Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel
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.
AAJ: Before you discovered jazz, you were already into heavy music, Led Zeppelin, Rush...
RA: And King Crimson...
AAJ: The hard rock, prog rock kind of stuff?
RA: Absolutely. Up until I was 16 years old. Most people, up until the age that they discover what they really want to do for the rest of their lives, are influenced by whatever society puts in front of them. That's no different whether you're from Pakistan or China, you're surrounded by the zeitgeist of whatever's going on at that time. And Led Zeppelin was absolutely going on at that time, and Rush. I had a rock band, a garage band, and we played all that material. The hard Rush tunes, the Zeppelin. Others, too.
I have been a guitarist since I was 11. My initial draw to the guitar was through listening to and transcribing people like Carlos Santana, B.B. King, and these things. Then I went onto Larry Carlton and Robben Ford and these great maestros of the blues genre and beyond. That was very strong source material to grapple with and study. When I hit 16 I saw Joe Pass and that was a revelation. It was this huge slap in the face, like, "Wow! This guy's a little older, he's not standing up with long hair and all that but he's playing the heck out of the guitar!" So that was a big step for me.
Then, soon after, I saw Allan Holdsworth. He was standing up but he still had short hair [laughs]. And the strange coincidence of the whole thing was that Eddie Van Halen sat in with Allan Holdsworth that night. I was listening to Allan the whole time completely blown away and then Van Halen steps up on stage and he starts pointing to Allan to say, "This is the cat." That was a very real transition for me, seeing Eddie, who's sort of a guru for me until I am 16, pointing at someone that I was moving towards anyway.
AAJ: In music, we always want to know where our heroes came from.
RA: Yeah, yeah.
AAJ: It is amazing the kind of credibility that can bestow, not that Allan Holdsworth needs an endorsement. But what it does to a kid with a rock background is powerful.
RA: Absolutely. You're looking for that stuff. And so I sort of knew that my path was correct at that point, that I was making a great transition.
AAJ: Did you get Holdsworth? It resonated, it hit you?
RA: Yes. He used an overdriven guitar, he still does, it was an overdriven guitar sound which is basically connoting rock and roll.
AAJ: Makes it a little easier to understand.
RA: Yes. That was definitely the transition. But Joe Pass was really the one. When I stumbled onto him I thought. "Wow, this is a clean sound and it's just ripping!" I say "ripping" because technique, when you're young, it really means a lot. The facility of what people do is sometimes enough to just lure you into that world.
AAJ: Is it that the technique is really all you can grasp when you are younger, because you don't really understand emotion and feel yet?
RA: I don't know if it is not understanding the emotion but I don't think I understood the jazz vocabulary and the emotion that can come with that. Now I do obviously but back then it was like going from Rush to Joe Pass and Allan Holdsworth. It was sort of like, "What are these guys playing, I don't understand the notes and the meaning of that." So that was dumbfounding, you know?
AAJ: There was a language barrier.
RA: There you go, yeah, lost in translation, for sure. But again it came pretty quickly. That's the natural element I feel like I've had with jazz. It's like overnight, I got it. Not got the [ability to play the] music, but I understood it.
AAJ: In listening to and reading what other musicians have to say about music, when they talk about their influences and interests, there become are all of these warrens you can go down. Some of them open up into little rooms and some of them are whole other universes of music.
RA: Absolutely It's an amazing art form.
AAJ: A lot of artists try not to consume much music because they're worried about it maybe influencing them or that they might lift something inadvertently. So they tend to focus on their art. Does that resonate with you? Do you listen to music now?
RA: It does not resonate at all, actually. There is so much music out there other than jazz to be informed by. I feel like I'm a student until I die. I wouldn't tell my students not to listen to anything so why should I not listen to things? I'm not necessarily going to listen to other guitar players but in terms of all the music of the world, the folk music, the classical world, western classical, I mean, have I heard all the Shostakovich that could be heard? No. Could I get something out of that? Of course. As a composer? Heck, yes. So I don't relate to that notion at all.
