Rez Abbasi: Reziliently Brilliant
“ After being offered three separate deals from labels, I came to a conclusion that I didn't want to give up publishing or ownership to anyone unless the money and distribution were adequate, and they weren't. ”
At 36, Rez Abbasi is the latest accomplished and proven musician with a few solo releases and a few sideman appearances in his discography to choose the independent jazz route. Born in Pakistan, raised in the USA since the age of three, and having gone east from west internationally as well as domestically, Abbasi is known as a jazzer who displays some restrained measure of his East Indian roots in his composition, playing and harmonic concept. On his superb latest release, Out of Body, he's fashioned a first-class, small group outing featuring boldly arranged two man horn lines sometimes augmented by his single-note guitar. Within this erudite framework, his own playing shines with a phraseology borrowing equally from "Downtown" cool to more technical chops-but-taste-laden vocabularies. He goes nicely "in" and "out," but not overtly ethnic, in a rousing, visceral way. All of this has the potential to change dramatically with the next release from his newly minted reztone.com, but let's allow him to drop his own news, and give him the opportunity to, uh... explain himself, shall we?
All About Jazz: How old are you and where did you grow up?
Rez Abassi: 36, Los Angeles, CA.
AAJ: How did you get into music?
RA: It's always been in and around me so I guess it just happened. I took piano lessons at an early age, then my uncle brought home a cheap guitar when I was eleven.
AAJ: Who were your influences, as a musician, and more specifically, on guitar? As you began, and then, as you started to mature musically?
RA: Everything influenced me when I was young, bands like Rush, Van Halen, Rolling Stones, etc. As I matured, I began listening to jazz and Indian classical as well as European music. On guitar, I would have to say Jim Hall made the most impact on me although I did love Wes and Benson as well. I soon stopped listening to guitar and pursued saxophonists and pianists- no surprise there.
AAJ: Tell us about those periods of what you feel, were of most intense growth as a musician.
RA: Well I hope I can still look forward to those. I did go through a period of serious growth that started when I was in college in California I remember for a few years I would practice any where from six to ten hours regularly. It was not only valuable for my playing but also it gave me perspective on how it feels to spent a lot of time secluded.
I remember spending a year playing free music with reed player Daniel Carter and drummer Paul Gregorian. That was an interesting trio because we would explore a lot of textures. It was a true listening experience and without a bass, I was forced to drop all harmonic preconceptions and go with the wind. I think some of this influence rubbed off on my Modern Memory record.
I also spent two months in India which proved to be stimulating. I can't measure how much I grew musically, although I was attending many of Ustad Allas Rakha's tabla classes. As a person raised in the west, hanging out alone in a Third-World country, for that long, was very powerful and humbling- ultimately, it had an impact on my music.
AAJ: To my mind, you are in the same class as many of the great young players of today- Rosenwinkel, Shepik, Fuze, Gilmore, Ducret, etc. Plus you've gotten reviews as good as any of those guys. What do you feel needs to happen to give you a bit more name recognition?
RA: The only way one can really make a name in this industry is if he/she is playing with well known entities. I haven't done so much of that and my hustling chops aren't the greatest. The truth is that recognition does get you more gigs and record deals, but doesn't always translate into good music. I found that a lot of good side men end up putting out not so good solo projects.
What seems to convince critics and media the most, is not always the music, but rather who you've played with, as if you must be great if so and so hired you. This translates to the audience because audiences usually don't take risks with new artist unless the media is hyping them up. In turn, a lot of great artist are overlooked. Take Lennie Tristano for instance-if he played with Bird or Miles, I would guess that he would have been in the limelight much more and would have had greater opportunities. Does that mean his playing isn't some of the greatest piano playing of all time? Of course not. But that's not to say that a lot of players who are recognized, don't deserve it either.
AAJ: You seem very comfortable on all axes... electric, steel string acoustic and nylon acoustic... and you seem to bring real respect to each axe in terms of what you play and the context you put it in. How did that develop, and what influences do you bring to the fore with each.
RA: I just have an affinity towards stringed instruments and that's why I play them all. For the most part, I've been sticking to acoustic steel string for the last few recordings as well as electric. I studied classical guitar with Scott Tenant of the L.A. Guitar Quartet and found that to be beneficial. Lately I've been getting in touch with my roots by using an electric sitar-guitar as well as a fretless. I'm also endorsing a solid body D'Angelico that really sounds great and has a fat, hollow body type sound.
AAJ: Are you more likely to bring your Indian/Pakistani influences to the fore on acoustic or electric..or is it just different for each?
RA: It's the same for all, I don't really make a conscious effort to bring those influences out; although with the sitar-guitar, they naturally find a way to surface.
AAJ: You seem to be an able multistylist. Do you like it that way, or would you prefer to be known for an expertise in one bag?
RA: At this point, I don't think of music as being "in styles." The way I approach my music is from a clear canvas. Each composition tells it's own story and therefore tells me what approach will be needed sound wise on the guitar. That's why on some tunes I have a clean tone, others have an over driven sound and yet others are acoustic. Really, I'm just always playing me.
