There's nothing especially new about fusing jazz with the already rich improvising tradition of Indian music. Guitarist John McLaughlin has pursued it with his Shakti and Remember Shakti projects, while percussionist Trilok Gurtu, most notably on his earlier records, has blended the traditions in a more overtly electric fashion. Even British alto saxophonist Martin Speake has examined the meeting point on his latest disc, The Journey . But in most cases the emphasis seems to be on rhythmic and scalar concerns, and less about the harmonic development that is more typical of a western musical approach.
Not so with guitarist Rez Abbasi, who, with three previous recordings under his belt, has operated under the radar on the New York scene for some time and even further below the line on a broader scale. Over the past twenty years Abassi has been gradually honing a personal style that is refreshingly free of the common influences on most guitarists his agethe Frisells, Methenys, Scofields, and Abercrombiesand his latest release, Snake Charmer , finds him profoundly mining his rich Indian/Pakistani tradition more than ever before, without losing sight of the rich jazz tradition that has occupied him for the past twenty years or so.
Certain aspects of his music tie directly into the Indian traditionhis solo on the title track feels distinctly raga-likebut while some of his themes look to the subcontinent for rhythmic and scalar concepts, a stronger sense of harmony behind them lends the album a feeling of more seamless integration. The ethnic influences may be clear, especially with Abassi's use of more ethnic textures, including his own sitar-guitar, drummer Danny Weiss' use of tabla and Kiran Ahluwalia's vocals and tanpura. But Gary Versace's versatile organ work, Dave Liebman's typically expressionistic soprano sax playing, and Weiss' more conventional-yet-inventive kit work broaden the scope. Whereas McLaughlin's Shakti projects and Speake's latest feel more like jazz players operating inside an Indian environs, Abbasi's approach is more about merging the two approaches into a completely new space.
Compositionally, Abbasi's penchant for dazzling themes in odd meters occasionally brings to mind some of Gurtu's more overtly fusion efforts, specifically his live Bad Habits Die Hard. And along with these mind-boggling constructs is a certain almost progressive rock-like sensibility, most notably in the groove-laden middle section of "Kismet," where Versace's tone is reminiscent of Keith Emerson's, but with more finesse and restraint. As exciting and intense as Abassi and the group sometimes get, there's never a feeling of overplay.
As a guitarist, Abbasi also manages to smoothly blend East and West. His extended solo on "Pearl" is the perfect confluence of eastern melodic concepts with an almost free bop mentality, while his acoustic solo on "Rumi" places veena-style flourishes within a more ambiguous and occidental harmonic backdrop.
Snake Charmer is, quite simply, a breakthrough record, both for Abassi and for the fusing of jazz and ethnic concerns, with all its elements on clear display yet perfectly assimilated.
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Personnel: Rez Abbasi (guitars, sitar-guitar, percussion), Gary Versace (organ), Danny Weiss (drums, tabla, vocal on "Kismet"), Dave Liebman (soprano saxophone), Kiran Ahluwalia (Indian vocals, tanpura)