Listening and Integration
AAJ:Being a listener is important to you.
RA: Being a listener at this stage of the game in fact is more important than it was even back when. Back I had to really practice my instrument all the time to get anywhere. Now, for me, I could do a little less practicing and more opening of the mind and let music penetrate subconsciously and hopefully it will come out without being imitative of anything. And that's back to the Qawwali idea, that's why I listened to but didn't study it because I think the studying part may ultimately ruin the magic of it. There's stuff that goes beyond theory and melody and notes. For me there's a whole other dimension that stimulates possibly other parts of the body and the brain. I know that sounds esoteric but I think we've all felt it. Everybody feels it but maybe everybody's not necessarily conscious of what they're going through.
AAJ: Science has probably measured and proven this.
RA: There are definitely people working with music and the brain and how it affects you. It's in its beginning stages for sure but as a scientist you have to continue studying these things.
AAJ: This is an interesting line of discussion because another theme in your music is that of integration. You have touched on it a few different ways in past pieces about you or interviews with you, where maybe the writer is emphasizing a "South Asian Movement" that you and others might be part of. You acknowledge it but don't emphasize it. In your music, specifically with Qawwali, it's there but it's not as overt as picking up the guitar and playing a traditional cultural or ethnic melody, for example, "Greensleeves"; the whole melody, the whole piece. With your music there is this notion of feel, of elements more subtly informing the music, and being pulled in without making statements about the elements.
RA: Yes, yes. And you touched upon something that people tend to expect from either South Asians or any people who try to do what you might call "hybrid music." I don't like that term but that's the closest I can get. They expect it to be obvious and overt and there's not a sitar player in there...I mean, if I'm going to do a project of South Asian music I've got to have a tabla player? No. It is great and it can work but you have to see that from the composer's mind or the composer needs to see it from his or her concept. Not from, "Okay, this instrument is from this part of the world so I need to bring it in here to implement it with my new project." So this whole South Asian music thing is not a fly by night trap or some kind of fashion statement. It's been there all this time for me but had apprehension about bringing it to the surface because from past experiments in the '60s and '70s there hasn't been such great examples of that. You either hear much more of the jazz or you hear much more of the South Asian stuff, element. Although I do like the band Shakti.
AAJ: I was going to ask you where John McLaughlin comes in for you.
RA: Shakti is brilliant, there's no doubt about that. The one thing I don't hear in that group is the jazz element. I do hear improvisation which is absolutely part of Indian music and absolutely part of jazz as well but they don't deal with the harmonic aspect of jazz, but they're brilliant nonetheless. Quite an amazing thing that they've come up with, this kind of music. In general, thought, there's not enough emphasis on the compositional element with these kind of hybrids. The composer really needs to step up to the plate and figure out how this is going to work without being overt.
AAJ: Not dissimilar from a really good lyricist saying something without coming right out and saying it, being more evocative.
RA: Yes. We've all heard the obvious lyrics: "My heart, this and that," "You left me and now I'm depressed." There's other ways of saying this stuff that's not so direct and that's where the magic is.
AAJ: More artful, maybe.
RA: Yes, and especially in 2011, 2012, there needs to be this sort of seeking of a different paradigm.
AAJ: One very clear positive about the trend of musicians from different cultural backgrounds getting into jazz is that it is expanding the form and bringing new interpretations, new elements to the music, whether it is a South Asian influence or a Japanese influence or what have you. Jazz is maybe one music that can handle that, or actually thrive.
RA Jazz demands it and welcomes it. It is an interesting thing that's going on because there's a fine line. I completely agree with what you said. On the other hand, to play devil's advocate, there are projects that call themselves jazz and really watered down, diluted the music so much. It didn't start from the right area. It sort of started from this bluesy effect or something and then they called it jazz. There's a whole school of jazz that needs to be dealt with before you can actually call yourself a jazz musician or say that your music's informed by jazz.
Is It Jazz?
AAJ: So then what are the objective measures that make something jazz?
