In honor of the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green’s 82nd birthday today, here’s a feature piece that ran in DownBeat in 2011, profiling him and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Green’s one-time student with whom he was performing the previous behind the CD Apex, on the Pi label.
Bunky Green-Rudresh Mahanthappa, Downbeat Article, 2011:
On the surface, they make an odd couple. Vernice “Bunky” Green, Jr., 75, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida, is African-American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to parents who migrated from Arkansas and Alabama during the Great Depression and settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rudresh Mahanthappa, 39, of South Indian descent, is the first-generation son of a physics professor in Boulder, Colorado. But on Apex [Pi], their co-led 2010 release, comprising a suite of tunes that both contributed to the project, the two alto saxophonists play so synchronously that it’s a challenging proposition to tell who’s doing what.
Prodded by Jason Moran on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and either Jack DeJohnette or Damion Reid on drums, Mahanthappa and Green blow like duelling brothers, each projecting a double-reed quality in their tones, Mahanthappa’s slightly “darker” and tenoristic, Green’s slightly more nasal and oboeish. Both work with complex note-groupings, flying over barlines while always landing on the one. Though the feeling is ‘free,” both work within strongly conceptualized structures, and are thoroughly grounded in “inside” playing and the art of tension-and-release, working with fluid harmonic structures that provide space to soar within the form. “It’s surprising what they came up with,” DeJohnette summed up. “They stimulated each other to the higher levels of creativity.”
Two days into a four-night CD-release run at the Jazz Standard in October, the collaborators convened at Green’s hotel. Green recalled their first meeting, in 1991 or 1992, when Mahanthappa—then a Berklee undergraduate to whom Joe Viola, his sax teacher, sensing an affinity, loaned a copy of Green’s 1979 recording Places We’ve Never Been—presented the elder saxman with a tape. “Sounds beautiful,” Green told him. “There’s only a few of us out here trying to think like this.’”
At the time, a short list of those “few” included M-Base movers and shakers Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who had discovered Green independently as ‘70s teenagers, and subsequently bonded in New York over their shared enthusiasm for his approach, poring over Coleman’s extensive cassette archive of location performances. Many years before, in Chicago, where Green settled in 1960, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill, then young aspirants, had also paid close attention.
“The level of expertise he displayed in his musicianship and expression were very clear from the moment I heard him,” said Threadgill, after witnessing the group’s final night at the Standard. He recalled a concert, perhaps in 1962, in which Green played pieces “structured in the way of free jazz, the so-called avant-garde category.” He continued: “Bunky was formidable, no one to fool with. I can’t think of another alto player at a comparable level in Chicago at the time.”
DeJohnette cited the “urgency, commanding presence and confidence” of Green’s early ‘60s playing. “Everybody would talk about Bunky,” he said, noting that Green had once brushed off his request to sit in during a gig at a South Side club. “He was legendary even then.”
For Osby, Green was less a stylistic influence than “a guru type figure who assured me I’m on the right track, gave me the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that what I was doing was the right thing, not to let detractors sway me from my mission, that I was put here to establish new goals and force new paths.” Ten years later, Mahanthappa would respond similarly.
“I was around lots of tenor players who sounded like Coltrane and Brecker, and alto players wanting to sound like Kenny Garrett,” he recalled. “Bunky’s voice didn’t sound like anyone else. I needed that affirmation that it was ok to be an individual. I heard things—interesting intervallic approaches—that maybe I couldn’t play yet, but was thinking about. But I also heard the tradition in the music.”
Mahanthappa placed his hand at a 90 degree angle. “I often describe what I do as, ‘This is Charlie Parker,’” he said, then moved his hand to 105 degrees and continued, “and this is me. It’s all the same material, just rearranged a little bit—a different perspective. I heard Bunky doing that at the highest level.”
At the time, Mahanthappa, spurred by a trip to India with a Berklee student ensemble to begin exploring musical paths by which to express identity, was absorbing an album by Kadri Golpalnath, an alto saxophonist from Southern India who, like Green, had systematically worked out inflections, fingerings and embouchure techniques to elicit the idiomatic particulars of Carnatic classical music. As important, he took conceptual cues from such Coleman recordings as Dao of Mad Phat, Seasons of Renewal, and Strata Institute. “Steve extrapolated African rhythm as I aspired to do with Indian rhythm and melody, not playing West African music, but doing something new with well-established, ancient material from a different culture,” he said. “It was an amazing template. Steve doesn’t need a kora player or a Ghanaian drum line to play with him, and I don’t need a tabla or mridangam in my quartet. We’re playing modern American improvised music.”
