[JPL] Taking Composing Cues From the Number of Gods

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Jun 29 17:05:06 EDT 2007

June 26, 2007
Music Review | Raw Materials
Taking Composing Cues From the Number of Gods 
Among the holdings of the Rubin Museum of Art is a
16th-century Tibetan mandala painting, about two feet
square. On Friday night the alto saxophonist Rudresh
Mahanthappa played a new piece that he had written,
based on that mandala. He performed it with the
pianist Vijay Iyer, his partner in the duo Raw
Materials; the concert, part of the JVC Jazz Festival,
was in the small, beautiful theater of the Rubin, in
the Flatiron district.

The mandala, projected above the players, was a circle
within a square within a circle, and most of jazz —
even the complex but sheared-back kind practiced by
Raw Materials — proceeds in fairly obvious cycles of
chords and rhythmic patterns. There was connection
enough. But Mr. Mahanthappa went further to link the
music and the painting.

He counted all the deities along the lines and curves
of the mandala; there were 216. That was propitious,
he explained, because 216 is 107 plus 109, two
consecutive prime numbers. “Plus, it’s three cubed
plus four cubed plus five cubed,” he went on. “And
it’s also six cubed.” 

You see what kind of mind we’re dealing with here:
analytical, literal and fanciful. The piece was 216
beats long and written in three-beat rhythm; it
followed an arc of pressure, reaching a scrabbling
peak in the middle. 

Mr. Mahanthappa’s saxophone voice is big, bright and
slightly sharp, and his sense of rhythm is exact:
during a crescendo, he shifted into double-time
phrasing in the middle of a bar, returning to normal
speed about 30 seconds later, again in the middle of a
bar. (He did this several times in the concert, and it
made the ear refocus.) 

Mr. Iyer worked through frantic tangles of chords,
slowing down and speeding up by degrees, giving the
music an undulating feeling. The piece started winding
down to four repeated chords, and became prettier and
clearer; it ended assuredly, with both musicians
landing on the same note an octave apart.

Most of these pieces come with little inside motors:
Mr. Iyer often set an ostinato or a slowly rising
pattern with his left hand and played tremolo or
arpeggio patterns with his right, though sometimes he
played more typical jazz rhythmic patterns. 

But “Remembrance,” an elegiac ballad he wrote for the
pianist Andrew Hill, was led by a slow and pretty
melody, for which both musicians smeared their sound:
Mr. Iyer used a sustain pedal, and Mr. Mahanthappa
played webby, breathy saxophone notes.

One of the challenges of a saxophone-piano duet is
what to do about the lack of a drummer. Mr. Iyer and
Mr. Mahanthappa have been playing together so much
over the last 10 years, in different groups, that they
find ways to fill the void with interweaving rhythmic
accents; in their final piece of the night, fast and
full of sliced-up patterns built on a steady groove,
you could almost hear a phantom drummer. And it was a
good one, young, learned and cool-headed.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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