RA: Wow, I don't know what the objective measures are, there are probably many of them. For one, I would think really studying the music from the ground up which means from the early 1900s and Louis Armstrong and the blues before that. The whole educational factor. There is a lot of education that needs to be dealt with in playing jazz, there's no way around that.
AAJ: Successful improvisers or people that thrive in an improvised music environment start with the theory and the history and the past and then almost set it aside or integrate it, absorb it and then you can improvise but you have to do the work.
RA: Foundation. You cannot build a house on a very poor foundation. The stronger the foundation is, when that earthquake comes to destroy, the house is going to stay up and be the way it was when you built it. So that's the objective answer about jazz: it's music to study and not take lightly. The listener can take it lightly but as the musician you have the responsibility to put in the hours.
AAJ: To that end, do you recall a time or an era in your own playing when you found your own voice as a player and composer? Where you said, "I'm onto something"?
RA: I don't really know any timeframe where I said that to myself. I think record after record it just gets there more and more, it cements itself more and more. One of the things that I feel that the media doesn't talk about that often is the growth of a jazz musician. By the time you hit 30, if you're not completely there, full formed, then, you've lost it. This is not boxing. There are correlations with boxing, but not in this regard. The fact that we're continually growing needs to be taken into consideration as well.
Growing Up, Part 2
AAJ: When did you know that a life in music was what you wanted and that it was possible?
RA: I think my last year in high school. I've always felt like it was something I wanted to pursue. But the last year in high school when I did discover jazz I realized that I can take this to the college level and start from there and figure out what I can do. After high school you have to make those big decisions. If I was still a rock player, the decision wouldn't have been so easy to make. It would have been more like, "Do I continue playing in bands and try to make original music and maybe that will last for a couple of years?" I'm sure that's the path of many. But with jazz came also classical music, because you go to college and they want you to study classical history and classical theory. So the first year I automatically knew, when I went to college, I can do this for a while and I can teach it, too, eventually. And I never really looked back from there. It's been up and down and it continues to be a little up and down, you know how that is. But if you look at most fields right now, there's struggle with every field so why not be in the field that makes you happy.
AAJ: Was your family supportive?
RA: Yes, yes, they were very supportive. Mostly psychologically, but sometimes financially as well. I couldn't go through college without their support. I'm not one of these guys who could do a day job and then also go to school and then practice. I was practicing eight to ten hours, or sometimes six hours, sometimes four but it was like a constant thing for years. There was no putting down the guitar or the theory books for a number of years. And then I moved to Manhattan to attend the Manhattan School of Music and it just continued. I kept on living the music. Without that, you really don't have what it takes. There's no one I know that's great that hasn't actually lived the music, literally given up other things for the music. Very, very few people tell me that they don't practice or they never really practiced that much. When they do, I wonder, "Well, what if they did practice?" I wonder how great they really would be.
AAJ: In terms of figures throughout your development, was Ustad Alla Rakha important to you?
RA: I don't know if he was an important figure in terms of my development but after graduation I went to India for the first time in my lifeI had been to Pakistan before but not India to partake in some of his classes. Now these are very different, the classes out there, there are ten or so tabla students in one room and they're all playing call and response with him. He'll play something on the tabla and they have to play it back. And I wasn't playing tabla at the time so it wasn't really like a hands-on thing with the maestro himself. It was more of seeing what I needed to deal with and take that home.
AAJ: So you were auditing the class [laughs]?
RA: Yeah, yeah, basically. And we hung out a little bit. I saw his son, [tablaist] Zakir Hussain, there. He came by very quickly, offered me a cup of tea and I denied it which I shouldn't have because you're supposed to always accept. I had five glasses of tea by then, I was like, "Oh, it's okay, no, thank you." He's "Oh, no?" I specifically remember that [laughs]. But anyways, so I studied with one of Alla Rakha's best disciples, Ray Speigal. So I studied for about a year, and then I realized if I'm going to get really good at these things I have to give up a lot more time. That's when I decided to go back to really focusing on composing and the guitar. But I got a lot out of that year and I can relate to the table on a higher level right now because I've actually dealt with it physically. So when I play with tabla players which I often do, there's something there.
