It's not unusual for a jazz artist to lead several groups, but Rudresh Mahanthappa just might hold the record. He leads or co-leads 10 different ensembles.
"I'm always hearing a different sound in my head," says Mahanthappa. "My artistic vision is not necessarily about having one group and keeping it together for 10 to 20 years. I see a lot of elements in a lot of configurations that make up my musical story."
Gamak, the name of the group Mahanthappa will bring to the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, is derived from gamaka, the South Indian term for melodic ornamentation. It's appropriate. In addition to bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, Gamak includes guitar wizard David "Fuze" Fiuczynski.
"I knew with Fiuczynski's involvement the band could go a lot of different places," says Mahanthappa. "He has a strong rock and punk, rock-guitar-hero energy I wanted to tap into. His sonic palette is really wide."
Mahanthappa continues: "He's playing a double-neck guitar; one is fretless, one is fretted. He's able to switch back and forth and conjure some amazing sounds. Some of the music involves different sorts of tunings and micro-tonal things. He can deal with that from Eastern and Western perspectives."
On the opening cut of Gamak's album, Fiuczynski's guitar strums are reminiscent of a James Brown cut. The tune later enters King Crimson-like, progressive-rock territory.
"That's what I was going for — making music coming from a lot of different places," says Mahanthappa. "The second tune is based on a South Indian raga, but the way Fuze plays it, it sounds like he's playing dobro or slide guitar. It almost has a country sort of attitude."
When people ask Mahanthappa what kind of music he plays, he keeps it simple. "I say jazz, but I write my own music, and it's unlike any jazz you've heard before. It's certainly not your grandfather's jazz."
In his brief liner notes on Gamak, he writes: "Each album represents a new investigation into the meaning and trajectory of global society and community." It's an unusually ambitious statement.
"I'm Indian American and I've seen our place in America and our place in the world change drastically in the last 15 or 20 years," says Mahanthappa. "We were an extreme minority in this country for a long time, and when we did have more visibility it was stereotyped as being doctors, computer scientists, engineers. More recently you're seeing Indian Americans in Hollywood, you're reading books by them, you're seeing them on TV, and you're hearing them play music."
"My generation is probably the most prominent generation of Indian Americans that's made some waves in the mainstream American cultural landscape," he says. "In examining that, one experiences the human condition in a unique way. My music has evolved hand in hand with the way I feel my place in this music, in this country, in this world has evolved."
There's no doubt Mahanthappa has brought his unique blend of cultures into the jazz mainstream. Last year at the Newport Jazz Festival, his group Samdhi received a standing ovation after its first tune. "We were a little flabbergasted," says Mahanthappa. "We didn't know what to do next. Is the rest of the gig one big encore?"
Mahanthappa is the son of a physicist who left India, traveled to America to get his doctorate, and stayed. Mahanthappa visited India several times as a child and has been there a few times since.
Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Mahanthappa heard bhajans, Indian devotional music, and his parents had a few Ravi Shankar albums. But mostly he listened to Top 40 radio. He began clarinet lessons in fourth grade with a teacher who turned him on to a variety of music without pigeonholing it.
"We didn't talk about Sidney Bechet being traditional and Sonny Stitt being hard-bop, we just listened to music. I didn't know that what Ornette Coleman did was considered avant-garde until I went to college. I saw it in the same stream as Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington."
His first saxophone heroes were Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn. "That's the stuff that made me want to play the saxophone," Mahanthappa says. "The first concert I ever went to was Grover. He's an important figure in black music. It was instrumental soul; it wasn't smooth jazz. It hadn't had the soul sucked out of it yet. And the Brecker Brothers...when I first heard Michael Brecker, I said I want to play saxophone that well. Then I heard Charlie Parker and it was over."
He began college at North Texas State University, finished at Berklee College of Music, and earned his master's degree at De Paul University in Chicago. He moved to New York City in 1997 and started an ascent in the jazz world that shows no sign of slowing down.
Last month Mahanthappa won a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. The $275,000 prize, given to artists in dance, jazz, theater, and interdisciplinary work, is an investment in their careers, providing them with the means to take risks. Mahanthappa will continue to experiment in his various ensembles, but one thread will run through all of them.
"To me the whole relationship to India is at the core of finding identity," he says.
Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak takes place Thursday, June 27, 7 p.m. & 9:15 p.m. at The Little Theatre (240 East Ave.). Tickets cost $20-$25, or you can use your Club Pass.