Apex, released by Pi Recordings, is an epic duel between the alto saxophones of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green. Dubbed a “Rising Star” in the 2010 Down Beat magazine International Critics Poll, 39-year-old Mahanthappa blows up a fierce storm throughout the album. At 75, Bunky Green brings some fifty years of professional experience to the project. Green is Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida.
The two altoists are easily distinguishable from each other, even for the listener completely unfamiliar with their playing. Mahanthappa’s horn is emphasized in the left channel, while Green dominates the right. Both musicians reach fever pitch on a number of tunes, their alternating solos perhaps best exemplified very early on the tune “Summit.” Composing credits are split down the middle, with five credited to each.
“Playing With Stones” is a feature for Mahanthappa. He sticks to the horn’s lower range, at times sounding like a tenor. The band tests the limits of the tune’s elastic intensity, each player driving harder and harder for nearly ten minutes. Only Green’s sax is heard on “Little Girl I’ll Miss You,” quiet and delicate, with just a touch of hoarse scratchiness. “Rainier and Theresia” finds the saxists at their most relaxed and lyrical.
Francois Moutin plays acoustic bass throughout, and his performance is staggering. His solo at the beginning of “The Journey” is jaw-dropping, played largely at the top of the instrument’s range.
Similarly impressive is his unaccompanied solo at the top of “Soft.” His muscular yet melodic style provides a solid foundation for the duration of Apex. His percolating rhythm drives tunes like “Playing With Stones” and “Who?” while a lighter, minimalist touch is displayed on the ballad, “Lamenting.”
Providing commentary on piano is Jason Moran. His tasteful accompaniment is the least showy element of Apex, but his complex solos shine nonetheless. His dizzying solos on “Soft” and “Playing With Stones” are prime examples. His comping behind Mahanthappa and Green supports the co-leaders without upstaging them. On an album that often pushes tension to an extreme, Moran’s piano represents the calm at the center of the storm.
Splitting drum duties are Jack DeJohnette and Damion Reid. Though they don’t play together, the pairing is fitting as the two drummers have an age difference roughly matching that of Mahanthappa and Green. The veteran DeJohnette, nearing 70 and still a highly active leader and sideman, plays on the first two and last two album tracks. Barely into his thirties, Reid has amassed an impressive list of recordings over the past decade. His exciting rhythmic work is heard on the other six tunes.
Apex lives up to its title, scaling the peaks of improvisational prowess. Each of the six musicians featured contributes to the overall effect, led of course by the sax mastery of Mahanthappa and Green.