AAJ: Were there guitar players or Western musicians that you had a mentor relationship with or was it more a series of teachers?
RA: I had a series of teachers. I was lucky because I got both the West Coast and East Coast set of teachers, which was great. On the West Coast I had the opportunity to study with Joe Diorio for a good year. That wasn't private but it's okay because it's great to be with other people there. I studied a little bit with Ted Greene, who's a maestro as well, he's no longer with us. Peter Sprague, who's still in the Bay Area or San Diego, I think, he's great. Also a gentleman named Paul LaRose, he's no longer with us. But when I moved to town here the best teacher I had guitar-wise was probably John Abercrombie, at least on the East Coast. I enjoyed his approach; it was more of what I was of going for at the time. I studied with people at Manhattan School of Music, Rodney Jones, he was great as well, Jack Wilkins; the list goes on. After that I really got into studying with Kenny Werner. That was really great because he plays piano and didn't approach it like a guitarist would and that's really essential.
There are limitations on the guitar, there's no doubt about that in terms of the whole jazz vernacular. The piano, you know, unless you play it yourself, which I don't, it's really good to have that mindset. It's almost like an orchestra in front of you. You have all of the possibilities right in front of you. On the guitar, your hand can only stretch a certain amount; try and play a minor second on the guitar, it's a wide stretch. It's not to make excuses, but that's just the truth of the nature of these instruments. That's why so many people compose on the piano.
AAJ: Are you primarily composing on the guitar?
RA: No longer.
Rez Abbasi's Invocation, from left: Vijay Iyer, Johannes Weidenmueller
Rez Abbasi, Dan Weiss, Rudresh Mahanthappa
AAJ: And that's true for Suno Suno?
RA: Yeah, that was all off the guitar. There might have been a couple melodies that I stumbled on with the guitar first and then I put them into the computer and I worked them from there. Actually, the last batch of tunes I did compose on the guitar was tunes that I composed for [drummer] Paul Motian. I was supposed to play with him October 22nd . He was going to play with my Trio, which would have been him and (bassist) John Hebert. I did compose those few numbers on the guitar because I wanted to keep it simple. Paul doesn't read music on the stage and it was more of a reactive thing. So I tend to compose more like that on the guitar which is more textural. He couldn't make the gig for obvious reasons [Motian died on November 22nd, 2011] and I got Satoshi Takeishi, a great drummer. He and John and I still did it. We recorded it and man, I'm really compelled to put this out. Musically it seems to be on fire, it's really wonderful. But also because Paul passed away, and that could have been one of his last gigs. I just feel I really need to dedicate this night and music to him, to a person I never got to play with. I approached him late in his life. So many other people were playing with him; I didn't feel like he needed anybody else [laughs].
AAJ: It's like Ron Carter. Who didn't play with Ron Carter?
RA: Yeah. There are a lot of people to choose from in this town, but someone asked me to do a gig at Cornelius Street Café and do something other than my regular bands. And I thought, "Oh, this'll be great, let me do a trio!" and that challenged me to write more music specifically for Paul in mind. I've never done that before, written music specifically for one person in mind, for not the band, for just one person. I think the tunes call out to Paul Motian in a way.
AAJ: So you're thinking of his style or you're thinking of his personality while you are writing?
RA: Well, I don't differentiate the two actually. I didn't know him personally very well. I had some conversations with him on the phone but it's more his personality on the drums. I've heard him in hundreds of, tons of, recordings and many, many times with different bands. Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, that's a big group I've heard several times for years over the last couple decades. And that band really struck me as one of the pinnacles of modern music, modern jazz. I mean, Ridiculous; all music.
AAJ: Are Invocation and the Acoustic Quartet your primary creative vehicles right now?
