Rez Abbasi: Thoroughly Modern Marvel

Lawrence Peryer By

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Guitarist Rez Abbasi is part of a generation of jazz musicians who came of age after the conservative backlash of the 1980s. He and his peers are making their mark on America's art form by contributing their rich and varied cultural backgrounds and with an embrace of popular culture that was heresy in some quarters for far too long.

Rez Abbasi personifies several of the attributes on display in his music. He puts forth a quiet confidence, with a clear point of view on a variety of topics. He is capable of and open to ideas, surprises, and wonder. Though he has a singular vision for his various musical projects and approaches his art with a sense of purpose and seriousness, he is quick to laugh and clearly comfortable in his own skin. In the most striking parallel between the music and the man, conversation with him visits many themes while veering off for varied explorations.

Rez Abbasi is living, breathing proof that jazz music can be as vital and boundary-pushing as ever.

Chapter Index
  1. Qawwali
  2. Growing Up
  3. Listening and Integration
  4. Is It Jazz?
  5. Growing Up, Part 2
  6. Composing
  7. Recording
  8. Saxophone
  9. Guitar Talk


All About Jazz: Suno Suno (Enja, 2011) is a very heavy record. While you do not rely on riffs, the songs have a very heavy feel. Your drummer, Dan Weiss, seems to be a key part of that. He is very powerful and very versatile.

Rez Abbasi: Dan is one of a kind. This is the fourth record he's on of mine, and I've only done eight [laughs]. So it's fifty percent, and I have some future plans with him in mind. This record is informed by Qawwali music, which is a Pakistani music that they use for praise, Sufi mystics used to use it. Now it is also used by non-mystics, if you will, but for the same cause. There is a groove element to that music that permeates it from start to finish. Because of that groove I felt the music lends itself to what we [Abbassi's ensemble Invocation] do.

AAJ: So one of the ways Qawwali is informing the record is those riff-like grooves.

RA: Yes, but the way Dan plays them is obviously very different than the way a Qawwali percussionist would because they use the music to feed or implement the idea of praise. So for them, the music continually moves and grooves. Whereas we break it up a lot. We might start with a particular groove, or theme, and from there it ends up moving through all kinds of realms, as jazz does, and maybe it will come back around later. Or not.

AAJ: Would you say Qawwali is now primarily a folk music?

RA: It could be termed a folk music.

AAJ: Is there an academic tradition or formality to it?

RA: No, I don't think so. It is more of a village kind of formality, if you will, because it's not a matter of going to school for it or theoretically looking into it. It's more of a soul music. It's akin to blues. You don't go to school to study blues. If you do you might lose the magic of it. There is a very fine line. As a jazz musician I interpret things and I need to study these things to facilitate my growth. But with this project I didn't want to cross that line. I wanted the music to be in a space of intuition.

AAJ: The line being to not over-intellectualize or over-formalize anything?

RA: Yes, exactly. With previous records, especially with Things To Come (Sunnyside, 2009), I did want to inform the music with Indian classical music. That's what I was going for on that record. With that in mind I did look into certain ragas or scales and particular rhythms and try to implement them as naturally as I could. But with Suno Suno I really wanted the focus to be on this intuition that has been garnered for me over the last 25 years or so through listening to Qawwali and being at many of the concerts, and seeing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan several times live.

As you know, he is the main exponent of Qawwali, introduced to the West by Peter Gabriel's label. So what was really foremost for me was not to specifically imitate the melodies, or specifically take an exact groove, but to simply put this music in the forefront of my mind and see what will naturally come out. I'm from Pakistan, so the Qawwali influence has to be there somehow. Even before I discovered Qawwali, my parents and family would be playing music in the house or at the weddings I went to, and there were strands of this Qawwali-type music in what they were doing. It wasn't Qawwali but there were some similarities. So I think when I finally discovered Qawwali it was a natural movement to hear that music and feel it right away.

AAJ: Is Qawwali primarily a secular music for you?

