Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel
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 Hébert. 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.