Rez Abbasi’s Invocation: Suno Suno

True “fusion” music from a great Pakistani-American guitarist: jazz and rock and Pakistani music in a great, ingenious amalgam.

Rez Abbasi

Suno Suno

Label: Enja
US Release Date: 2011-11-08
UK Release Date: 2011-11-07

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.