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Rez Abbasi: On balancing picture with music and shifting into Django mode

Photo credit: John Rogers

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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Something that’s guided my playing all my life is to try and tell a story with my improvisation. It’s not about playing licks and lines and being the flashiest dude around. —Rez Abbasi
To really distinguish oneself in today's vast universe of guitarists, even within the confines of jazz, more and more resembles a Sisyphus task. When so much has been said and done, a specific tone or distinctive vocabulary alone no longer suffice to set an artist apart from the crowd. It is only through the sum of the different parts—various technical, aesthetic and even philosophical ones—that a musician is able to claim a place among the original voices on the instrument.

American guitarist Rez Abbasi can be counted among them. From very early on, the fret-acrobat has been able to create his own style and sound in the saturated post-modern jazz topographies, where every rhythm of every music seems to have been combined with the various forms of bebop, hard-bop or post-bop and then blended with every imaginable genre the world has seen.

Pakistan-born and-raised up to the age of four, Abbasi's connection to his heritage has remained strong and always traceable in his music from the beginning. But unlike many of his peers, who tend to mix the two musical cultures, the Western one with Indian/Pakistani tradition, to an effect that typifies the world music or fusion genres, Abbasi's approach proves much more subtle. While embedding melodies in western harmonic structures, the guitarist often outlines the progressions in a horizontal way, based around the repetition of specific intervals and combining melodic fragments to form a harmonic whole as an afterthought, rather than striking chords directly. A mannerism that calls the scale-like melodicism of Carnatic ragas to mind. His percussive touch on string and his usually dry, as opposed to reverb-drenched tone can also be mentioned in that context. Both add to the acoustic appeal he is able to trigger, even on electric guitar, framing his language in a chamber music quality, rather than in a very stylized and electric modern one. And still, while bound together by the guitarist's unique musical voice, Abbasi's body of work is marked by diversity and steady shifts in style and instrumentation.

The guitarist rarely repeats himself. In the past five years he went from releasing the highly original, electric rock-infused Behind The Vibration (Cuneiform Records, 2016) to recording the successful acoustic sextet venture Unfiltered Universe (Whirlwind Recordings, 2017), featuring the two other current jazz mainstays with Indian subcontinental background, namely Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Abbasi lent his angular lines to Indo-Pak Coalition's Agrima (2017)— the trio lead by Mahanthappa—before dedicating his time to scoring the silent film A Throw of Dice, captured on the album of the same name, released on Whirlwind Recordings in 2019.

Recently Abbasi released Oasis (Enja, 2020), a trio recording co -lead with French harpist Isabelle Olivier, that emphasizes the guitarist's ability to capture the essence of a song in sparsely arranged settings. On his most current album, Django Shift (Whirlwind Recordings, 2020), Abbasi pays homage to another unparalleled voice in the guitar world. In trio arrangements featuring drums and synthesizer, Abbasi lets Belgian-Romani guitar legend Django Reinhardt's compositions shine in a completely new light, resulting in the successful fusion of straightforward traditionalism and eclectic modernism.

In an in-depth conversation with All About Jazz, Abbasi offers insight into his compositional process, how his approach differs from one project to the next and how Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Django Reinhardt and others fit into the picture.

All About Jazz: Looking at your recorded output of the past five years, one can't help but notice how diverse it is in sound and color. You could almost say, that the only connecting dot is your involvement. If you had to break it down to a few core principles informing these works, which would they be? Or do your regard your albums as completely separated from one another?

Rez Abbasi: No, they're never separate, it's always "me" after all. I suppose I just bring all of my experience—from childhood to now—with me into every project. So my music always comes through that filter. I'm also very spontaneous in life, in general. That might reflect in my musical output, too. But most of all, I don't see myself as a guitarist or jazz musician first, but rather as an artist. That means I deal with colors and sounds first and then, in a second instance, I'm this jazz guy with a background in the jazz tradition. I think that what you see over the run of my albums is the combination of those two forces. Even in a project like Behind The Vibration—which is kind of outside the box for me—it's still my voice all over that. That's my writing and my guitar approach.