RA: Yeah, they are, but this trio that was supposed to be with Paul, like I said, the recording came out so well, the performance was so beautiful that this is going to be one of my next groups. That's also something on the burner. And then I've written another quartet record for a different band that I won't say who's in the band yet because we have to figure it out, I have to figure it out.
I've already talked to some but, you know, until it's cemented...but that's going to be a very different project for me. It's going to be very electric, electric bass I'm thinking, texturally. I have this acoustic group that I love and I play acoustic guitar with, steel-string acoustic guitar. And that's with vibraphone (Bill Ware), acoustic bass (Stephan Crump) and drums (Eric McPherson). And there's a texture there that is uncanny, you know, it really is, I see audience members stare at the musicians because it's so grounded in percussion yet the timbres are sort of flying off the walls. You can imagine vibraphone and steel-string guitar...
AAJ: That's the group that's on Natural Selection (Sunnyside, 2010). Now that seems to be more overtly spiritual music. It was emotional, reverb-drenched. Very atmospheric.
RA: Like ECM or something [laughs]? You know, when you have a steel-string acoustic guitar it calls out for reverb. But it depends on the tune. We reverbed out some of the tunes more than others. There's a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan tune on which I used a steel-string guitar, the guitar on that tune is called a resonator and it has this sarod kind of inflection. The Sarod is an Indian instrument and it really called out for some kind of manipulation. The guitar I used already has [its own] reverb because there's the metal plate in there, a metal spool or something and you play a note and you get reverb. So I think you're really actually hearing the guitar, that's on a couple cuts.
AAJ: And the vibes also have a lot of sustain and texture.
RA: Absolutely, with the vibes. That's another thing because they already have the pedal on the vibes that creates this reverb. So you're right, it's full of that kind of juice. So you know, I'm thinking texturally. I have that group, I have this one Invocation with piano and saxophone. So the electric quartet is a whole different orchestration that I can really work with compositionally. Then I have the trio like I mentioned, that's more of a guitar oriented band. A lot of chords and a lot of open improvisations, it's almost more standard than the other bands.
AAJ: How important is it to you to have a stable line up and a stable group?
RA: Well, it is important to some degree. It does help the music when everybody is sort of on board. But, you know, thinking about it, some of these guys who have subbed for some of my bands have really been great. They've really brought a lot to the music and they're respectful of this South Asian influence in my music. They can only do so much with that with their Western approach but it's not like a polarization or something, you know, this guy's South Asian, this guy's not. It is a close field anyway. There are only a few elements that are somewhat different like vibrato, scales, and certain rhythmical things that really lend themselves to that south Asian sound.
AAJ: Do you think the audience notices?
RA: It depends on who the audience is .If there are some people listening who know Indian music, if they listen to Indian music then they might say, "You know, with [saxophonist] Rudresh Mahanthappa and [pianist] Rudresh Mahanthappa in the band there is a little overtone of that sound," as opposed to whoever else is in the band.
AAJ: Is there a more interesting pianist around right now?
RA: Vijay? He's got some beautiful stuff. That's why he's in my band [laughs].
AAJ: So you compose for each project? You don't have a songbook where you take one for the quartet, one for Invocation. You start a project and compose for that?
RA: Yeah, generally because you're composing for the instruments and their range. If I'm composing for alto, that's going to be different than for the vibes. Sometimes I do compose just for composing's sake. When I do that I keep it to a couple voices and then I can explore which band I would like to use it for. So that happens as well.
AAJ: So you use a sample instrument on the computer?
RA: Yes or if I'm doing it on the guitar, like I said, sometimes I come up with melodies on the guitar then I'll put it into the computer and then the computer becomes my piano. Now, I'm limitless in a sense. I can play a bass note and try a different line. It takes hours and hours of manipulation. Sometimes I think I've spent 50 hours on one song. It's kind of ridiculous. But that's not always the case. So once I can get an idea of the statement that this music is making I bring it to particular band. And it's also a time thing. If I'm going to do a record with the Acoustic Quartet, then that's obviously in my mind somewhere that that's what I'm focusing on. Then I probably subconsciously write towards that.
