Sunnyside Records is pleased to present Things to Come, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi’s latest solo project and first for the prominent jazz label.
Imagine if you will, a four year old boy arriving in Los Angeles, CA after spending his initial years in Karachi, Pakistan; growing up in Southern California in the 70’s, surfing, riding motocross, chomping fast food and listening to rock ‘n roll; introduced to an instrument called the guitar and subsequently forming a garage band; hearing jazz at 16 and deciding to pursue a college degree in America’s homegrown music; ending up in New York as one of today’s foremost modern jazz guitarists.
That’s the rough guide to Rez Abbasi and never has there been a more poignant time to tell it. “Prior to my generation, there wasn’t much precedent for a South Asian jazz musician”, says Abbasi. “When I was growing up I couldn’t imagine having a group that was comprised mostly of formidable jazz musicians of South Asian decent.” Abbasi has assembled a quintet of the finest musicians in contemporary jazz, including saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss. Along with Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia and cellist Mike Block, they craft a disc on which improvisation and composition are at once sharply delineated and organically related.
While each tune offers myriad formal and structural surprises, the eight compositions on this exciting album should come as no surprise from a musician whose background is as inclusive as that of Abbasi. Having played with jazz greats Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Dave Douglas and Dave Liebman, Abbasi has also studied with Indian musicians such as the great percussionist Ustad Allah Rakha.
Born in Pakistan and raised in Los Angeles, his early interest in rock music was augmented when he saw Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass in one of their legendary duo performances. “Here was a man whose ability to get around the guitar was greater than anybody I’d heard at that time, including Eddie Van Halen. At sixteen, that concert was a real eye-opener for me.”
Eventually Jim Hall proved to be Abbasi’s touchstone on guitar, and soon John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett were added to his list of influences, as were the compositional languages of Bartok, Stravinsky and Debussy. “In California, I had been improvising with Terry Plumeri, who played jazz bass but was also heavily involved in classical music. We would study Bartok for months on end, analyzing his music in great detail.” Through absorption of such disparate aesthetics, Abbasi came to regard tone, phrasing and motivic development as the cornerstones of his performance approach and texture; theme and variation as his compositional cornerstones.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Things to Come, a disc for which Abbasi’s compositions have reached a new level of intrigue. The fact that, for the most part, Abbasi composed these pieces away from the guitar liberated him to explore new harmonic and melodic ideas. “I wanted to sculpt the music using intuition and imagination in a fresh way, and this mode of composing allowed me to do that.”
Consequently, each tune is a world unto itself, replete with juxtapositions and monumental returns that shock and delight by turn. Even the briefest tracks sport harmonies and modal shifts that expand the scope and structure of the music. Abbasi’s beautiful guitar tone enriches the chordal complexities that characterize the title track’s structure. Abbasi’s vocalist and wife, Kiran Ahluwalia, whose achingly beautiful contributions grace half of these compositions, helped in coming up with the melody of the title track. “She sings Indian classical and contemporary music and I’d be listening to her practice, using scales I hadn’t thought of, and that really sparked this composition.”
Yet, musical concerns can never be separated from their sociopolitical contexts. “Things to Come” and “Realities of Chromaticism” both speak to racial issues. The former was titled in honor of Obama’s presidential victory; a victory heralded for the underdog. It was recorded on Obama’s Inauguration Day. The latter deals with those trans-cultural boundaries at the music’s very core. Ahluwalia’s translucent Sargam, the Indian equivalent of solfège, poignantly drives the point home. “It’s about all colors being equal and carrying the same weight—that’s how I heard the notes and composed the music, and that’s the metaphor I see coming from it.”