Rez Abbasi: Modern Memory (1999)
A few things are made clear by this recording: Guitarist Rez Abbasi has formidable chops, writes really good tunes, picks great musicians, and is a talent to watch out for. The core of the lineup on Modern Memory is Abbasi on electric and acoustic guitars, Michael Formanek on double bass, and Tony Moreno on drums. On several selections, Gary Thomas joins on tenor (and flute), Tim Hagans on trumpet, and Scott Whitfield on trombone. The horns work well together, especially on the head of "Third Ear." Thomas solos powerfully on "Next Year," "Rise Above," and "Monk’s Dream," and his flute on "Every Sunday" is beautiful. I don’t love how the tenor is recorded, however — a bit heavy on the reverb and not that warm. Hagans is featured on "Blu Vindaloo" and "Third Ear." Whitfield does not solo on the record, but his trombone adds subtle colors to "Next Year" and a lot of bottom to "Third Ear."
The most arresting feature on the CD is Abbasi’s acoustic guitar. The opener, "Série De Arco" by Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal, is a tour de force featuring a trio texture you just don’t hear that often: single-note acoustic guitar, double bass, and drums, with no comping instrument. A fast eighth-note melody with intricate meter changes begins the tune. Once the melody is stated the trio breaks down to a slow, burning swing, with Abbasi improvising crisp, flawless single-note lines on his acoustic. Too often acoustic guitar is brought in for a mellow, syrupy sweet sound. Abbasi plays his with power and grit. The trio interplay is hot, the harmonic field wide open. The head-spinning melody comes back to end it. This is a brilliant way to begin the album. Abbasi shows finesse as a producer by putting it first.
Acoustic guitar is also featured on "Modern Memory," parts one, two, and three. Each of these short group improvisations is inspired in turn by Abbasi’s main jazz influences: John Coltrane, Jim Hall, and Keith Jarrett. The Trane tribute is a busy rubato rumbler; the piece for Jim Hall is dark yet calm, with ear-catching atonal harmonies; and the Jarrett homage is a gradual crescendo building to a lyrical melody that sounds like something Keith might have improvised himself. Everywhere it appears, Abbasi’s acoustic guitar is uncommonly rich and round, a signature sound that he ought to continue developing.
His electric playing is no less brilliant, but it strikes me as a shade more imitative. Abbasi is working within the contemporary framework of Scofield, Metheny, and Frisell, and sometimes these influences are too apparent. He experiments with distortion and digital whammy effects, some of which are quite fresh and interesting. But he’ll need to keep exploring these sounds in order to make them more his own. When playing sans effects, Abbasi shows strong signs of developing an original sound, especially on "Next Year." His double-time lines on "Monk’s Dream" show his dazzling technical facility, as do his licks at the end of "Rise Above." Articulation on the guitar doesn’t get much cleaner than this. But nothing else on the record matches the sublimity of the acoustic guitar solos on "Série De Arco" and "Every Sunday." As much as I appreciate Abbasi’s ability to vary his sonic and instrumental landscape, I hope he’ll feature more of his acoustic guitar in the future.
Rez Abbasi, Modern Memory (CD, 61:13); Cathexis 93-0003-2, 1998
Track Listing: Serie De Arco; Next Year; Modern Memory 1; Blu Vindaloo; Every Sunday
Personnel: Rez Abbasi: guitars; Gary Thomas: tenor saxophone, flute; Tim Hagens: trumpet; Tony Moreno: drums, percussion.