True “fusion” music from a great Pakistani-American guitarist: jazz and rock and Pakistani music in a great, ingenious amalgam.
Rez Abbasi is a guitar player with wide tastes and incredible ability, as at home with daring post-bop as he is with jazz-rock as he is with acoustic textures. He has delved deeply into the sounds of his native Pakistan, but he is by nature a classic American omnivore who loves jazz and progressive rock and free-improvisational music. And his projects demonstrate the breadth of his imagination.
Suno Suno is Abbasi at his all-around best, taking big hunks of each of his areas of interest and smushing them together into something thrilling and muscular and complex. The band that Abbasi has assembled here is ideal, including his South Asian comrades on alto saxophone and piano: Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, who have been two of the most important jazz musicians in the last decade. Dan Weiss is on drums, bringing a huge backbeat combined with scholarly knowledge of South Asian rhythms, and Johannes Weidenmueller brings wide experience on bass. This band, which has recorded together before, certainly sounds great.
But what I wasn’t expecting was a kind of “fusion” session.
“Fusion” as in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and all that? Well, yeah. Although Suno Suno is based significantly on Abbasi’s transformation of Qawwali music from Pakistan into a jazz context, most of us will hear in this recording the power, precision, and frenzied drive that lived in the best of the early “fusion” records of the 1970s.
Other than Abbasi’s occasionally over-driven electric guitar, this would hardly seem like a real “fusion” band. But the leader’s compositions and arrangements make it so nevertheless, built as they are on lean and repeated licks that lock together across a rock-solid backbeat. “Onus on Us”, for example, starts simply enough with a syncopated two-chord groove, then it tacks on a basic and clear unison melody for alto and guitar. Quickly, however, the drums grow more complex, and the bass line interlocks with the melody, which in turns starts to jabber with more complexity. The whole arrangement comes together not just in trickiness but also in a programmed mutation into different rhythms and forms — so, for example, the guitar solo has a different, stuttering rhythmic feel than the statement of melody. So the music is “fusiony” in two ways: in that it relies on complex and precise arrangements that do not shy away from a certain virtuosity, and that Weiss plays with a rock-level of energy across the tunes.
However, If you follow the improvisations on “Onus on Us”, you'll notice they are considerably more adventurous than what fusion typically offered in its heyday. Iyer does not play “out” on his solo, but he offers of highly contrapuntal and challenging statement that builds to a climax — but then his solo is followed by a harmonically adventurous statement from Mahanthappa beneath, which the rhythm section, cuts out, leaving only guitar and piano in a loose accompaniment. When Weiss and Weidenmueller return with a backbeat, Mahanthappa remains up in the clouds. It’s a roller-coaster ride that takes us back to the theme.
“Monuments” offers another pleasing example. The introduction by pianist Iyer sounds like intriguing modern jazz, but it leads to a theme built on stabs of guitar and crash cymbal that sound like signposts around which a tricky left-hand piano figure winds, snakelike. The alto melody is dark and bluesy — but then just as this mood takes hold, the band breaks into a swingier version of the theme, more funky and less rocking. The piano now delivers harmonic sunshine, but Mahanthappa again dares to play a solo that runs away from traditional harmony without losing control. As the alto sax sometimes plays double-time, Weiss suddenly doubles his tempo too, keeping the whole proceeding on the edge of its seat.
Each of the wonderful compositions on Suno Suno delivers this kind of variety and focus. The pleasures we once associated with fusion are there, but the richness and depth of up-to-the-minute jazz aren’t diluted. Neither Iyer nor Mahanthappa is diluted — they sound wonderfully like themselves as they work through these tunes. Their strengths are, in fact, amplified by the fact that each setting is interesting enough to allow the listener to momentarily forget that the complex heads are being voiced by such distinctive improvisers. Then, when the solos come, BOOM -- there is the distinctive voice of one of the best jazz musicians working today.
And at this point, Abbasi has be considered every bit the equal of his slightly better known musical comrades. Suno Suno comes quickly on the heels of both Things to Come, a complex and vital modern record that featured this same “Invocation” band, and Natural Selection, on which the guitar worked more melodically with an acoustic band including Bill Ware on vibes. That’s three breathtaking records in three years, each related but each different enough to make Abbasi into a powerful and sly chameleon.
For me, Suno Suno is the most gripping of these three wonderful recordings. Which is more than enough to make it one of the year's best: accessible, imaginative, entertaining, intriguing, fantastic.