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Rez Abbasi Trio

Rez Abbasi Trio

: Courtesy of the artist..

Electric guitarist and musical internationalist Rez Abbasi authentically bridges modern and traditional perspectives. Catch his upcoming performance at Cornish with his ‘of-the-moment’ jazz trio.

By Howard Mandel

Electric guitarist Rez Abbasi is a musical internationalist who authentically bridges modern and traditional perspectives. Coming to Cornish College of the Arts with his of-the-moment jazz trio to play at Kerry Hall, PONCHO Concert Hall on March 29, and returning April 21 in the ensemble backing Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, Abbasi will engage during both gigs with the measured pace of the south Asian subcontinent as well as the play-everything-possible momentum of intensely contemporary jazz.

He identifies it as a “strange dichotomy,” but exudes a natural comfort with such breadth. It’s as though Continuous Beat, the title of Abbasi’s album released last fall, refers not to an ongoing pulse, but instead to a range of experience he covers as his responsibility.

Continuous Beat is actually the least overtly Indian record I’ve done,” says the guitarist of his ninth CD as a leader and first in the exposed context of a trio. Suno Suno of 2011 and Things To Come (2009) feature his quintet with leading lights of the currently burgeoning South Asian jazz movement: pianist Vijay Iyer, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, percussionist Dan Weiss and bassist Johnnes Weidenmueller. Bazaar (2006) is Mahanthappa and Weiss with organist Gary Versace and guest spots by Manhanthappa, second saxophonist Michael Mommaas and Kiran Ahluwalia, to whom he’s married. Natural Selection (2010) is his all acoustic quartet. In Snake Charmer (2005) soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman joined Weiss, Ahluwalia and Abassi. Other projects set Rez amid several of the heartiest, brainiest of New York’s talent pool, and one is an all-acoustic quartet.

“There are always, via the rhythm, Indian elements in my music one way or another, because they’re internalized,” he says. “And if you listen deeply you might identify Indian classical music phrasing in the way I slide in and out of notes—the ornamentation, which in India is called ‘gamak.’” However, he’s figuring out new ways to do that. “I’m using electronics,” he goes on, “a sort of a backwards delay, to create that kind of effect now. Electronics and fingerwork, in combination.”

Electronics and fingerwork in combination is the very definition of what many guitarists do now, yet few guitarists can claim Abbasi’s breadth, which is based in his unique, personal experience. Born in Kariachi, Pakistan but raised from age four in Los Angeles, Rez grew up as a fan of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and the Canadian band Rush, the icons of psychedelic, hard and progressive rock. In his teens he discovered the subtler sensibility of guitarists Joe Pass, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Allan Holdsworth, George Benson and Jim Hall, and the powerful, world music-embracing concepts of saxophonist John Coltrane.

Around the same time, Abbasi attended a house concert just down the street from his parent’s home, and found himself in resonance with the Indian classical music being performed by Zakir Hussain on tabla and Shivkumar Sharma on the santur, which is like a hammered dulcimer. (Incidentally, Sharma’s son Rahul, also a santur player, has recently partnered on a duet recording with smooth jazz sax star Kenny G, a Seattle native). Intrigued, Rez began lessons with Harihar Rao, the Hindustani educator, tabla and sitar player who lived in Pasadena. He delved deeply into Western classical music and jazz at University of Southern California, and in 1987 relocated to New York for advanced studies at Manhattan School of Music.

He spent a month in India, in a tutorial taught by master tablaist Ustad Alla Rakha, and ever since has kept his ear open to music of India and Pakistan, while establishing himself as a jazzman. Early in the 2000s, he became musical director, arranger and producer for Kiran Ahluwalia, whose most recent album, aam zameen (Common Ground), won the 2012 Juno Award for Best World Music Album of 2012.

“It’s interesting being married to a singer such as she is,” he continues, explaining that his wife and he approach their very different personal work very differently. “Sometimes in my performances I do intros based on ragas, and Kiran points out how I rush into the notes, that I should take more time entering the slur. Nobody ever mentioned that to me before. Maybe nobody thinks about it, since the guitar is not a breath instrument. I tell her that and she’ll sing to me what she means, and I’ve tried, but I find it difficult to get to where she is with the ornamention, using a fretted instrument. I don’t think I’d be able to do it with a fretless guitar, either.”

Luckily, he’s got technology. “I can use this backwards delay to create something like the Indian phrasing that includes the ornaments before the notes,” he says, referring to the off-the-shelf electronics effects he uses on Continuous Beat, and brings onstage. “I play a little phrase and the delay takes a second to send that back at me, not directly, but with some sort of spin on it. I can manipulate my pre-phrasing. Or put it this way: I’m phrasing before the phrase is heard, and it comes out rephrased, not exactly as I played. But I can catch a fresh idea from that, so it’s sort of interactive.”

Abbasi says he’s not an avid researcher into electronics, nor a disciplined investigator of Indian classical techniques. “I’m kind of street about this stuff,” he says. “I don’t read books about Indian music, or look at videos, or spend time transcribing from records. I just pick things up from people. Like the tabla player in my wife’s band—maybe during an airplane flight he’ll teach me a new rhythm. It would be ideal to go to India to hang with a guru for several weeks, but it’s not practical. And besides, there are a lot of fantastic Indian musicians in New York to learn from.”

After all, he’s not obsessed with Indian classical orthodoxy. “In raga, there are specific notes you touch upon and you can’t really go outside of that if you adhere to the Indian way,” he explains. “You know, once you start double-timing in a solo you rely on your physical brain’s instant connection to your hands. In jazz we have our chromatic ways out of anything our fingers lead us to, even if the music is supposed to be modal. In Indian music you don’t do that. You’re limited to the appropriate note choices. That makes it harder. Even when Coltrane playing modally on My Favorite Things he wasn’t sticking to one scale. It was modal, but as a jazz player he had the liberty to take the solo where he wanted.”

That’s much more Abbasi’s style, as he’s demonstrated on records with other leading lights of the currently hot South Asian jazz movement, pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and percussionist Dan Weiss. The latter two are Rez’s partners in the Indo-Pak Coalition, with which he first came to Cornish in 2010. For his March performance this year, he’s accompanied by bassist Mark Dresser, an acclaimed composer/improviser who’s also a full professor at University of California, San Diego, and Satoshi Takeishi, drummer who appears on Abbasi’s Continuous Beat.

Rez’s original songs on that album will be the core repertoire for his trio’s show at Cornish, as well as “Etude for Malala,” which he composed in honor of the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt brought on by her outspoken support for womens’ rights to education. The record also includes Abbasi’s highly original versions of Thelonious Monk’s Off Minor, Keith Jarrett’s composition The Cure and The Star Spangled Banner.

Abbasi plays our nation anthem unaccompanied, tenderly but with thoughtful dark complexities. “I realized a while ago,” the guitarist says, “that yes, my heritage is South Asian and I love that music. But I was brought up in America, I’m an American, and I’m playing jazz, an all-inclusive music. In jazz it’s all about what the individual brings to the table.” When you go to hear the Rez Abbasi trio, expect music in present, acknowledging the past and looking to the future, too.


New York-based writer, journalist, and critic Howard Mandel is a veteran contributor to DownBeat magazine and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

Hear the Rez Abbasi Trio at Cornish on Friday, March 29th at 8:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.

PICTURE: Rez Abbasi, courtesy of the artist.


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