In 1996, the third of his four years in Chicago, Mahanthappa invited Green to guest with his quartet for a weekend at the Green Mill. Green declined. “It was more about trying to do something special than about the music,” Mahanthappa reflected. According to altoist Jeff Newell, a rehearsal partner who had studied formally with Green, Mahanthappa “had developed a lot of the things he’s doing now,” projecting them with a “bright, shave-your-head sound,” as though, a local peer-grouper quipped, “somebody threw lighter fluid on Bunky.”
An opportunity for collaboration arose thirteen years later, when the producers of “Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz” approached Mahanthappa—now leading several ensembles devoted to the application of Western harmony to South Indian melodies and beat cycles, each with highly structured, meticulously unfolding repertoire specific to their instrumentation and musical personalities—to present a concert at Millennium Park. In addition to his blistering sax and rhythm quartet with pianist Vijay Iyer, to whom Coleman had introduced him in 1996 (he reciprocally sidemanned for years in Iyer’s own quartet, and they continue to co-lead the duo Raw Materials), Mahanthappa had recently conceptualized Indo-Pak Coalition, an alto-tabla (Dan Weiss)-guitar (Rez Abbasi) trio, documented on Apti [Pi]; and a plugged-in, ragacentric quintet called Samdhi, with electric guitar (David Gilmore)-electric bass (Rich Brown)-drums (Damion Reid)-mridangam (Anand Ananthakrishnan). Then, too, he was involved in a pair of two-alto projects: the quintet Dual Identity, which he co-leads with Steve Lehman, a fellow Colemanite (The General [Clean Feed]), and the Dakshima Ensemble, a collaboration with Golparnath, in which Abassi, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Royal Hartigan meld with Golparnath’s sax-violin-mridangam trio, to perform hybrid refractions of Carnatic music, documented on the widely publicized CD, Kinsmen [Pi].
“They wanted to present Dakshima and add some Chicago musicians, which sounded like a disaster and was budgetarily impossible,” Mahanthappa said. “But they thought Bunky was a great idea. Bunky made it clear that he didn’t want to play 7s and 11s and 13s—it was more about trying to find a comfortable place that would highlight what we both do. It was interesting to compose a blues (“Summit”) and a Rhythm changes tune (“Who”) that sounds like the same compositional voice I’ve done over the last decade. I’m trying to learn how to relinquish control of the situation and just say, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”
Two of Green’s new tunes, “Eastern Echoes” and “Journey,” reflect his abiding interest in North African scales and tonalities, and another, “Rainier and Theresia,” is the latest addition to a consequential lexicon of searing ballad features. “I didn’t want to get involved in anything with a lot of changes,” Green said. “I don’t feel that music too much now. Our things kind of hover on the edge. There’s all kinds of room in what we write, and we both like that you can take it where you want to.
“Like Rudresh, I do a lot of analyzing. Maybe I play a phrase, and some experience comes up from my life or I see some beauty in it, and I decide to keep developing it, and it leads into a song, or pathways I can utilize on whatever I’m working on. To me, a tune can’t be just pretty. It has to fit into the way I feel about life, so I can express it. The blues, too. It’s not just a word, it’s a feeling. It’s something that you have, and right away, if you play the right notes, the feeling will be there. It’s bending notes. It’s moaning. How are you going to play about pain unless you’ve experienced pain? And how are you going to package it like Charlie Parker, who just cried over his horn? Those aren’t notes. It’s a man’s life.”
Green discovered Bird in his early teens, which coincided with the release of his studio sides for Dial and Savoy. He got them all. By the time he was 17, he said, “I could play everything Bird recorded in terms of imitating. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing. I was just stretching, trying to find the notes.”
Around this time, Green contracted viral pneumonia. “A doctor came to the house, and I overheard him telling my mother that he didn’t think I’d make it,” he recalled. “I decided that if I did live through it, all my friends would be ahead of me, so I should practice just in case—I could hear the ones in my head, so I didn’t need my instrument. I took the hardest songs I could think of—‘Cherokee,’ ‘All The Things You Are,’ ‘Just One Of Those Things’—and transposed them mentally through all 12 keys. The people my mother worked for brought in a famous doctor, who gave me new drugs, which knocked it out, but not until I experienced the white light at the end of the tunnel, the light closing, then fighting for air to come back, the light opening up again. When I was able to get back to my instrument, I was able to play everything I’d practiced.”
