Modern Guitar Stripped Bare: An Interview with Rez Abbasi

[2 January 2011]

By Will Layman

The jazz musician of the new millennium is a hybrid beast. He has probably been trained at an established jazz school, yet his degree doesn’t assure him of steady work. She’s fluent in complex post-bop harmony, but she would be just as happy to break the rules when that’s the right move. He lives in New York, but he’s from almost anywhere: the US plains, South American Scandinavia, South Asia. Most importantly, today’s jazz musician plays music that, ravenously, might feed on just about any style or period in history.

Guitarist Rez Abbasi is a consummate modern jazz player. A native of Pakistan who now lives in New York, Abbasi plays everything. With his South Asian compatriots Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, he has a knack for angular and complex jazz that revels in interesting structures and tricky rhythms.  In Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition or Dakshini Ensemble, he mixes American folk and jazz elements so skillfully with Indian music that the whole often seems like something unrecognizable and revelatory.

As a leader, Abbasi has proven equally impressive at merging musical worlds. His 2009 recording, Things to Come, integrated Mahanthappa and Iyer, cello, Abbasi’s wife Kiran Ahluwalia on vocals that incorporate South Asian micro-tones, and a wide variety of guitar tones and approaches. His most recent recording, however, moves in a wildly fresh direction. Natural Selection features only acoustic guitar, combined with the shimmering vibraphone of Bill Ware, Stephan Crump on acoustic bass, and Eric McPherson’s drums and cymbals. You would be hard-pressed to find a recording with that instrumentation.

The result is a unique and refreshing program of music.

The decision, for example, to record Keith Jarrett’s “Personal Mountains” with this instrumentation creates a delightful but challenging web of sound. “New Aesthetic” has a searching quality in its written melody, and the improvisations come off as ruminative and delicate at the same time—and deeply personal. The sound of the music is delicate and sensitive, particularly on the guitar-only ballad “When Night Falls”, but it can also swing, as on the dirty “Blue Vindaloo”.

The overall feeling on Natural Selection is one of intimacy. Regardless of the style of the tune, Abbasi has his group closely recorded, with your ears along for the ride on every pulse. Whether the tunes have a slightly Indian sound (“Lament”) or are ruminative versions classic pop songs (“Ain’t No Sunshine”), Abbasi seems to be insinuating his melodies rather than demanding that your ears follow. The close recording of the instruments makes this disc sound like it’s happening in the smallest club or even your living room.

Too often, I believe, up-to-the-minute jazz can seem just a bit off-putting: too “smart” for the average listener, some infer, or that requires a taste that lands on the ear with a skosh too much bitterness and not quite enough sugar. Natural Selection is a modern antidote to the problem, even though it refuses to pander. The vibes and acoustic guitar are “pretty” even as they explore sonic possibilities, and Abbasi’s way of thinking through his solos in a linear way—reminiscent of his guitar hero Jim Hall—makes every line of music seem like a story putting you on the edge of your seat.

I sat down with Rez Abbasi to talk about how he achieves this balance, about making Natural Selection, and about the business of being an uncompromising jazz player in today’s world.

PopMatters: So many jazz musicians today work in the zone between “inside” bebop playing and “outside” free playing. How do you think about your playing, which obviously transcends these poles? Do you make conscious choices on particular tunes or in particular moments to play inside or outside normal tonality?

Rez Abbasi: I just think from the overall perspective of tension and release rather than “in” and “out”.  The out stuff can be considered as parallel to the tension, and then the in stuff is parallel of the release. But it goes beyond a programmed idea of when you’re going to play out and when you’re going to play in. It’s all one, now. In school you were taught the dichotomy of playing in and out, but of course I’m past that level. I don’t think of it like, “I’m going to play this pentatonic outside, a half-step above the tonal area,” because that has become really obvious now.

I’ve been working on a linear approach for a long time. People who approach me for lessons on the guitar often ask me, “How do you play ‘in’ and ‘out’ at the same time?” For me, that’s where it’s at.

PM: Many players seem to develop systems, their own idiomatic language for developing melodies that the whole band can share. Is that what you’re talking about?

RA: People like Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill have developed a way of hearing of music that comes out formally in their compositions. As far as soloing goes, it all translates to that, as well. They both work together. When I talk about using a linear approach, I’m talking about soloing but also about reflecting this approach in my compositions as well. My tunes aren’t all tonal centered, diatonic pieces.

