Rez Abbasi in Ottawa, Canada

John Kelman By

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While there are undeniable ties to his Indo/Pakistani roots in terms of rhythmic and scalar concepts, [Abbasi's] music has a richer harmonic content that is more encompassing of the jazz tradition.
Rez Abbasi
The Bayou,
Ottawa, Canada
Saturday, March 19, 2005

New York-based guitarist Rez Abbasi rolled into town on Saturday, March 19, 2005 for a performance at Ottawa's The Bayou, in support of his latest release Snake Charmer. Using the same line-up as the album, with the exception of the lesser-known but certainly deserving-of-more-attention saxophonist Marc Mommaas replacing David Liebman, Abbasi and organist Gary Versace, drummer Danny Weiss and singer Kiran Ahluwalia had some clear obstacles to overcome in terms of the club's provisions.

With a clunky drum kit better suited for a blues band, a keyboard amp that threatened to overdrive any time Versace kicked things up a notch, and a single monitor mix that made attaining a good stage balance next to impossible, Abbasi and the group nevertheless transcended all physical hurdles, delivering two fiery sets that, along with John Geggie's recent performance with Donny McCaslin and Jim Doxas, and Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell show, made March 2005 a memorable month for Ottawa jazz fans.

Snake Charmer forges a link between the improvising tradition of the Indian subcontinent and a modern jazz approach. And whereas other artists who have pursued such a fusion — specifically guitarist John McLaughlin and his various Shakti and Remember Shakti incarnations — have leaned more strongly in favour of the Indian legacy, what Abbasi does is unquestionably and unabashedly jazz, albeit something that seamlessly integrates and forges a sound of its own. While there are undeniable ties to his Indo/Pakistani roots in terms of rhythmic and scalar concepts, the music has a richer harmonic content that is more encompassing of the jazz tradition.

Playing two sets in front of an appreciative crowd, Abbasi and the group worked their way through a number of tunes from Snake Charmer, with a couple of new tunes thrown in for good measure — no surprise, since the album was recorded two year ago. But as magical as the performances on record are, live the group entered into another risk zone entirely. This was not about faithfully sticking with the structure of the pieces — although the compositional rigours of the material remained intact. The quintet would, at times, dissolve into periods of pure freedom, somehow managing to find their way back to a song's form in ways that implied an even greater degree of comfort with each other's playing than was evident on the album.

Everyone was impressive in their own way. Versace, while clearly possessing of formidable chops, was as much about colour and tone, the most capably-abstract organist this side of Dan Wall. An accompanist who seemed to be able to intuit Abbasi and Mommaas' every move harmonically, he was also locked in tight with Weiss. The interplay between the two, and the undeniable fun they were having — as each took their own chances and yet was able to rely on the other to follow — even though they were at the back-end of the stage, were transmitted loud and clear to the audience. Versace, who has a new album forthcoming on the Danish Steeplechase label with guitarist John Abercrombie, also managed to find the groove in Abbasi's metrically-complex pieces.

As did Weiss. Wearing a Rush T-shirt, and prompting a comment by Abbasi to the effect of "That's what you get when you have a drummer whose role model is Neal Pert, Weiss was the wild card of the performance. Despite the inadequacy of the drum kit provided, Weiss managed to extract all manner of textures from it, sometimes through unconventional means. At one point he removed the snare drum and played both sides of it with his hands; at another he removed a large ride cymbal and, resting it between the floor tom and his knee, he hit it in a way that gave it the sound of a water gong. As a soloist and accompanist he demonstrated the kind of independent polyrhythmic thinking and a seemingly endless imagination for dividing, subdividing and rebuilding the time that contributed to the music's unique complexion.

While Ahluwalia spent more time off-stage than on, and her diminutive physical stature made her sometimes seem to blend in with the surroundings, when she opened her mouth to sing it was another story. With a clear voice, wide range and the kind of ability to navigate Abbasi's idiosyncratic melodies that was nothing short of remarkable, she blended in with Abbasi's guitar and Mommaas' saxophone when required; other times dominating with her compelling improvisations, most notably on the final tune of the second set, the beautiful "Phosphor Colours. While her contributions were fewer in number, compared to the more continuous demands on the rest of the group, it wasn't the quantity of her contributions that made her essential, it was the quality; her absence would have unquestionably diminished the impact of the performance.

Mommaas may not have the name recognition of Liebman, but he demonstrated the kind of promise that says we'll be hearing more from him in the future. A fearless improviser on both tenor and soprano, Mommaas had the ability and sense of spontaneous composition to start from almost nothing and build solos that were alive with energy and commitment, fairly bristling with power. Like Versace, Weiss and, of course, Abbasi himself, Mommaas could function in an almost free space, developing his solos with such intention that when the rest of the group rejoined him, it seemed somehow just right.

As for Abbasi, he has managed to forge a style that completely avoids the obvious influences that so many guitarists of his generation demonstrate. On the scene for 15 years now, he has been gradually evolving his own musical language that incorporates broad intervallic leaps, oddly-shaped melodies, unusual closely-voiced harmonies and occasional bursts of blinding speed. While he generally favoured a clean dark sound, on the new and as-yet-untitled piece that opened the second set he adopted a more distorted tone that leaned in the direction of McLaughlin without sacrificing his own vernacular. Abbasi used his odd-looking sitar-guitar — an instrument with six strings like a guitar, but with a number of sympathetic strings that gave it a more ethnic timbre — on two tunes, and it was here that his sound most closely tied to his Indo/Pakistani roots. Still, even when he was playing a traditional electric guitar, he used certain techniques to approximate the microtonal nature of Indian music.

While both sets were captivating, the group sound and energy took things to another level for the second set. The interplay was that much more happening, the level of risk that much greater and, consequently, the rewards that much more palpable.

With Ottawa being the final date of a short tour of Ontario, Canada, one can only hope that the group was happy enough with the turnout and reception, that when Abbasi gets around to releasing a follow-up disc, he'll consider returning. Clearly the response in the intimate setting of The Bayou was enough to indicate that there'll be an audience waiting for him if he does.

Visit Rez Abbasi, Marc Mommaas and Kiran Ahluwalia on the web.

Photo Credit
T. Bruce Wittet

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