AAJ: How many sessions does it take, typically, for you to get a record done? Would you do it in two or three dates?
RA: I used to only do one day in the studio. The last couple of records I've done two but, surprisingly enough, we've gotten everythingor almost everythingon the first day. For Suno Suno, on the first we'd just gotten everything and then the next day we basically overdubbed some melody parts that we messed up on cause some of the melodies are difficult.
AAJ: Given the amount of high energy improvisation or soloing on that record that must be exhausting. Or energizing...
RA: Well, yes, one of those things. You get the second wind absolutely. You see boxers in there for eight rounds and by the eighth round they're like dead tired and suddenly the 11th and 12 they're like juiced up. That's all second wind and that's all within our nature.
AAJ: It's in the horse seeing the finish line, too.
RA: Exactly. It's good to have that second day just in case because you never know if the magic is going to show up. Generally, I like to do two nights of concerts before the day we go in the studio. And that's what we did [for Suno Suno], we did Friday and Saturday at Cornelius Street Café and the Sunday and Monday we went into the studio. I think, with that flow, That everybody's very focused. It's like, "Okay, we've got four days to nail this." I've been doing that for a long time on my records.
So it's not like one month we're playing and next month we're playing and then let's just go in the studio this month after a gig. It's sort of like, "Okay, guys, this is the week we're doing it. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, let's rehearse on Thursday and one more time maybe before that." That way everybody's focused. You learn the music; you know what it's about.
AAJ: Do you ever have the interest in or a concept for playing with other guitars or another guitarist?
RA: I never really have done that in a serious way. I've done sessions with other guitar players just for fun, and it is pretty fun. But that's something that I've wanted to try actually, I've wanted to sort of put together a group of three or four guitar players and do something. It's just a matter of how many projects can you do at once? That's the thing. It would take me a long time to write and find the right guys and the timing is an issue.
AAJ: Are your song titles meaningful? Do they convey anything about the content or the intention of the song?
RA: Very good question. Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Sometimes they're just about either a political or philosophical idea and how they relate to the actual music, but does anything really relate to the music in terms of words? Unless I'm dedicating a tune to someone like on this last record where I dedicated one to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and I can feel that connection somewhat. But when I'm writing I generally don't think about any terminology or any title.
AAJ: Do the compositions have titles when you're recording them or do you go back after wards and name them?
RA: No, they have titles by the time they're being played. But the compositional process is all about the music. Although someone mentioned lately that I should try composing to a title, which might instigate some kind of ideas which is a great thing as well.
AAJ: Some improvisers do something similar where they just pick a theme and that theme could actually have no manifestation in the music or for an individual player it might. A tool...
RA: ...to point you in a direction. Yes. Sometimes I take a raga and I want to write a composition based on that because it's so moving, something my wife [singer Kiran Ahluwalia] might be singing or something. I'll ask, "Hey what are these notes?" I'll grapple with the notes and I'll start a composition with that. The issue I have is that then I start hearing other things. So do I now not go to that direction and stick to this raga or do I say, "Okay, now I'm veering off, even it's not catching that same essence that I thought it was catching initially?" Generally I go towards the latter, I generally move towards wherever my intuition takes me. It's the confining or defining that can be a good starting point, but for some reason I tend to not be able to stick with that all the time. I can, but it's rare.
AAJ: Not to belabor the point but there are a couple of points on the new record where the titles came across as meaningful.
RA: What do you mean, they correlated to the actual music you were hearing?
AAJ: Yes. "Thanks for Giving," the track that opens the record, for one. There is a profound nature to that track.