While attending Milwaukee Teachers College, Green worked locally with pianists Willie Pickens and Billy Wallace, walking the bar on rhythm-and-blues jobs, soaking up Gene Ammons’ spare, vocalistic approach to ballads like “These Foolish Things” and Lester Young’s poetic treatment of “I’m Confessin’.” He had New York on his radar, and first visited in 1957, staying in the Harlem Y across the street from Smalls Paradise, where Lou Donaldson held a steady gig. He sat in with Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham on the sayso of Wallace, then Roach’s band pianist. “I was always able to play fast, especially at that time, so I was able to hang in and do it,” he said. That fall, Donaldson recommended him to Charles Mingus.
The audition produced a second transformative moment, after Mingus told him, “the first tune we’ll play is ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus.’” Green continued: “I sat there, ‘Hmm, pithecan…’ ‘You know what that means, man?’ That’s the way Mingus talked. ‘No, I really don’t know.’ ‘That means the first man to stand erect.’ He said, ‘Play this’ and played something like BINK-DINK-DOM-DEEENNGG. I said, ‘Have you got that written down so I can see it?’ Then he went off on me—if he wrote it down, I’d never play it right. I said, ‘Then play it again.’ I was able to hear it and play it back, and he smiled, and moved on.
“Mingus validated how I was starting to feel about the music—that there must be a systematic way to break free of the major-and-minor system. He’d have you do things like take the neck off your horn and blow into the bottom part to get a very low timbre on ‘Foggy Day’ because he wanted you to sound like a ship out in the harbor.”
Mingus drove Green cross-country to a run at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. On the return trip, he dropped him off in Chicago so that he could attend to family matters in Milwaukee, with the expectation that Green would make his way to New York for more club dates and a recording. But Green stayed home, imbued with notions of the freedom principle, with the late ‘50s innovations of John Coltrane as his lodestar. Green continued these explorations in Chicago, where—unable “to afford New York at the time”—he moved in 1960. He quickly made his presence felt on a scene that he describes as “very fast, but more laid back than New York, so you could do yourself in a less frantic environment.” He cut a straight-ahead sextet date for Exodus with Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Wynton Kelly, Larry Ridley and Jimmy Cobb, and a quartet side for Vee-Jay with Wallace, bassist Donald Garrett, and drummer Bill Erskine. He frequently partnered with Garrett, on “out of the box” projects, including an exploratory trio that did a concert—Threadgill attended—on which they “just started playing and tried to interact—that was the whole gig.”
A third transformative moment occurred in 1964, when Green, in Morocco on a State Department tour after winning “Best Instrumentalist” and “All Around Musician” awards at that year’s Notre Dame Jazz Festival, traveled “through the back woods” to hear a performance. “We saw three musicians sitting on the floor in a circle,” he recalled. “One guy had a bagpipe, another had a small violin, and the third played a small drum that he put his hand into and played on top. I became mesmerized by the bagpipe player’s skill. It blew my mind, because he put together what I was hearing in my head. No chords. There was a drone of a fifth, and you played around that fifth and resolved it within yourself. Later, I started studying it and building from it, pretty much the way Rudresh visited his culture and started drawing on it. I’m not trying to copy the sound. I’m trying to get into the essence of their phrasing and how they circle the open fourth and fifth tonal centers that they use. I had to give up the standard jazz lines in order to do that.”
Ten years later, Steve Coleman, then 18, heard Green—at this point heading a newly-formed Jazz Studies department at Chicago State University—either at Ratso’s on the North Side or Cadillac Bob’s, around the corner from his South Side house. “Bunky worked out patterns that sounded calculated, like a deliberate effort to get to his own thing,” Coleman stated. “As a result, his playing is very clear, precise, direct, and I could dig into it, try to analyze it and find out what it was. I wanted him to show me what he was doing, so I asked for a lesson, but Bunky turned me down. He told me, ‘I only give lessons to cats who need lessons, and you don’t. You need to go to New York.’ So I decided I’d listen and grab what I could.
“Although I noticed the patterns early on, Bunky used certain devices that intrigued me. He developed a special fingering to get a hiccup quality that you hear in North African singers. He also picked up a lot of augmented second intervals, as well as quartile stuff and pentatonics, from that part of the world. Whereas in those countries, the pitches stay pretty much the same, Bunky moved the intervals around in different ways. To me the blues is basically a modal music, without a lot of progression. Bird managed to put sophisticated progressions in the blues that gave it motion, but let it sound like blues. Coltrane figured out a way to move the music that influenced him from Africa and India. Bunky figured out how to do this with the North African-Middle Eastern vibe.”