PM: Does your decision to record the Joe Henderson tune, “Punjab”, on Natural Selection tell us something about where you’re coming from as a jazz player? Are you a great fan of that ‘60s Blue Note sound—that post-bop paradise of inside-out playing? Your tunes seem to sound like that, avoiding clichés at every turn.

RA: I’m glad you hear that. It comes from the last 20 years of practicing linear lines over chord changes. One of my biggest influences is Jim Hall, and the great thing about him is that he approaches the guitar and soloing as a compositional vehicle rather than thinking of it as a vehicle for expressing clichés or what have you or a particular vocabulary. His solos are boundless. You hear it from the start to the end, and it seems like he could keep going on forever because he doesn’t run out of ideas. It’s because of his compositional ability. Because he is a master of motivic development.

PM: Of course, Hall played with Sonny Rollins in the early ‘60s, and Rollins was working on doing just that.

RA: There weren’t very many guitar players who took that on at the time.

PM: Not to put them down, but back then you had Grant Green and Wes Montgomery—guys who played in a certain bag and were really effective at it and fun to listen to. But they were not the kind of guys who were playing in a more sophisticated way, like Monk said, playing the melody rather than just the changes.

RA: Exactly. I think Jim Hall ended up playing also the aura of the tune, not just the melody. There are different layers of a tune: the harmony, the melody, but there is also that something else that non-musicians hold onto. Musicians often get sidetracked by all the theoretical ideas of harmony and melody and rhythm because these tentacles of music are endless. We get caught up in all that sometimes, so we don’t think about other aspects: texture, aura, these under-the-radar elements of music that just as strong if not, maybe, stronger.

PM: Especially in jazz, there is no set, correct tone. And guitar players have a huge range of tones to call on with different amps and so on.

RA: There is one way that guitar players don’t have as a great range, and that is in dynamics. You can play harder, but then start to lose the same tone. That’s the one thing where guitar players are always trying to figure out how to get greater dynamics like horn players, pianos and so on.

PM: On Natural Selection you play only acoustic guitar, and your playing sounds more “guitar-centric”. You sound less like a horn player who happens to be playing the guitar. I can hear more of the subtlety of flesh against string.

RA: That’s right. It’s all close-mic-ed on this record. So every move is picked up. I heard myself making all kinds of rhythmic noises. The whole thing was so magnified in that little studio. That came across on the record. That’s one of the reasons I did this record with all acoustic guitars—because I wanted the whole portrait of the album to based around that subtlety and that beauty. That part of the reason I also chose the vibes. They also don’t have the kind of dynamic level of saxophones and trumpets.

It's Simple -- In a Complicated Way

PM: Vibes get that great shimmer, but they don’t explode. But all the instruments sound very intimate on this record. For example, the way Stephan Crump’s bowed bass sounds on the melody of “Lament”.

RA: Exactly. Intimacy was one of the ideas of the record. Of course, we all have the energy that we want to burn, and I think that still happened on particular tracks. But it’s still not like having a horn player in there who has that over-the-top dynamic quality. But that’s why I think this particular record works. Within our individual ranges, we hit everything. And there’s nowhere to hide.

PM: Did you know from the beginning that you were going to include a couple of tracks featuring only your guitar, over-dubbed once?

RA: I’ve never recorded like that before. The only person I know who has done that before is Jim Hall. I remember on one of his records he had a full group but then would an area of only guitar, in duo with himself. And I just loved the silence behind the guitars. I knew that Natural Selection was going to be an acoustic guitar record, and I wanted to hear just acoustic guitar in some places without anything in the background. These tracks were pretty spontaneous. I thought I was going to both of those tunes with the group at first. I wrote “When Light Falls” for my wife (award- winning Indian vocalist, Kiran Ahluwalia), and I wanted to do something that would take me out of the jazz realm, and that Bill Withers tune is just great. I hadn’t heard it in a decade or more, but it’s one of those tunes I grew up with.  It’s sooo deep!  That whole section, “I know, I know…”, that was really revolutionary at the time.  It is a cross-rhythm if you really listen to it. The rhythm part is in 4/4, but the melody crosses over the bar. It was really hard to get that down. It’s so deceptive, so tricky.