RA: All music is secular to me. There's nothing that resonates with religious attitudes and all that. I am not Muslim and the traditional practitioners of this music were Sufis, which is more mystical than religious, like Kabbalah is in Judaism. But even with gospel, for instance, I find juxtaposition with gospel and Qawwali. There are some similarities. There's a feel in gospel that most people can hear right away and it doesn't matter if it's religious or not. For the person who's playing it or singing it maybe that does matter but somehow that is transcended. Music transcends all thought, really, and all belief. That's the quality of music in general but sometimes we tend to forget that.

Growing Up

AAJ: Before you discovered jazz, you were already into heavy music, Led Zeppelin, Rush...

RA: And King Crimson...

AAJ: The hard rock, prog rock kind of stuff?

RA: Absolutely. Up until I was 16 years old. Most people, up until the age that they discover what they really want to do for the rest of their lives, are influenced by whatever society puts in front of them. That's no different whether you're from Pakistan or China, you're surrounded by the zeitgeist of whatever's going on at that time. And Led Zeppelin was absolutely going on at that time, and Rush. I had a rock band, a garage band, and we played all that material. The hard Rush tunes, the Zeppelin. Others, too.

I have been a guitarist since I was 11. My initial draw to the guitar was through listening to and transcribing people like Carlos Santana, B.B. King, and these things. Then I went onto Larry Carlton and Robben Ford and these great maestros of the blues genre and beyond. That was very strong source material to grapple with and study. When I hit 16 I saw Joe Pass and that was a revelation. It was this huge slap in the face, like, "Wow! This guy's a little older, he's not standing up with long hair and all that but he's playing the heck out of the guitar!" So that was a big step for me.

Then, soon after, I saw Allan Holdsworth. He was standing up but he still had short hair [laughs]. And the strange coincidence of the whole thing was that Eddie Van Halen sat in with Allan Holdsworth that night. I was listening to Allan the whole time completely blown away and then Van Halen steps up on stage and he starts pointing to Allan to say, "This is the cat." That was a very real transition for me, seeing Eddie, who's sort of a guru for me until I am 16, pointing at someone that I was moving towards anyway.

AAJ: In music, we always want to know where our heroes came from.

RA: Yeah, yeah.

AAJ: It is amazing the kind of credibility that can bestow, not that Allan Holdsworth needs an endorsement. But what it does to a kid with a rock background is powerful.

RA: Absolutely. You're looking for that stuff. And so I sort of knew that my path was correct at that point, that I was making a great transition.

AAJ: Did you get Holdsworth? It resonated, it hit you?

RA: Yes. He used an overdriven guitar, he still does, it was an overdriven guitar sound which is basically connoting rock and roll.

AAJ: Makes it a little easier to understand.

RA: Yes. That was definitely the transition. But Joe Pass was really the one. When I stumbled onto him I thought. "Wow, this is a clean sound and it's just ripping!" I say "ripping" because technique, when you're young, it really means a lot. The facility of what people do is sometimes enough to just lure you into that world.

AAJ: Is it that the technique is really all you can grasp when you are younger, because you don't really understand emotion and feel yet?

RA: I don't know if it is not understanding the emotion but I don't think I understood the jazz vocabulary and the emotion that can come with that. Now I do obviously but back then it was like going from Rush to Joe Pass and Allan Holdsworth. It was sort of like, "What are these guys playing, I don't understand the notes and the meaning of that." So that was dumbfounding, you know?

AAJ: There was a language barrier.

RA: There you go, yeah, lost in translation, for sure. But again it came pretty quickly. That's the natural element I feel like I've had with jazz. It's like overnight, I got it. Not got the [ability to play the] music, but I understood it.

AAJ: In listening to and reading what other musicians have to say about music, when they talk about their influences and interests, there become are all of these warrens you can go down. Some of them open up into little rooms and some of them are whole other universes of music.

RA: Absolutely It's an amazing art form.

AAJ: A lot of artists try not to consume much music because they're worried about it maybe influencing them or that they might lift something inadvertently. So they tend to focus on their art. Does that resonate with you? Do you listen to music now?