I will say that sometimes my guitar tone will change as I progress. If, for example, you compare my guitar sound on Behind The Vibration with the one on Unfiltered Universe you'll hear quite a difference. I think you could trace that back to technology influencing me day by day. Ironically, since the Pandemic I've barely touched my electric instruments because they're what I'd use on the road or in the studio mostly. Those two things are sort of out the door right now, so at the moment I'm playing a lot of acoustic guitar.

AAJ: Another thing connecting much of your recent output, say Mahanthappa's Agrima , Behind The Vibration, Oasis or now Django Shift, is the prominent tendency of not featuring a double or electric bass. One might almost think that you're not a fan of the instrument (jokingly)!?

RA: That's interesting! (laughs) I guess with Oasis there just wasn't a real need for bass, because the harp goes down another register, even below the guitar. So we thought that the lower end of the percussion would actually stand out more if we didn't add more bass. I think you could say the same for Agrima, but Rudresh is the leader of that project. He'd have to answer that question for himself.

You're right, Behind The Vibration and Django Shift are more keyboard oriented. In the beginning I actually envisioned Django Shift as more of an organ trio kind of record, but I also asked Neil Alexander to expand on that organ notion and we experimented with synthesizer sounds. But A Throw of Dice definitely had a lot of cello and acoustic bass work going on, so I do still love the bass (laughs)!

You know, as a guitarist, our lower playing sometimes takes place in a kind of bass register. The timbre of a guitar is also pretty close to that of a bass, as compared to for example a piano. Therefore, as a player, I've always dealt with the bass, too. Add an octave pedal and then you have pretty much a very similar sonority as an electric bass, too.

AAJ: Which is something modern jazz guitarists are seemingly doing more and more. Gilad Hekselman, for example, uses it very prominently on his recent music, live as well as in studio.

RA: Yeah, a lot of people do that. I remember seeing Paul Motian's trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano performing many times when they were a really active trio unit. At one point I actually stopped going to see them, because I didn't want it to get boring for me (laughs). But I was particularly impressed with Frisell and how he can just hold on to the bass, without being the bassist. He's one of the best players I've ever seen do that. The impressive thing is, he doesn't imitate a bass, but rather just lets the music happen naturally, and uses the guitar to fill the empty space where the bass register should be. In the process he gives Paul [Motian] the space to anchor certain cues and emphasize beats or lower notes, as a bassist would. There was a lot to learn from watching that trio perform!

When I think about it, I find that Rudresh's trio, Indo-Pak Coalition, kind of reflects that a little bit. Both, Lovano and Rudresh, have this really crazy ability of playing anything they seem to want to play. So as a guitarist with limited chops— technically speaking, in the sense that a guitar can't really do what a saxophone does—I have to reel it in a little bit and start doing my own thing to compensate in a holistic kind of way. I saw Frisell do that many times with Lovano and it really was a great lesson for me when I went into playing with bass-less trio formations.

AAJ: The interesting thing about that context—the bass-less playing situation—is that you, as a guitarist, gain more freedom while you're simultaneously confronted with another job, in taking care of the bass range. In light of that, your playing becomes even more intriguing because you often appear to opt for a horizontal rather than a vertical approach, in how you connect melodic ideas and fragments, rather than just comping.

RA: Yes, absolutely! That's something I've been working on all my life. That linear, "line-saying-everything" kind of concept. Having the line hold down the rhythm, the harmonic progression—unless it's in modal, then that's a different thing. But even then, you can still hold down the modality and imply different chords on top of that. I don't want to depend on chord voicings, to get my solo to move. Of course, I love the chordal approach on guitar, and I'll "drop" them in —as we say—once in a while, but that's not where my focus lies.

I'm a very big fan of Keith Jarrett and he is a big influence on me in this regard. He does play chords of course, but his right hand is so strong and always says so much. He has this very holistic musicality; you can't take anything out of his lines, it's all essential. As a guitarist I really communicate with that, because I can't comp like a pianist. And certainly not for myself! So I strive to work out a way that sounds like an implication of comping, without actually playing full-blown chords. I took a lesson from Lenny Breau and heard him live a few times and he often played fragments of chords to accompany himself. But then you have Wes Montgomery who occasionally energizes the group just with chords and makes it sound unforced, which is a rarity.