I suppose if the rhythm section is swinging, one might hear a reference toward straight ahead, but I still think we need to do our best to hear the experience as new, so that we're at least subconsciously open to all events that may present themselves. When someone hears my records, they'll hear a palette of different compositional/sound ideas and won't be bored by the fourth track in because the music has the same flavor tune after tune. I don't think life is so one- dimensional.
AAJ: What were the earliest recording or gigging projects you did? Did you start off as a "jazz" guy?
RA: What guitarist really starts off as a "jazz guy"? Basically I played in rock/pop groups through out high school and began getting serious about jazz in my senior year.
AAJ: Hip us to some of your sideman work. I know you've worked with the band "Freedance."
RA: Yes, "Freedance" has been together for nine years. It's based on the music of David Phillips the bassist, although it is collectively approached by all, including saxophonist John O'Gallagher and drummer Tony Moreno. We recently toured in France and finished our second recording five years after our first talk about patience. It's well worth it however. We've really had some magical moments because everyone listens so hard and doesn't overstate themselves.
I'm also working with a few real dance companies, mostly Indian. That's a challenge because it's usually me on sitar-guitar, a tabla player and a dancer. Also on the Indian tip is drummer Sunny Jain's Collective. We just finished a recording that I'm really happy with, I played a few sitar-guitar solos that should put that instrument in a fresh light. Saxophonist Travis Sullivan leads a group that I've been a part of and he writes some very good music as well. I'm also in vocalist/composer Sarah Holtzschue's group who recently did a recording. As long as I'm in a creative atmosphere, whether it's jazz or not, I'm happy.
AAJ: And Christian Howes, the violinist?
RA: I've been playing on and off with Christian for four years. We've done these annual tours in the mid-west, where he's originally from, although now he's in New York. We'll play everywhere from Lima, Ohio to the Tri-C Jazz Festival. It's been an interesting experience because Christian and I come from very different back grounds and have different ideals in music. So this creates a challenge for us as to how to create a group sound with such diversity. We've had different members on board including DD Jackson, Peter Retzlaff, Sunny Jain and Gary Versace who also bring their concepts to the floor. I like to see it as a growing of sorts rather than a group per se. He's really strong at what he does and I'm sure one day we'll do some recording together.
AAJ: Tell us about the compositional process for you? Do technical elements take a role in that process?
RA: They may after I've come up with something purely out of inspiration. Many times it's just a simple chord progression which leads me into the desire to fulfill an entire composition- that's where the sweat comes in. Usually I'll re-compose something after hearing others play it down or after living with it a while. There are many stages to most of my tunes.
AAJ: Do you compose on guitar? With other people?
RA: I do compose eighty percent of the material on the guitar. It probably doesn't sound that way because I've learned to manipulate music in general, so the guitar becomes a tool rather than the end result. I usually can't play an entire composition on the guitar although there are those tunes that can be played solo. Sometimes I'll just stare at the page and after singing it a dozen times, use my imagination in order to hear a new section.
AAJ: Do you compose for your side projects?
RA: Sometimes people will want to record my tunes but I don't usually write for side projects unless someone really wants me to.
AAJ: Can you hip us to what you feel are some of your best tunes compositionally, and why?
RA: Honestly, I don't really have any favorites because they're all unique onto themselves. I wouldn't record any tune that I wasn't fully satisfied with- I don't think the world needs more unimaginative records.
AAJ: Agreed. Can you hip us to what you feel are your best recorded solos and why?
RA: As far as my soloing, I do like a lot of the stuff on my new CD. Particularly "Phosphor Colors" which is done on steel string acoustic and "Dark Bones" on electric. I've done some playing recently on the new David Phillips recording and the Sunny Jain Collective that I'm also very happy with. Hopefully these recordings should be out soon.
AAJ: Can you point us toward what source material- books, educational coursework or material, or analysis of recordings- which has proven rich for you in terms of composition/harmony?
RA: I've done a lot of deep listening. When I had more time, I transcribed compositions of long form as well as short tune material. One experience that proved to be helpful was that at age 21, I studied Bartok's "Strings, Percussion and Celeste" every week for a year. It really opened up my world because it was something very new to my ears. That's where I think the growth will come from- something new. Around the same time I was studying with one of Pandit Ravi Shankar's disciples. We would work solely on rhythm which then led me into playing tablas for a good year. At U.S.C. I had the opportunity to be present at two master classes given by Nicholas Slominsky. Knowing how influential he was on Coltrane, and therefore the rest of jazz, I looked into his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
Basically I learned the most about composition just by doing it because then, you really get into yourself through all the turmoil of trying to finish a piece. The old adage of "no pain, no gain" really does apply here. I also think asking questions to those who inspire you goes a long way.
AAJ: Tell us the differences, if any, of the European circuit versus the American circuit for your thing.
RA: Interesting you ask because I was just thinking of this since I came off a mid-west tour. I believe that there isn't a strong audience for my music in America especially since jazz in general sells so little. For the most part, a large percentage of people here are into quick recognizable material. From my experiences in Europe, people are more used to growing up with symphonic works as well as the pop culture, so they are able to sit and enjoy an entirely new experience. That's not to say there weren't some very hip people I met on this tour- just not a lot. And that's also not to say that the audience can't grow in the States.
