Chicago Reader Critic’s Choice by Peter Margasak

Critic’s Choice Recommended The List (Music)
Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet 
This year alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has released two small-band records with fellow alto players, but despite their unusual instrumental format neither is merely a blowing session. On Dual Identity (Clean Feed), the recorded debut of his collaboration with saxist Steve Lehman, both men contribute brainy, mathematical compositions that allow Mahanthappa to showcase his mastery of metrically advanced postbop a la Steve Coleman. Over intricate grooves shaped by bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and drummer Damion Reid, the saxophonists manipulate time as though they’re solving equations in their heads, navigating shifting tempos on “Foster Brothers” and unfurling simultaneous skeins of stuttering, thrillingly bumpy sixteenth notes on “Rudreshm.” Better still, they complement the technical sophistication of their improvisations with raw emotion. Mahanthappa is joined by veteran saxist Bunky Green, one of his key influences, on the brand-new Apex (Pi)—a collaboration they debuted last summer in Millennium Park with a different backing band. It’s less frenzied and more supple than Dual Identity ; some tracks borrow from Indian classical music, using briskly winding melodic shapes or 22-beat cyclical patterns, while others update fiercely swinging hard bop with a busy, aggressive rhythm section. Though Green has had an enduring influence on several generations of reedists, the album is no mere deferential salute but rather a rigorous, contemporary statement. The arrangements, filled out by pianist Jason Moran, bassist Francois Moutin, and on several tracks the great drummer Jack DeJohnette (Reid plays on the rest), not only highlight Green’s driving energy and curiosity but also illustrate Mahanthappa’s remarkable ability to locate common threads shared by disparate traditions and build entirely new musical systems from them. For this engagement he leads a variation on his long-running quartet: Moutin, drummer Dan Weiss, and pianist Craig Taborn filling in for Vijay Iyer. Taborn is an agile player, and because he and Mahanthappa aren’t steady collaborators, he’s perhaps more likely to provoke something surprising from the saxist. —Peter Margasak

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