East Meets West in the Music of Rez Abbasi


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One of the most interesting jazz arrivals in recent years has been the emergence of South Asian guitarist Rez Abbasi, pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. All three are truly jazz musicians of the highest order, but they also draw upon their cultural heritage as South Asians (Abbasi is Pakistani and the other two are Indian) to develop their individual visions of jazz.

Abbasi's brand-new album, Things to Come, features the trio as well as bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss. With Mahanthappa winning a Guggenheim fellowship and Iyer well established as a bandleader and collaborator, Abbasi may not quite have the profile outside New York of the other two, but the strength of his work is undeniable.

The guitarist has played with jazz greats Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Dave Douglas and Dave Liebman but has also studied with Indian musicians such as the great percussionist Ustad Allah Rakha. A disciple out of the school of Jim Hall, Abbasi now sees his sixth album as a leader hit the streets, and it's exceptional. Not just because of the badass group he assembled--though it does help--but because Abbasi's own talent as a composer, arranger and player. The originals here -- all eight tracks come from Abbasi's pen--are filled with slippery shifts in ideas for modality, harmony, melody and rhythm. Nonetheless, the composer, who cites both Beethoven and Obama as creative influences on the new one, is quick to point out that the band brings a lot to the table.

“My compositions and the vision of a hybrid are furthered simply because of the way we all interact within the written material," Abbasi explains. “There are points on the record where someone spontaneously played an idea that is definitely coming from Indian music, and they're all such great improvisers with big ears that the communication and possibilities are enormous."

Singer Kiran Ahluwalia drops by for a couple of the tracks (Abbasi also plays in her band, which specializes in new takes on the traditional ghazal song form) and she brings the most overtly “ethnic" sound to the table. However, her usual phrasing here works well as it prods the elastic playing of the others. Not a singer waiting for the band to come back to her melody after a solo, she moves scat-like through the material with the band, though there is no mistaking her style as anything but South Asian.

Like many of us, there have been transitions in Abbasi's life. He didn't come out of the womb wanting to play jazz or traditional Pakistani music. Born in Karachi, he grew up in California listening to rock and learning how to surf and ride motorcross. “I kind of avoided traditional music when I was young because it seemed like it was for older folks because my parents listened to it," he recalls. “And the production was usually very cheesy compared to the pop and rock music of the 70's, so my choice was to stay in the Western world.

“As I became more involved with serious music studies," he adds, “it was inevitable that I would come back to Indian/Pakistani music. I started checking it out earnestly when I was about 20 and now I'm involved with Kiran's project."

Regardless of where the influence comes from and what those “things to come" will be, Abbasi is thinking deep and broad these days, and his objectives are honorable ones as he strives to create new art. “To write and play music that I feel is worthy of taking up people's time," he says of his goals. “I know that sounds grandiose, but there are so many records that are premature in their delivery. If the artist's just waited until there was a conceptual element behind their music, it would be a better listening experience."

Working in conjunction with All About Jazz, Tad Hendrickson is Spinner's weekly jazz columnist.

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