AAJ: Who are the working members of your band? How did you go about assembling such a talented cast of musicians for your first record?
RA: Right now I play with a bunch of different musicians. It's difficult to say that I have a working band because there's not a lot of work to be had. I'm a little in experimental mode although some of the guys I'm using include Marc Mommaas, Adam Kolker, John Hebert, Gary Versace, Michael Sarin, Satoshi Takieshi, etc. I've composed another record's-worth of material but am also working on developing a different record's-worth of music for a different project at the same time. Let's just say it's up in the air for now.
Third Ear was actually two separate sessions. My short-lived working band at the time was what ended up as the first session and included, Billy Drewes, Russ Lossing, Scott Colley and Ben Perowsky. After a year of shopping and getting nowhere with a record deal, I decided to eventually finish it myself. At the time I was studying with Kenny Werner, who really liked the session and offered to help me finish it. Through Kenny's inspiration, I sent tapes to Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson, who, at the time, I was listening to frequently with John Abercrombie's trio. They all dug the session and were very enthused about finishing it. Erskine was already going into the studio with Bob Mintzer and so I coordinated such that my session would take place the same days, but after Mintzer's, therefore bypassing travel expenses, set-up time, etc. I also had Bob play on two tracks. Although those sessions were done a decade ago and my playing has grown, people say it still sounds new. I consider that a great compliment.
AAJ: How are you enjoying your foray into the independent scene? Do you have any assistance or are you doing everything yourself? Do you have management? Have you signed on with an American or European distributor?
RA: It's all done through my website at reztone.com. After being offered three separate deals from labels, I came to a conclusion that I didn't want to give up publishing or ownership to anyone unless the money and distribution were adequate, and they weren't. The CD's will eventually be available in Europe through a company called String Jazz.
AAJ: Please tell us a bit about the evolution of the concepts for your most recent stuff.
RA: I don't usually think about trying to directly apply musical concepts and such because I let all ideas evolve organically and if they don't surface, so be it. Ideally, I feel that if my music retains concepts without being forced into the light, I've succeeded.
That being said, my recent venture has been working with Indian ragas and using them as vehicles for compositions. The difficulty here is that it's not easy to stick with one raga. My ear is chromatically trained so I'll sometimes end up outside the raga-oh, well. As long as there are traces of the influence, that's good enough for me.
AAJ: Who do you feel makes up your audience?
RA: I think people who are into modern melodic music. Also guitar players tend to like these recordings.
AAJ: What would you say to someone who was about to begin exploring your music?
RA: Thanks (laughs).
AAJ: How much of your compositions are written out and how much is based on interaction of the players?
RA: I write out a good portion but am always open to suggestions. For example, on my new CD, Malaby and Horton would sometimes switch around their parts and that section would suddenly come alive. We also took an up tempo solo section and decided for the rhythm section to approach it in a textural, freeer way which gave it a unique character. This group approach is the best because the compositions evolve. I'm definitely grateful to have worked with that particular group of musicians for the Out Of Body record It would have not existed without the time invested in, and therefore the evolution of, that band.
AAJ: What kind of recording technology are you using on your dates? Hard disc or analog? Are the players all in the same room? Which do you prefer? Do you edit the tracks yourself?
RA: On this latest CD I used analog tape and we were basically in the same room with some separation. I helped with the mixing and mastering. There was a little bit of editing but I try and retain whatever is on the track.
AAJ: How long is the recording process for your records? I'll bet extremely short. How much rehearsal occurs beforehand?
RA: We did this CD in one day although I did do percussion overdubs. This group was together for over a year and we did play out and rehearse a lot before going into the studio.
AAJ: Explain to us your perception of yourself as an artist. Where do you see yourself on the musical map?
RA: That's not easy to answer, however, I do see myself coming out of a sound that is relevant in today's world as opposed to writing and playing, for example, Bebop. The thing is- I do listen to and play Bebop/Post-Bop often, I've just had a more open approach- let's say like Jim Hall/Bill Frisell, as opposed to the more inside- type players.
AAJ: What music holds your most extreme interest these days, and what of it may influence your next project or recording?
RA: I've been for many years getting more into my roots, listening to a lot of Indian classical and film music as well as Pakistani Qawwalie. I still listen to Coltrane, Jarrett etc. Classical music of all sorts as well as anything my friends have played on. Lately I've been playing along with solo tabla CDs.
AAJ: To wrap up, please tell us your musical plans, or projects in the pipeline, for 2002.
RA: I'm planning on recording a few projects if I can come up with the money. One would be with the material that has already been written, probably for a quintet. I'm also working on an entirely new group which will be based more in my roots. I'll use more sitar-guitar for that as well as having an Indian vocalist, a percussionist and drummer, and organ/accordion player. And finally if I have ample time to make it meaningful, I'm going to do an acoustic trio recording of standards since I've been playing and enjoying them for most of my life. I also look forward to working as a side man.