Along with what he does on Apex, Mahanthappa’s recent sideman work in DeJohnette’s new group with David Fiuczynski, George Colligan and Jerome Harris, and in Danilo Perez’ 21st Century Dizzy project (there are several open-ended Perez-Mahanthappa duos on Providencia [Mack Avenue], from this year), may go some ways towards countering a critique that his musical production—particularly the 2006 release Codebook [Pi], comprising original pieces constructed intervals drawn from Fibonacci equations, and Mother Tongue [Pi], on which the compositions draw from melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding, in their native dialect, to the question, “Do you speak Indian?”—is overly cerebral and insufficiently soulful.
“Everyone I look up to is simultaneously right brain and left brain, to use a dated term, or simultaneously intellectual and seat-of-the-pants instinctive,” Mahanthappa said. “Bartok played with Fibonacci equations. Bach played with Golden Section. Even Dufay’s motets, if you pick them apart, have a somewhat mathematical, formal approach. ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Central Park West’ are math jazz. A lot of non-Western music has a foot in math as well. A lot of algorithmic thought goes into the way South Indian beat cycles are constructed and played; when the players solo, they know exactly where to start this polyrhythmic thing so it lands at a certain spot two minutes later.
Throughout the recording, and on the bonus video clips offered as value added with an Apex download, Moran prods the flow into unexpected, “right brain” directions. He first recorded with Green on the 2004 date Another Place [Label Bleu], produced by Coleman, who persuaded Green to use him instead of the esteemed master bebop master pianist Green had asked for. “I wanted to hear someone interact with Bunky who wouldn’t just lay down a carpet for him to play over,” Coleman said. “Jason was one of the few piano players I could think of who had enough of the stuff Bunky wanted to hear—the sensibility of how to play a ballad, and so on—but could throw him some curve balls, push him in his thing so the album would represent something like the way he plays live.
“There’s a wild element, an abandon in Bunky’s playing. He lets his feelings out. It was there early on—he’s one of those cats that got it young. He has a very strong embouchure, and his pitch is very centered, his alto tone is crystal-clear, nothing muscly about it. But he does false-fingerings to offset this, to get more rawness in his sound. He plays in the upper register without pressing the octave key, so he gets a throaty split tone quality, an overtone sound, holding the pitch right in between the upper and lower registers, which is how an ancient Greek instrument called the aulos is described.”
Moran described his strategies. “When Bunky gets into his own language, I comp behind him in a way that uses some of what I gleaned from McCoy Tyner, not the chords or voicings, but the power,” he said. “He gets to an angular sound that kind of free-floats up into the stratosphere, and what’s attractive is that just when you think he has no further to go, there’s like another mile and a half, whether way up into the top of the instrument, or into deeper levels of rawness.”
Discussing Mahanthappa’s qualities, Moran referenced an old video game called Punchout. “You’d press ‘Body Blow’ and it said, ‘Body blow! Body blow!” he laughed, swinging his arms back and forth like a pendulum. “Or like Neo punching in Matrix, where you saw these multiple arms hitting the same spot. Rudresh has that kind of rapid fire, and when I play with him, I punctuate and jab. It isn’t just that he plays really quick ideas, but his tone and attack is very different from Bunky’s—more direct, while Bunky slides more.”
Both of Mahanthappa’s recent employers note his open mind and fierce, unmediated execution as a selling point. “Rudresh does things that remind me of a little kid, like, ‘Let’s go and play,’” Perez said, cosigning Moran’s analogy. “When he develops a line, there’s much excitement and raw energy, but he also improvises with great clarity.”
“There was a lot of commotion about Rudresh,” DeJohnette remarked. “He gets a sort of Indian flute or Arabic nai sound on the saxophone, and I’ve been interested in Indian scales and ragas and rhythms since the ‘60s, so I thought his sensibility—and the rawness he brings—would work out for my music.”
“I’ve been dying to play with Danilo and Jack forever,” Mahanthappa said. “There’s a certain validation in working with them, as well as Bunky. At Berklee or when I lived in Chicago, I was inspired when people who I thought were authentic, regardless of jazz genre, would say, ‘Yeah, man, keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Green himself intends to devote a greater proportion of the second half of his eighth decade to performing than has been his custom since the ‘60s.
“I’ve never been desperate about getting ahead,” he said. “All I ever wanted was some recognition for my place in history. I believe in my heart that I’m responsible for a stylistic thing that spread all around the country, and nobody really knew the source. That’s the only thing I’ve regretted, but now I seem to be getting credit. It always took someone else to motivate and push me. I’m not an aggressive person, and unless you’re aggressive you become complacent and don’t move. Maybe it would have been better for me if I had been, because I would be quite established now. But I’m going to keep pushing in terms of playing more and getting more exposure—and we’ll see what happens.”