An unlikely pairing? Think again… the Rudresh & Bunky show

One of the most potent new recordings released this fall, and one bound to receive top ten critic’s considerations at year’s end, is Apex, a partnership between kindred alto saxophone spirits Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green on the PI Recordings label. In addition to the cross-generational pairing of these two penetratingly original alto saxophonists, they are joined by a robust cast of fellow travelers that includes Jason Moran on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Damion Reid.

Once you hear Rudresh and Bunky weaving and thoughtfully powering their way through the fine program of ten pieces they’ve put together, their partnership makes great sense and is achieved seamlessly. But on the surface their pairing still begs a few questions. So I asked each of them the same two questions, starting with…

What prompted this successful partnership?

Bunky Green: This past summer we played together in Millenium Park in Chicago, and the compatibility was incredible. The thought process seems to be freedom from the standard Eighteenth Century harmonic pulls, not total freedom, but freedom to create a fresh tonality. It wasn’t all about the changes, but change. That’s what I enjoy in Rudresh’s playing, the element of freshness. That concert was recorded and after we heard the results the deal was sealed. I read a compliment on YouTube where the person said “the amazing thing about Bunky Green is that a man his age [76] can play so modern” (smile). It’s very simple, I’ve been playing like that for many years, so I didn’t have to do anything but be myself.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bunky, I was aware of the fact that from the preceding generation of forward-view alto players, that includes most notably Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, have expressed their gratitude for your influence, but was unaware that apparently there are also Bunky Green admirers of [my] generation. And I suppose this is a continuation of the way you’ve similarly embraced Jason Moran. [Editor’s note: Jason Moran worked with Bunky on the latter’s 2006 release Another Place on Label Bleu.]

I first heard Bunky on an album called Places We’ve Never Been when I was at Berklee. The legendary saxophone teacher Joe Viola heard me warming up and loaned me the album thinking that I’d like it. His playing and writing struck me as so innovative while very much rooted in the larger jazz tradition. He also clearly had his own voice and he was playing alto! Besides Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and Kenny Garrett, the alto seemed rather stuck to me as a pioneering instrument at that time.

When I heard that album, I called Bunky and asked if I could send him a cassette of my music. He was amenable to that and called me back with some inspiring words. We stayed in touch over the years and grew to be good friends. We’d also always talked about doing something together but were waiting for the right moment and circumstance.

In 2009 my friend Mike Orlove in Chicago called me to be a part of a series called “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz.” He asked me about presenting Kinsmen (my previous project with Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath). I asked if a group with me and Bunky would fit the bill. Of course, my ties with Chicago and Bunky’s Chicago roots were a selling point. We did the concert and it worked beautifully. We knew that we had to record and continue to move forward.

How long did it take for each of you to feel comfortable with each other on the bandstand, and where would you say your fellow travelers — Jack DeJohnette, Francois Moutin, Jason Moran and Damion Reid fit into that equation?

BG: Again, the compatibility element was there from the beginning. We had a rehearsal of my music and his and the real music came from the interaction in the form of pretty much spontaneous creation. Jack DeJohnette, Francois and Damion were great and essential because it takes very loose and free players to get into that free time feel. At times, you don’t know where it’s going, but you have to go there with it and relinquish standard continuous rhythmic motion.

It was and is great for me to perform in this context, it keeps me trying to move forward. One of my favorite musicians in the world is Jason Moran. Jason has the ability to bring everyone in to a team environment and cause all of the parts to create a whole. He is very special!

RM: Everyone involved was hand selected not only for their tremendous musicianship but also because of our existing relationships. I met Jason soon after I moved to New York while sitting in with an early version of Greg Osby’s band in the late 90s. We haven’t worked together so much but we did perform together a few times. I’ve also sat in with his trio at the Vanguard, which was a real pleasure. Jason also played on Bunky’s last album Another Place, so they already had an existing relationship.

Francois Moutin has been in my quartet since I moved to NYC 13 years ago. He’s my main man on bass without a doubt. Damion Reid has also been a longtime partner in crime playing with both my quartet and Samdhi, my electric project, as well as Dual Identity that I co-lead with Steve Lehman. He also performed with Jason many times in various formats.

Jack DeJohnette, well I’ve been playing in Jack’s new quintet for almost a year. I believe that he worked with Jason in a group of Don Byron’s among others. Bunky and Jack knew each other from Chicago but never had a chance to work together so that was a real treat for them and amazing to witness.

So as it looks like an all-star band full of ringers, it is actually a group of like-minded folks with roots of varying lengths. I guess the short answer for me is, it didn’t take any time to feel comfortable. The band was made for comfort and optimal creativity!!

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