AAJ: Steering the conversation back to last year's A Throw of Dice; could you talk about that project, focusing around the difference in approach between composing a score for a film and recording a regular studio album?

RA: One thing about writing for A Throw of Dice is that, yes, it is music for a silent film, yet since it's me writing it, my own vision is in there as well. That was very hard to balance, because once I started getting into my vision too much, it took away from the movie, and vice versa. As a listening experience, I am very happy with the result. But watching the movie of course adds to the experience. By the way, you can watch it on my website, free of charge!

AAJ: Your compositional approach for the project must have differed importantly from your regular efforts, taking into account the functional pragmatism that comes with supporting images.

RA: Absolutely. It's very different from a jazz record for example, where a lot is based on your intuition that takes you anywhere you want to go on a spontaneous level while you're composing or improvising. Also improvisation often leads to a composition in that situation. But with a film, you have a constant conductor staring you down, telling you for example that a specific section will only have nine bars of said tempo. The tempo of your music is based on how the respective character is moving. We played the score to the movie live, too. There was no metronome. The flow of the characters and such is your metronome. Every time a section would come in, one of us—usually me—would have to call the tempo by way of the character's movement. So if one of the movie character's eyes would blink four times or if the character would take three steps, that was the tempo. And if I didn't get that tempo, we would have ended up in a different spot at the end of that scene with maybe ten seconds of silence, which sounds like a mistake in a silent film. You can of course take a more improvisational approach, where things don't have to land in specific spots and times, but I preferred writing and arranging a score, within which you have about 30 percent improvisation.

The beauty of the project is that it's sort of a collaboration with history and Indian culture that I wasn't very familiar with, because this movie was made in 1929. To view emotions through the character's lenses affected my writing a lot. Another interesting aspect about scoring the movie was the fact that a lot of the melodic content was brought out directly by the different characters and scenes. If it wasn't for that, I would have never come up with various melodies. When I saw the lead actress's face, for instance, I felt I just had to capture that, it was really speaking to me.

AAJ: Circling back to your most current outing, Django Shift , what inspired featuring Neil Alexander on various keys, instead of, for example, going for a more usual organ trio sound?

RA: Originally, I was actually thinking in terms of an organ trio sound. But as I was writing these arrangements, the sonic tapestry just naturally expanded while trying out different sounds on different tunes. I didn't want to shut that process down.

I don't really have a history with Neil; I think we played together twice about a year and a half ago. He's kind of a quiet and overlooked figure in the jazz world, who lives upstate New York, doesn't tour a lot with jazz groups and just does his own thing. But I was just blown away by his musicality. His ability to deal with those sounds in such a musical way is incredible and unique, kind of like a modern Joe Zawinul, but he doesn't necessarily sound like him, Neil has his own thing.

Something that's guided my playing all my life is to try and tell a story with my improvisation. It's not about playing licks and lines and being the flashiest dude around. That's why I love Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. However many notes they play, it doesn't matter. That's not the point. They're telling a story and unveiling themselves in front of you. I hear that in my favorite players. And I heard that same thing in Neil's playing right away.

AAJ: To close things off, could you talk about what your first contact with Django Reinhardt's music looked like and what aspect of his you wanted to capture with your approach and the specific selection of pieces on your record?

RA: My relationship with Django's music was originally based around the guitar, not his composing. The main thing that set this project into motion was my recognizing his compositional genius more and more. He wrote so much and had so many wonderful compositions that I didn't know of for a long time. That magnified my excitement about doing this project. Of course, his playing is one of the most singular guitar sounds I've ever heard. But I don't play like that and I don't sound like that and copying him was never my intention.

The seven songs of his I chose to cover, plus the two compositions by other composers Django himself covered, stood out to me while listening to a number of his records. There's something about his compositions that is closely bound to that era, the 1930s and '40s, that I can and sometimes can't relate to. The four to the floor kind of swing for example. I love it for a while, but there's so much more musical history that's been created since then, that I felt it made more sense for me to choose tunes that I knew I could expose through my own filter and create something fresh from. Not all songs would've worked. These are some of the ones that really sparked my creativity and that was the most important thing.

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