PM: It sounds simple but is complex in context. I love hearing that song at the end of the record. Doing arrangements of pop songs isn’t what the record is all about, but I like this at the end.

RA: I didn’t know that song was going to be the last one on the record. I knew I wanted to do it, and then do it without the band. I didn’t want to spread the record with pop songs because we’ve seen that done many times. It’s all good, but I don’t know what that would say about music. I was more interested in doing tunes I thought were not heard at all or often enough. When’s the last time you heard “Punjab”? When’s the last time you heard “Personal Mountains”?  When have you ever heard “Lament” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? These tunes are gems.

It’s very rare that you hear anyone record those Keith Jarrett tunes from the European quartet. “Personal Mountains” is one of the hardest tunes I’ve ever played. It has a 17-bar solo cycle, but we’re used to hearing tunes in multiples of four bars. And melody goes all over the place. It’s easy to screw it up.

PM: Rhythmically, only a few of your tunes “swing” in the traditional sense (such as “Blu Vindaloo”, with it’s walking bass line). Almost all of your tunes are more rhythmically complex and have tricky patterns. How do you think about your music in terms of “swing”? Is that term relevant any more to you?

RA: My generation of jazz musicians—and those younger—had a lot more to listen to than the guys in the ‘60s did. There are a lot more influences. Even the guys from the ‘60s—Miles, Herbier Hancock, Wayne Shorter—started moving toward those straight-eighth pulses. So now we had a context to relate the music to that rhythm. First you had Ellington and his feeling, then you had Coltrane, then Miles, and you can see the history moving toward that straight-eight feel. A guy like Horace Silver was moving toward that. Younger jazz musicians have all these different musics as a palate – you have more to draw on. I still use walking swing, but that’s not what I listened to mostly growing up. 

PM: Do you make conscious choices about working with players who share a certain musical vocabulary or sensibility with you?

RA: The reason why I collaborate with the guys I play with is because we have a shared set of ways to compose and play. But it is unspoken—we don’t collaborate by talking about doing something provocative. It’s organic. But we are mindful of doing something a certain way.

I’m influenced by what I like, but it’s an intuitive process that goes on rather than a cognitive idea. When I play with Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak group, I learn the tunes and internalize them. I don’t so much play his music or his way as I learn his compositions to point where they are natural to me. And then what might come out is natural and organic.

PM: What are the economics of being a serious jazz musician in 2010?

RA: Everybody has different ways of making it work. I do a lot of teaching. I worked at a record store for three years, part time, to help myself along. I didn’t have great places to live in the beginning. I actually lived at the YMCA for two years when I first moved to New York. Then, slowly things started to materialize.

I’m 44 years old and still today I’ll wonder, “What’s going to happen in ten years?”Some months are better than others. That may be true for the rest of my life. Seven years ago I met my wife—a full-time musician who tours all the time. I tour with her, and I arrange and produce her records. It’s a juggling act, constantly. 

I have to think beyond the jazz world. Playing with my wife helps me to make a consistent living. She’s been doing really well and her new record may take her over the top.

PM: How does your experience as a jazz musician inform your playing in her Indian style?

RA: When I play with my wife, I am open to interpreting things a lot. I can apply my classical theory and jazz theory, but when I solo, I can’t be chromatic—I have to follow the scale of the raga. I can’t change keys, and I must reflect what came before me. 

PM: What else have you got on the near horizon?

RA: I just got a Chamber Music of America grant for writing for the Vijay Iyer/Rudresh Mahanthappa/Dan Weiss group, and we will be recording this material in December of 2010. It’s based on the influence of Sufi music, such as the Fateh Ali Kahn tune from the recent disc. This is music I’ve been listening to for decades and is a big influence on me and inspires me to write. I’m not so much inspired by the scales and forms, but by the aura of that kind of music. Rudresh and I will be playing the melodies together, and I’ll be using some overdrive on the guitar to emulate the strong vocal sound in that style.

Jazz is street music. It doesn’t come from the conservatory, and it can take in every style. I can be informed by sitar players, but I don’t want to just seem like I’m dropping sitar style or licks into my guitar playing. I’m very cognizant of not playing music that sounds like it is stitched together. Music has to have some unity to it.

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