Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Guitarist Rez Abbasi Melds Jazz and South Indian Music with a Bold, Original Vision on Unfiltered Universe

It seems natural to refer to the music of Rez Abbasi as a hybrid, given the guitarist/composer's penchant for combining the traditions of South Asian music with his own modern jazz voice. That description ceases to fit as soon as one hears the music, however. In Abbasi's singular approach, this merging of influences feels less like a chimera, a patchwork of distinctive yet still identifiable parts; it is instead an evolution, a wholly new creature that bears distinctive traces of its antecedents yet has a form and beauty all its own.
Such is the case with Abbasi's 12th album, Unfiltered Universe (due out October 6, 2017 on Whirlwind Recordings), the third album in a trilogy exploring different South Asian musics with his stellar quintet Invocation. The band brings together five leading voices in forward-looking jazz, all of whom have extensively studied diverse South Asian traditions, often in collaboration with one another: Abbasi, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, and drummer Dan Weiss.

Where Invocation's 2008 debut Things To Come highlighted the influences of North Indian Hindustani music with guest vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, and their 2011 follow-up Suno Suno, the Qawwali music of Abbasi's native Pakistan, Unfiltered Universe takes as its point of departure the Carnatic music of South India. Abbasi's experience with Carnatic music can be traced back at least to Mahanthappa's 2008 release Kinsmen, a collaboration with South Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath that merged jazz and Carnatic musicians, and continued through a 2015 project with the Indian-American Ragamala Dance Company. His studies and listening have persisted throughout the intervening years, allowing him to absorb its influence and create new music under its sway that is far from a literal interpretation of its surface qualities.

The title Unfiltered Universe refers to the way in which a lifetime of globe-spanning influences were allowed to emerge directly from Abbasi's subconscious into his music. "The idea was to operate from my intuition first while creating these compositions and then later use the thought process to manipulate the music, he says. "It's unprocessed and unfiltered, shining a light on the universe within me. It really brought the fruits of my experiences to the forefront."

Such an intuitive approach to composition was a fresh experience for the guitarist, who likens the approach to Jackson Pollock's action painting. "I wanted to let the influences hit the empty canvas and allow that to speak to me as opposed to having a foundational idea of what I was going to create," Abbasi explains. "I didn't want to impose preconceived rhythms or ideas; I wanted to get the essence and energy of what I've taken away from playing with Carnatic musicians and dancers, and to tie that in with everything I've done previously."

To realize the music Abbasi reconvened his quintet Invocation, a supergroup of innovative jazz artists who have explored similar territory in disparate ways in their own work. Both American-born musicians of Indian descent, Mahanthappa and Iyer have both delved into South Asian traditions with highly acclaimed results. Weiss has brought intensive tabla studies to his inventive approach to the drum kit, while Weidenmueller has co-authored books on metric modulation via his studies in Carnatic percussion.

It's a rare group of musicians whose experiences and collaborations have made them uniquely prepared to seize on every nuance of Abbasi's compositions. "I chose these individuals because I knew that whatever I bring to the table, it's going to be supplemented by the wide-ranging history that each carries. With this group, that history contains a fortified education in Indian music and so we don't need to discuss anything Indian, per se - it's already there. For instance, if Dan plays a particular rhythmic idea from his tabla studies, all of us will be able to grab onto it intuitively. That's one reason why the communication is so stimulating within the ensemble."

Throughout Unfiltered Universe, the music surges with a uniquely propulsive groove, with sinuous melodies that follow surprising, exotic contours. The title track morphs from meditative to frenetic, while opener "Propensity" bristles with a darting, angular energy. "Thin-King" earns its play on words by managing to juggle the cerebral and the playful, while the 12-minute "Turn of Events" gathers from the abstract to the urgent and disintegrates back again, "Disagree to Agree" captures the tenor of discourse in our current moment in its teeth-gritting tension, and "Dance Number" closes the album with a buoyantly erratic groove that both tempts and challenges the listener to move.

The end result of these converging lifetimes of experience, creation, collaboration and study, (un)filtered through the lens of Abbasi's intuitive writing approach, is a strikingly individual voice that never explicitly references its influences but instead evokes the atmospheres and feelings inherent to them. "As a jazz listener you may not necessarily hear the Carnatic influence," Abbasi says, "but you'll definitely hear something different, and ultimately that's what counts."

Abbasi has received multiple composition grants in recent years. Unfiltered Universe was supported in part by a New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation. It is the 2nd CMA grant he has received for his group Invocation. Most recently he was commissioned by the NY Guitar Festival to compose and perform a live score to the 1929 Indian silent film, A Throw of Dice. The premiere took place in NYC in May with a reprise performance scheduled for September 16th at the Ellnora Guitar Festival in Urbana, IL.

Guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi is an artist who continually pushes new boundaries. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Southern California, he studied at the USC and the Manhattan School of Music in jazz and classical music, supplemented by a pilgrimage in India under the tutelage of master percussionist Ustad Alla Rakha. Abbasi's music is a vivid synthesis of all the above stated influences and genres. Voted #1 "Rising-Star Guitarist" in 2013's DownBeat Critics Poll and placed in the "Top-Ten Guitarists" in 2015 & 2016, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi has become one of the most significant musicians on the current scene. Making New York home for the past 25 years, Abbasi has created a unique sound that is stimulated by his jazz pedigree and Indian-Pakistani upbringing. With twelve albums, multiple awards and composition commissions, Rez Abbasi continues to find creative ways to enrich diverse audiences with his musical projects.

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