RA: It does not resonate at all, actually. There is so much music out there other than jazz to be informed by. I feel like I'm a student until I die. I wouldn't tell my students not to listen to anything so why should I not listen to things? I'm not necessarily going to listen to other guitar players but in terms of all the music of the world, the folk music, the classical world, western classical, I mean, have I heard all the Shostakovich that could be heard? No. Could I get something out of that? Of course. As a composer? Heck, yes. So I don't relate to that notion at all.

Listening and Integration

AAJ:Being a listener is important to you.

RA: Being a listener at this stage of the game in fact is more important than it was even back when. Back I had to really practice my instrument all the time to get anywhere. Now, for me, I could do a little less practicing and more opening of the mind and let music penetrate subconsciously and hopefully it will come out without being imitative of anything. And that's back to the Qawwali idea, that's why I listened to but didn't study it because I think the studying part may ultimately ruin the magic of it. There's stuff that goes beyond theory and melody and notes. For me there's a whole other dimension that stimulates possibly other parts of the body and the brain. I know that sounds esoteric but I think we've all felt it. Everybody feels it but maybe everybody's not necessarily conscious of what they're going through.

AAJ: Science has probably measured and proven this.

RA: There are definitely people working with music and the brain and how it affects you. It's in its beginning stages for sure but as a scientist you have to continue studying these things.

AAJ: This is an interesting line of discussion because another theme in your music is that of integration. You have touched on it a few different ways in past pieces about you or interviews with you, where maybe the writer is emphasizing a "South Asian Movement" that you and others might be part of. You acknowledge it but don't emphasize it. In your music, specifically with Qawwali, it's there but it's not as overt as picking up the guitar and playing a traditional cultural or ethnic melody, for example, "Greensleeves"; the whole melody, the whole piece. With your music there is this notion of feel, of elements more subtly informing the music, and being pulled in without making statements about the elements.

RA: Yes, yes. And you touched upon something that people tend to expect from either South Asians or any people who try to do what you might call "hybrid music." I don't like that term but that's the closest I can get. They expect it to be obvious and overt and there's not a sitar player in there...I mean, if I'm going to do a project of South Asian music I've got to have a tabla player? No. It is great and it can work but you have to see that from the composer's mind or the composer needs to see it from his or her concept. Not from, "Okay, this instrument is from this part of the world so I need to bring it in here to implement it with my new project." So this whole South Asian music thing is not a fly by night trap or some kind of fashion statement. It's been there all this time for me but had apprehension about bringing it to the surface because from past experiments in the '60s and '70s there hasn't been such great examples of that. You either hear much more of the jazz or you hear much more of the South Asian stuff, element. Although I do like the band Shakti.

AAJ: I was going to ask you where John McLaughlin comes in for you.

RA: Shakti is brilliant, there's no doubt about that. The one thing I don't hear in that group is the jazz element. I do hear improvisation which is absolutely part of Indian music and absolutely part of jazz as well but they don't deal with the harmonic aspect of jazz, but they're brilliant nonetheless. Quite an amazing thing that they've come up with, this kind of music. In general, thought, there's not enough emphasis on the compositional element with these kind of hybrids. The composer really needs to step up to the plate and figure out how this is going to work without being overt.

AAJ: Not dissimilar from a really good lyricist saying something without coming right out and saying it, being more evocative.

RA: Yes. We've all heard the obvious lyrics: "My heart, this and that," "You left me and now I'm depressed." There's other ways of saying this stuff that's not so direct and that's where the magic is.

AAJ: More artful, maybe.

RA: Yes, and especially in 2011, 2012, there needs to be this sort of seeking of a different paradigm.

AAJ: One very clear positive about the trend of musicians from different cultural backgrounds getting into jazz is that it is expanding the form and bringing new interpretations, new elements to the music, whether it is a South Asian influence or a Japanese influence or what have you. Jazz is maybe one music that can handle that, or actually thrive.

RA Jazz demands it and welcomes it. It is an interesting thing that's going on because there's a fine line. I completely agree with what you said. On the other hand, to play devil's advocate, there are projects that call themselves jazz and really watered down, diluted the music so much. It didn't start from the right area. It sort of started from this bluesy effect or something and then they called it jazz. There's a whole school of jazz that needs to be dealt with before you can actually call yourself a jazz musician or say that your music's informed by jazz.
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