RA: That's interesting you say that [laughs], because that actually has some meaning. Before I was generalizing but, with "Thanks for Giving," strangely enoughand this has never happened to mebut I woke up from a dream and I heard that melody and usually I forget these melodies by the time I wake up. But I woke up and I was like, "Wait, I was hearing this melody in my dream!" It was somewhat of a lucid experience. So I heard it, and it was Rudresh and I playing this melody. Instantly I woke up and I ran to the computer and I put it in the computer and it's the beginning of that song [sings the melody]. That whole thing. And then I heard this sort of Qawwali- esque approach to it where after we state that melody then we go into the big groove which is very unique to Qawwali. Other music does that too but Qawwali definitely has that effect, the heightened kind of reality. That was the way the tune came about. But it happened to be on Thanksgiving morning, 2009. So I called it "Thanks for Giving" because it was sort of like, well, it was given to me.
AAJ: That was a quintessential Sufi experience. The communication of something important to you through a dream.
RA: Yeah, and it's never happened to me before. I mean, I've heard full blown compositions but when I wake up I have no idea and am usually like, "Oh, man I wish I could hear that now!" But this is the first time I've wakened up to the melody and there it was.
AAJ: So it's a Sufi music tradition or a musical tradition associated with Sufism communicated to you in a dream [laughs]. That's not trivial.
RA: I know. I didn't make it into a big deal at the time but when you mention it and when I speak of it I, it's definitely beautiful and the fact that Rudresh and I were playing it, it wasn't just the melody it was like our song. Okay, let's play, ready (sings the melody). And then I just woke up and I was like, "Wow, I really like that melody man, I gotta write." And without even hugging my wife I jumped out of bed and hit the guitar.
I sometimes tend to just blow these things off but the way you're speaking of it now I'm realizing how profound it actually was. You get very close to your own music so you don't really see it from outside. But other people who listen to it do see it as the first time and hear it as the first time. That's a whole other level of perception.
AAJ: You produce your own projects.
RA: Yes. I think most jazz musicians do that now because given the state of the industry, how much money can you really afford? But even aside from that for me it's more about the fact that I know the music better than anybody and I know what I'm trying to convey. So essentially I don't know if I trust anybody enough to come and mess with the vision, especially if I'm going to pay them on top of that. I think I've got big ears and I'm happy with my own production skills.
AAJ: Sonny Sharrock always spoke about the guitar with something like disdain. He was asthmatic, couldn't play saxophone and said he was trying to achieve on the guitar what he heard John Coltrane doing, especially later period with over-blowing and things like that. Someplace else you made mention of the fact that you generally have two tones, one of them was kind of a cleaner jazz tone and one of them was more overdriven. You said that was your saxophone tone.
RA: Really? He said those things? That's interesting. My comments were from a blog I wrote recently for Guitar Player Magazine on the idea of shredding and how I have disdain for that word because of the correlation with rock and heavy metal. And not that that music's bad, I love some of that stuff as well. But we are talking about jazz and there are a lot of intricacies that go on with creating a vocabulary in jazz. I can only speak for myself but with thousands of hours working on that and when you have an overdriven sound suddenly people relate to this other kind of thing that has nothing to do with jazz. So for me that overdriven sound, yes, that's something that reminds me more of a saxophonist because it cuts through the band. You don't hear a saxophonist as being dull when you hear he or she in the context of a quartet or a quintet. It cuts through the band and yet it's within the realm of the band as well. So, a clean jazz guitar just does not do that. It's a different take on the guitar and it sounds equally as beautiful but when you want that kind of push of the band I think the overdriven sound really helps.
AAJ: Is the saxophone the preeminent post-war jazz instrument? Excepting maybe Miles Davis?
RA: Yeah, I think the saxophone can be seen as the number one or the preeminent jazz instrument. Well, people would argue that the trumpet, maybe because of Louis Armstrong, but I think the general public would probably say the saxophone.
AAJ: And do you think about where the guitar fits in the hierarchy or the history of jazz and lineage of jazz?
RA: I try not to because it depresses me. The guitar is making strides and there are some leader-type guitarists that really have helped. People like John McLaughlin and Wes Montgomery before that, obviously. But I'm saying post-'70s, McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Frisell, etc., etc. You know, these are leaders on the guitar, you can hear that in their music. But in history the guitar, it's sort of like the vibraphone, it's sort of an under the radar instrument, maybe even underrated.
