One of our best jazz guitarists makes a trio record of unadorned joy and melody.
In past outings, jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi has created challenging bands that mixed and matched voices in ways that fostered cultural cross-pollination and dressed up his strong compositions. Continuous Beat is a different kind of collection, and it may just be the leader’s best. Certainly it is his most joyful and pure: a trio record that really makes us appreciate Abbasi as a guitar player, as an interpreter, and as a writer of irresistible tunes.
This band—with John Hebert on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums—plays as one but in a state on continual conversation. Hebert’s lines are strong and independent, ripe in low tone and interesting all on their own. Takeishi plays such that he is constantly creating a poly-rhythmic dance, pushing and pulling the groove without overwhelming the rest of the band. And with a leader who is as melodic as Abbasi, the total package is a joy to listen to in every measure.
While this is no “smooth jazz” outing, the spirit about Continuous Beat is as appealing and easy on the ears as a Pat Metheny record. Indeed, the inevitable comparison is to Metheny’s first trio record, Bright Size Life from 1975. As on that sparkling debut, this band achieves a perfect balance between consonance and departure. This is jazz that plays straight to what audiences love—melody and infectious rhythm—without sacrificing group conversation and adventure.
As the title implies, this new record is rich in a pulsating groove. “Divided Attention” uses a tricky time signature but doesn’t skimp of propulsion, with the guitar and drums rapping out a syncopated groove that becomes the melody itself. Abbasi’s ability to pluck a killer melody starts in his statements using a “clean” sound on the head, then it shifts to a more distorted sound for the true solo, with the lines of improvisation starting to get faster and harder over time. “Back Skin”, another original, works a memorable melody through both the bass line and the guitar lead (played here on a guitar-synth that uses a sound less grating than Metheny’s), leading to a strong solo that flows naturally like a river over the same hooky groove until the band increases the tempo and takes things forward with rushing momentum, twice shifting tempo. It’s a perfect example of how Continuous Beat refuses to play it too safe.
On this tune and elsewhere, Abbasi is free with his guitar tones, creating a sound that doesn’t get monotonous, despite the small size of his band. On “Rivalry”, for example, the head is played with a clean sound leavened by a touch of sting. The solo then starts with a moderate amount of distortion and chorus effect—a classic fusion sound. The distortion and bite in Abbasi’s resonance is dialed up as the solo becomes more abstract, however, before the return to the melody and the cleaner sound.
Abbasi is just as good in reading other folks’ tunes on this recording. “The Cure”, a Keith Jarrett tune, provides a slinky blues melody with a heap of hip backbeat, and the trio knows just what to do. The guitar gets an eerie sound at the start using a volume-knob effect, and a tune originated by a pianist seems like it could only ever have been played on guitar. “Major Major” is an even more Metheny-esque venture—a ray of sunshine conjured by a series of radiant chords. Abbasi’s improvisation on this tune is very savvy. He starts with a minimal, almost reluctant approach, and his playing slowly spirals up toward a more generous, almost frenzied attack. It’s music that is smart and challenging enough to hold a serious listener’s attention, but it also provides enough surface pleasures to keep the heart afloat. And that’s too rare in serious jazz these days.
Nor does this trio stay away from more conventional “standards”. Monk’s “Off Minor” gets a cubist reading, with the melody appearing only in fragments broken up into shards. As you figure out what’s going on, the feeling of recognition is very pleasurable. There is no conventional swing (or, really, any conventional time at all) on this, the most potentially time-worn track. Smart.
The oldest song on the disc, however, is the closer and the one you may well listen to more than any other. Abbasi finishes with a shimmering reharmonization of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for solo acoustic guitar. It is a mesmerizing two-and-a-half minutes: no solo, no significant embellishments to the melody, just the song itself followed by a slowly fading coda, reinterpreted with a set of beautiful but intriguing chords, each one making the song seem more wonderful than you remembered it.
It seems right that a guy named “Rez Abbasi” with parents from Pakistan in a year when the growing diversity of the US has made key electoral headlines should stake his claim to our national anthem. For it does belong to him as much as to any American. In fact, by making it his own in the idiom of music that is the most American of all, Rez Abbasi has arguably claimed his place as plainly as he possibly can. And Continuous Beat does that over and over again—making clear that Abbasi sits at the center of our national music, playing songs that appeal and dare at the same time.