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Do You Speak Jazz?

 In 2004, Rudresh Mahanthappa alchemised his exasperation into art. His album Mother Tongue that year was a witty, biting rely to the query often posed to subcontinental immigrants to the US, “Do you speak Indian?” or “Do you speak Hindu?”

The saxophonist, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, recorded Indian-American speakers of languages such as Kannada, Konkani and Gujarati explaining, “No, I do not speak Indian. There is no such language. I speak Gujarati. Having lived in America for almost 20 years, I also speak English.” Mahanthappa used the intonations of these sentences to create an album that went to No. 8 on the US jazz charts.

Since then, the 42-year-old musician has attempted toive jazz an Indian-American voice through a variety of formations: the Indo-Pak Coalition; Raw Materials, a duo with his soul brother, the pianist Vijay Iyer; the quintet Dual Identity; and most recently Gamak. His imaginative sonic adventures have earned him a warehouse of fellowships and awards: he was Downbeat magazine’s alto saxophonist of the year in 2011 and 2012 and bagged the same honour from the Jazz Journalists’ Association for four years from 2009.

“Jazz is a multicultural music at its heart from its roots and through its history of embracing other cultures and ideologies,” he said in an e-mail interview for a piece I did for Outlook recently.  “My contribution is an apropos part of its journey.”

Excerpts from the interview here.

Blues Around the Clock

By the time he passed away in 1997, blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon had scored five Top Ten hits and made more than two dozen albums. He continued performing well into the 1990s, until he was diagnosed with throat cancer. As it turns out, the ace blues shouter had got his start in Calcutta, where he found himself as a member of the merchant marine during World War II.

witherspoon250_medium“I don’t know why I started singing the blues,” he told one interviewer. “Blues was hardly allowed in my home. My mother was a very religious woman and so was my father. I don’t know what made me become a blues singer. I really think, had I not been in Calcutta, India, and just heard Teddy Weatherford, who had been in the East for years and was from Chicago, if I hadn’t heard him play Benny Goodman’s arrangement of Why Don’t You Do Right?, I don’t think I’d ever be singing the blues.”

He sat in with Weatherford’s band many other nights during his time in port. Witherspoon told another interviewer: “I sang with Teddy Weatherford’s band over there – Around the Clock, very risqué tune. Wynonie Harris recorded it.  It was all suggestive blues.”

’ Spoon didn’t make any recordings in India, but his time in Calcutta seems to have left an impression on his family. His cousin, Diane Witherspoon, has performed in Bombay twice, in 2010 and 2012, and promises to return.

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