Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel
Guitarist Rez Abbasi is part of a generation of jazz musicians who came of age after the conservative backlash of the 1980s. He and his peers are making their mark on America's art form by contributing their rich and varied cultural backgrounds and with an embrace of popular culture that was heresy in some quarters for far too long.
Rez Abbasi personifies several of the attributes on display in his music. He puts forth a quiet confidence, with a clear point of view on a variety of topics. He is capable of and open to ideas, surprises, and wonder. Though he has a singular vision for his various musical projects and approaches his art with a sense of purpose and seriousness, he is quick to laugh and clearly comfortable in his own skin. In the most striking parallel between the music and the man, conversation with him visits many themes while veering off for varied explorations.
Rez Abbasi is living, breathing proof that jazz music can be as vital and boundary-pushing as ever.
All About Jazz: Suno Suno (Enja, 2011) is a very heavy record. While you do not rely on riffs, the songs have a very heavy feel. Your drummer, Dan Weiss, seems to be a key part of that. He is very powerful and very versatile.
Rez Abbasi: Dan is one of a kind. This is the fourth record he's on of mine, and I've only done eight [laughs]. So it's fifty percent, and I have some future plans with him in mind. This record is informed by Qawwali music, which is a Pakistani music that they use for praise, Sufi mystics used to use it. Now it is also used by non-mystics, if you will, but for the same cause. There is a groove element to that music that permeates it from start to finish. Because of that groove I felt the music lends itself to what we [Abbassi's ensemble Invocation] do.
AAJ: So one of the ways Qawwali is informing the record is those riff-like grooves.
RA: Yes, but the way Dan plays them is obviously very different than the way a Qawwali percussionist would because they use the music to feed or implement the idea of praise. So for them, the music continually moves and grooves. Whereas we break it up a lot. We might start with a particular groove, or theme, and from there it ends up moving through all kinds of realms, as jazz does, and maybe it will come back around later. Or not.
AAJ: Would you say Qawwali is now primarily a folk music?
RA: It could be termed a folk music.
AAJ: Is there an academic tradition or formality to it?
RA: No, I don't think so. It is more of a village kind of formality, if you will, because it's not a matter of going to school for it or theoretically looking into it. It's more of a soul music. It's akin to blues. You don't go to school to study blues. If you do you might lose the magic of it. There is a very fine line. As a jazz musician I interpret things and I need to study these things to facilitate my growth. But with this project I didn't want to cross that line. I wanted the music to be in a space of intuition.
AAJ: The line being to not over-intellectualize or over-formalize anything?
RA: Yes, exactly. With previous records, especially with Things To Come (Sunnyside, 2009), I did want to inform the music with Indian classical music. That's what I was going for on that record. With that in mind I did look into certain ragas or scales and particular rhythms and try to implement them as naturally as I could. But with Suno Suno I really wanted the focus to be on this intuition that has been garnered for me over the last 25 years or so through listening to Qawwali and being at many of the concerts, and seeing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan several times live.
As you know, he is the main exponent of Qawwali, introduced to the West by Peter Gabriel's label. So what was really foremost for me was not to specifically imitate the melodies, or specifically take an exact groove, but to simply put this music in the forefront of my mind and see what will naturally come out. I'm from Pakistan, so the Qawwali influence has to be there somehow. Even before I discovered Qawwali, my parents and family would be playing music in the house or at the weddings I went to, and there were strands of this Qawwali-type music in what they were doing. It wasn't Qawwali but there were some similarities. So I think when I finally discovered Qawwali it was a natural movement to hear that music and feel it right away.
AAJ: Is Qawwali primarily a secular music for you?
RA: All music is secular to me. There's nothing that resonates with religious attitudes and all that. I am not Muslim and the traditional practitioners of this music were Sufis, which is more mystical than religious, like Kabbalah is in Judaism. But even with gospel, for instance, I find juxtaposition with gospel and Qawwali. There are some similarities. There's a feel in gospel that most people can hear right away and it doesn't matter if it's religious or not. For the person who's playing it or singing it maybe that does matter but somehow that is transcended. Music transcends all thought, really, and all belief. That's the quality of music in general but sometimes we tend to forget that.