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Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel

By Published: January 2, 2012


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 everything—or almost everything—on 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: 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 enough—and this has never happened to me—but 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.

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