Hero Trio (Whirlwind Recordings)

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Released June 19, 2020

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Over the course of an illustrious twenty-five-year career Rudresh Mahanthappa’s music making has constantly pushed at the artistic boundaries to encompass such diverse influences as classic
bebop, the flash and fury of electric fusion, and the complexities of Carnatic music, while always maintaining a clear sense of his own fiercely intelligent, uncompromising musical personality.
On ‘Hero Trio’, his sixteenth release as a leader/co-leader, he has moved the focus away from his own compositions to pay tribute to his greatest influences with an album of interpretations. All of the material is presented in Mahanthappa’s characteristically original arrangements, and to approach them with the greatest degree of freedom and spontaneity he chose to record in trio format, enlisting the talents of long-time associates François Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.
Their effortless collective virtuosity, and the perfect attunement of their musical thinking honed over two decades of playing together, makes this album an outstanding addition to the genre. “Playing chordless trio, you’re very exposed but you also have a degree of freedom that’s very special. There’s also a great history of piano trios that have a beautiful way of functioning like a single organism, and I wanted to capture that energy. I wrote the arrangements, and when we came together to rehearse I didn’t have to reorganise a thing. I felt like within ten minutes we were ready to make an album.”
His role as Director of Jazz at Princeton stimulated Mahanthappa to conduct a deep exploration of the standard repertoire, and this in turn led him to focus in on the diverse individual tunes that have helped shape his own career. Charlie Parker’s ‘Red Cross’ was one of the first Parker tunes Mahanthappa ever learnt, and appealed to him for its humour, an often overlooked component of Parker’s genius. The trio give it a thorough reworking. “It’s been interesting for me to take things apart – we play the melody divided into three different sections that are really three different moods, but it felt really natural at the same time.” ‘Overjoyed’ is an arrangement of the Stevie Wonder classic by Danilo Perez, with whom Mahanthappa has played in duo format – “Just an awesome tune in any way shape or form. Danilo’s arrangement goes through different meters and complex harmony but still flows beautifully: Francois has the ability to suggest all kinds of harmony even without a piano being present and I took full advantage of that.”
Mahanthappa wanted to acknowledge that his path would not have been possible without both Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and he boldly combines their compositions in ‘Barbados/26-2’, emphasising the unifying strength of the melodies and the ingenuity of his arranger’s touch. By contrast, in live performance the trio have developed a strategy where the three of them create a spontaneously improvised groove for Mahanthappa to take in any direction he chooses – ‘I Can’t Get Started’ replicates that approach to powerful effect, showcasing how his sophisticated rhythmic conception can accommodate his love for Sonny Rollins and Benny Carter without compromise. ‘The Windup’ is from Keith Jarret’s ‘Belonging’, one of Mahanthappa’s favourite ever albums – “A ridiculously awesome album. I also liked the challenge of recording Jarrett with a pianoless group – if you can do that, then you can do anything.”
June Carter Cash wrote ‘Ring of Fire’ for her husband Johnny, and the tune connects Mahanthappa with his Colorado childhood. “Like Dolly Parton, when you take a closer look at what they did compositionally you realise that it has a conversational flow, with odd length phrases and extra bars here and there, and I wanted to capture that freedom.” Reinvigorated jam session favourite ‘I’ll Remember April’ is inspired in part by the majestic version on Lee Konitz’s ‘Motion’ album, but Mahanthappa and the trio stamp their own idiosyncratic personalities onto this stunningly original performance. ‘Sadness’ explores the legacy of Ornette Coleman’s mid-sixties trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett – “The sonic landscape the three musicians created is pretty amazing – we wanted to explore those textures.” Mahanthappa wanted to include some lesser known Parker tunes and ‘Dewey Square’ was a last-minute spontaneous addition in the studio that provided a perfect bookend for the album.
Hero Trio is both a striking statement of Mahanthappa’s own unique vision, and a tribute to his musical inspirations. “I have always wanted to record in the powerful yet intimate trio format. It would be an incomplete venture without somehow celebrating the quintessential saxophone trio work of Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, and Ornette Coleman. Outside of the jazz world, I first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street as a child and have always found their work to be beautiful, humorous, pensive, and utterly joyful. They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre towards seeing music as a magical force that binds humanity. With this album, we seek to endorse and spread that message widely.”

Track Listing:

1. Red Cross (Charlie Parker) 6:29

2. Overjoyed (Stevie Wonder) 6:42

3. Barbados/26-2 (John Coltrane / Charlie Parker) 6:40

4. I Can’t Get Started (Vernon Duke / Ira Gershwin) 5:30

5. The Windup (Keith Jarrett) 4:42

6. Ring Of Fire (June Carter Cash / Merle Kilgore) 3:56

7. I’ll Remember April (Gene DePaul) 5:45

8. Sadness (Ornette Coleman) 3:07

9. Dewey Square (Charlie Parker) 2:42


Rudresh Mahanthappa: saxophone, alto

Francois Moutin: bass

Rudy Royston: drums

Recorded January 24 – 25, 2020, at Sound on Sound Studios, Montclair, NJ by David Amlen

Mixed and mastered by Liberty Ellman
Produced by Rudresh Mahanthappa
Executive Producer: Michael Janisch
Album Artwork and Graphic Design: Dave Bush
Photography: David Crow


Mahanthappa’s 2015 CD Bird Calls was one of the most intelligent investigations of Charlie Parker’s music in recent memory, using his bebop classics as a jumping off point for thrilling original songs. This new work also looks at the old, but in a broader sense, as the set list includes anthems by soul and country stars, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash, as well as jazz icons John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett.

Its central achievement is a bridging of the gap between supposed high and lowbrow, as Mahanthappa’s trio convincingly puts a distinctive stamp on the eclectic source material, with sparkling cocktails of grooves, hooks and solos that unfurl in structures that can be straight and not so straight. The ambitious melding of Parker’s ‘Barbados’ and ‘Coltrane’s 26-2’ is a rollercoaster ride predicated on several original interludes as well as the familiar themes, showing how able the players are to shift pulse and attack so that a freeish funk flows into a flighty swing, and something indefinable between the two.

Mahanthappa and Moutin have big, bulbous sounds on their respective instruments, and Royston is a constantly ticking engine of ideas. Yet all three players, as much as they express themselves to the full, embellishing phrases and turnarounds with no inhibition, gel as a unit. The result is an overwhelming feeling of joy amid all the ‘chops’, a desire to emote as well as excel technically. 

Kevin Le Gendre (Jazzwise)