Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel
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.