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Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman - Dual Identity

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Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman

Album: Dual Identity

Label: Clean Feed

Review date: Mar. 22, 2010

It’s hard to think of two forward-thinking, outward-leaning alto players who have received more attention in the last few years than the co-leaders of this hot festival set. Back in the day, this kind of thing might have been classified as “Alto Madness” or something silly like that. Mahanthappa’s and Lehman’s Dual Identity combo has contained many players since its 2004 inception, and currently features stellar guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Damion Reid.

The group sound is urgent and intoxicating. And while it’s certainly rooted in the simpatico of the co-leaders — with their intensity and controlled abandon — the quintet plays as a whole from a shared commitment to rhythmic complexity that contains energy and immediacy enough to prevent things from sounding arch or self-satisfied. The saxophonists open up the varied and exuberant set just as they close it, with a nice duo feature that spotlights their similarities (angular and rhythmically pronounced phrasing) and their differences (Mahanthappa more given to melodic exposition, while Lehman sounds tauter and more elliptical). At times they sound like Braxton and Rothenberg, elsewhere like Jackie Mac and Dolphy.

But as soon as things gear up, it’s obvious how crucial Ellman’s presence is to this music, not just his comping or color but those strange little shapes or lines he serves up, adding all kinds of tension, dissonance. His soloing is defined by its own oblique logic that cuts right across the pulse, even as it never loses its relationship to it, coming back with jabs and emphases that keep you on your toes. To point this out is no knock on Brewer (inventive as hell throughout, especially in his solo feature to open “1010”) and the outrageously good Reid, who is crisp and fluid as he holds together these tricky tunes, playing wide open or nailing the backbeats and press rolls.

It helps that the writing is so damn good, never hitting you over the head with the shifting rhythms but instead allowing them to unfold subtly, organically. And there’s a great sense of dynamics throughout, with unpredictable Threadgill-ian changes, flourishes, and rugs pulled out from under. I just love the stuttering punch of “Foster Brothers,” which sounds like the ritual dance of aquatic birds, pulsing with a unique funk that shares bloodlines with Mahavishnu, Five Elements, and John Hollenbeck. But I’m equally impressed with their more spacious, even brooding tunes like “SMS,” with drones, double-stops, and melismatic sax lines that burrow and breathe through slow rising modulations that create an intense vibration somewhere between ROVA and Five Elements’ “Beyond All We Know” (and they collectively push the tempo until a kind of frenzy bursts through the patterns and lattices as Ellman goes Jimmy Nolen with several emphatic “chanks”). They’re one of those bands that doesn’t clobber you over the head with their widespread influences and stylistic asides; they’re simply there, integrated and absorbed so fully that you feel like this group could really play anything.

To wit, “Circus” centers around a beautiful collision between a calliope and an Albert Ayler repertory band playing klezmer, filled with pauses and rising rests amid its froth. And just before the gloriously overlapping pulses of “Rudreshm,” the opening to “Resonance Ballad” has some sax cries that sound uncannily like the guitar feedback at the beginning of Velvet Underground’s “Train Goin’ Round the Bend.” Maybe I’m just imagining that, but what a delight to revel in an album that can heat up the brain so fervently.

By Jason Bivins

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