RA: Underutilized, definitely. In some ways I can see why. The piano's so beautiful and striking, it sounds so good with like a ride cymbal, you know [laughs]? I don't blame anybody but this is just seems to be what the truth is of this particular situation. But I think there's an opening now that the guitar can be part of. It's continually opening up doors where with some other instruments, you know, you have Coltrane, you have certain people who've made the mark on those instruments and it's hard to imagine anybody going too much further than that.
Or the piano for that matter. Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett. I mean, wow! What are you going to do? With the guitar, it's still in the baby steps in some fashion because also with the guitar you have electronics, with the electric guitar. You can manipulate the sound, that's innate within the electric guitar to do that. I'm a big guitar fan, I love the guitar because I love the plucked instrument. The fact that you can use different tools as a plucking mechanism, like a plectrum, you can use all kinds of different ways of plucking these stringed instruments and that's in itself a really great thing to have.
AAJ: Do you ever use an Ebow or anything like that?
RA: I have used it; I used it on my wife's last record. She was doing a sort of a slow version of a Qawwali tune and I wanted to create that atmospheric vibe. I love it, it was fun.
AAJ: You touch on the notion of manipulating the strings or different things you can pluck with and that was another thing that Sharrock spoke of, which was the guitar was second only, for him, the saxophone which he said had the breath of life. But the guitar was the second most expressive because you could really work it physically. He played a Les Paul through a Marshall stack, but said his tone was in his fingers.
RA: It is definitely in your fingers but it's also in your musical sense. You can pluck harder than the next guy and that's going to make you sound a particular way. So it's also the actual muscle that goes into the playing. But there's no question about it, I think it's your overall self that is played, you know, to get to that music. To get to the music it's all areas of your body that are doing it. Your fingers because it's the one thing that directly connects to the instrument, sort of interfaced with the instrument. But it's your whole body that's interfaced with the music.
AAJ: McCoy Tyner said music shouldn't be the sole focus of an artist's life. It is interesting to roll that around in your head because, as you said earlier, at certain times in your life it's all you do because you have to build your technique and your study. But you've mentioned boxing a lot and, you've used it as a metaphor a couple of times. Are there other interests you that you have that come back into your music.
RA: Reading. I love reading philosophy and psychology, those two topics I've been back to several times. And sports, there's some great ideas floating around in the sports world. I just read this book called The Fighter's Mind (Grove Press, 2010) [by Sam Sheridan] which is unreal. It's about boxing but it's really about the mind. I'm very much into psychology. Other than that, I think the normal thing that everybody likes, food, film. It's nothing different; everybody has their few things that they love outside of music. But without music I would feel emptiness, I think. So, whether music is a hundred percent or not, it's up there. I haven't gotten to the point that I can move away from that.
AAJ: And married to a musician, you're surrounded by music. Literally, figuratively.
RA: Exactly. And she's kind of like me. She's really into doing it right and discipline and you gotta do your practicing, all these things. Composing, she's always writing new tunes. So, maybe we'll both decide one day that there's other stuff that's more important than music. But right now, why not stick with the music?
Rez Abbasi's Invocation, Suno Suno (Enja, 2011)
Kiran Ahluwalia, Aam Zameen: Common Ground (Avakado Artists, 2011)
Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Natural Selection (Sunnyside, 2010)
Rez Abbasi, Things To Come (Sunnyside, 2009)
Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, Apti (Innova, 2009)
Dave Pietro, The Chakra Suite (Challenge, 2008)
Kiran Ahluwalia, Wanderlust (Four Quarters Entertainment, 2007)
Rez Abbasi, Bazaar (Zoho, 2006)
Rez Abbasi, Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds, 2005)
Sunny Jain Collective, Mango Festival (Zoho Music, 2004)
Marc Mommaas, Global Motion (Sunnyside, 2003)
All Photos: Courtesy of Rez Abbasi