With his Indian heritage having guided much of his original music, Rudresh Mahanthappa is thoroughly
steeped in the music he heard in his youth growing up in Boulder, Colo. There he acquainted himself with the American musical mainstream, later refining his jazz chops at Berklee College in Boston and emerging in his own right as an educator directing jazz studies at Princeton University.
The facetiously named (and costumed) Hero Trio is serious about applying heroic bravado to pieces by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman (the leader's alto-sax messiahs) and others on "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings). The Coleman piece, "Sadness," is taken out of tempo throughout, and represents how firmly Mahanthappa and his mates (bassist Franḉois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston) can hang together while still projecting individuality.
As an arranger, Mahanthappa is unusually creative. The old standard beloved of our grandparents, "I Can't Get Started," is treated with respect despite eschewing its conventional chord changes. Without the harmonic motion of the original, the Vernon Duke tune becomes even more meditative and sheds new light on the song title.
Similarly insightful, the trio's "I Remember April" opens with a pointillistic introduction, as if distant memories were gradually being assembled. When the melody emerges, it's with quick, buoyant confidence. A more unusual choice, perhaps, is an adaptation of the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire," which has a distinct Sonny Rollins feeling. It's as if Mahanthappa is paying tribute to the saxophone giant who put a fresh stamp on "I'm an Old Cowhand" and other unlikely songs. And the pulse seems to echo music of the Caribbean island culture that lies in Rollins' background.
Moutin puts a fruitful line in contrapuntal dialogue with Mahanthappa's alto in Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." And Royston is key to unifying a spirited dash through Charlie Parker's "Barbados" mashed with John Coltrane's "26-2." The performance is raving but coherent, thanks in large measure to the drummer.
The trio's unanimity passes another test glowingly in the stop-start patterns of "The Windup" by Keith Jarrett. Funky without cliché, the performance features the bandleader at his most explosive and a powerful Moutin solo.
It took me a while to get used to Mahanthappa's sound, but the nuances became evident amid all his powerhouse playing. But no repeated listenings were needed to be immediately charmed by the Hero Trio's romp through Charlie Parker's "Red Cross." Mahanthappa's arrangement brings in supportive independent phrases as commentary, somewhat reminiscent of the function of tropes in medieval liturgy.
From his own playing as well as his inspired adaptations of material by other musicians, Mahanthappa has fashioned a winner with his two masked men. The Hero Trio may be having fun with its name, but it also has the right credentials to inspire hero-worship.