger problem I have is with people who don’t want to acknowledge that it is, at its core, this African-American art form. There are significant European communities that exist like that, like “we have our own jazz, we don’t need you.” That scares me a lot.
Any final thoughts?
Just to run a little further with what we were talking about: I think infusing your own identity and getting to know who you are within this music is an amazing thing. Trying to find that hybridity of the tradition of jazz with what is going on around you culturally and socially is incredibly important. That’s what keeps this music fresh, that’s what keeps it moving forward, and that’s what keeps it contemporary. You’re not moving jazz forward if you’re just going to play standards, and if you’re only going to treat it as a historical music. To anyone who’s interested or wants to play this music, they should run with that idea and see where it takes them.