Music

Rez Abassi Acoustic Quartet: Intents and Purposes

The guitarist takes his acoustic band (guitar trio plus vibes) for a spin on some classic fusion tunes from the 1970s.


Rez Abassi Acoustic Quartet

Intents and Purposes

Label: Enja
US Release Date: 2015-02-10
UK Release Date: 2015-02-10
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Guitarist Rez Abbasi is maybe a smidgen too young to have cranked up the volume on a Mahavishnu Orchestra record when he was 14, like I once did. He is too sensible to have taken ripping air guitar solos with Al Di Meola or Larry Coryell in his adolescence in a New Jersey basement. Abassi tells us in the notes to Intents and Purposes, the second release by his Acoustic Quartet, that he broke into playing jazz through Charlie Parker, "absorbing the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s." Even though Abbasi plays electric guitar, he may have been a little too cool (or too tasteful?) ever to fully geek out to the pleasures of saturated electric buzz and speed-freak fretboard glory.

But time and curiosity finally got the better of this mainstream-to-progressive guitar hero, and he headed back to the heart of the jazz-rock dreamland: the time when rock energy and jazz adventure collided without excessive cheesiness. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum and Introducing the Eleventh House by Larry Coryell were not guilty pleasures -- they were just cool, quality records. It was a time when Weather Report was daring and the slink and thrust of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were volcanic matters.

On Intents and Purposes, Rez Abbasi comes at this music from a wonderfully fresh angle. He has saddled up his acoustic band to ride across the territory of a genre that was essentially defined by being plugged in. And the first thing revealed is this: the heart of "fusion" or ‘70s jazz-rock was not its volume but its structure: a hearty and outstanding architecture of composition. By stripping away most of the bravado that tended to coat these songs in their original incarnations, Abbasi brings forward melody, detail, and thrilling subtlety.

This band made 2010’s scintillating Natural Selection, and it was a brilliant stroke to unleash it on tunes by Corea, Zawinul, Pat Martino, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock. The quartet’s sound is sharp in attack but generally transparent, clear. Bill Ware’s vibes chime and shimmer, but they let light into everything they touch. The rhythm section of Stephan Crump’s solid, resonant acoustic bass and Eric McPherson’s dancing drums is ideal: funky but pliant. And Abbasi brings both his steel string precision and a quaver of feeling from fretless and baritone acoustic guitars. The result is not watercolor renderings of the oil originals but something closer to pen-and-ink drawings: careful, revealing, but remarkably full of space.

If you know the original recordings of tunes such as Weather Report’s "Black Market", you know that they are dense with sound. Abbasi’s band plays each component of these songs with care. "Black Market" was originally defined by a contrasting set of Joe Zawinul synth lines, several on the frothy bottom and one squiggling on top. Here, Crump locks down the bottom more simply, and the leader is on top, resonating with a graceful clarity. McPherson plays, here and throughout, with a swirling complexity that the original tune left to more than one hand. And as Ware’s vibes enter, the hint of a West Indian or African market busts alive. The whole tune is present, but we see it, somehow, more clearly through the eyes of this exceptional band.

Other tunes are also set free by the relative delicacy of this approach. Martino’s "Joyous Lake" was cool in the original, harmonically rich and ingeniously constructed, but it was put across with a relentlessness that made it hard to hear anything other than energy. In McPherson’s hands, the driving thump of Kenwood Dennard turned into a fizzy Latin groove in which each tap and snap is nuanced. It is a perfect transformation of a good thing into a great thing.

"Red Baron" is the one tune here that has become something close to a standard: a hip, swaying funk tune with a blues line that is irresistible. Ware’s statement sets up solo by Abbasi that reasonably sums up why he is such a treasure. Using his steel string, the guitarist plays across several different styles and modes: bent-string blues, boppish runs, harmonically adventures eddies found at the upper end of the chords, and rhythmic variations that draw Crump and McPherson into conversation.

A couple of the tracks here are at the more contemplative end of fusion. "Low-Lee-Tah" from Coryell is a feature for the leader alone, overdubbing several guitars in dramatic fashion. The original version had Coryell playing a set of pretty arpeggios on processed electric guitar before the band came in, but Abbasi is more impressive turning this into a multi-layered exploration of acoustic textures.

And John McLaughlin’s "Resolution", from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire begins with a free-time beauty rather than a slow-building vamp. The original has a kind of quiet menace that turns into amped-up majesty. Abbasi and the Acoustic Quartet are much more playful, etching time and color across a free canvas before the guitar intones the melody even as Ware and the rhythm section continue to improvise. Eventually Crump’s moaning pedal point is joined by a backbeat groove by the drums, getting us into Mahavishnu territory, but the journey to that end is fascinating.

When Abbasi uses his fretless guitar, you’ll be entranced. Hancock’s "Butterfly" is a popular tune these days with vocalists, and the fretless guitar is supremely vocal in sound. Abbasi plays it with great focus and clarity. When he holds it to pitch, it has a stinging, kind-of-electric sound, warbling, buzzing. When he purposely lets the pitch wander, of course, he evokes both American bluesmen and the sitar sounds of his cultural background. On Tony Williams "There Comes a Time", that sounds is employed perfectly. Ware’s companying on vibes almost seems like McCoy Tyner behind Coltrane’s perpetually-blue soprano saxophone.

What a joy it is to hear this music again, but to hear it refracted through another lens. It’s not just the acoustic nature of Abbasi’s group but their new-century sensibility, a willingness to play the funk when it’s there but without gimmick, the inclination to blow outside the changes when so moved, even though this music started with a consonant heart. Now if only listening to Intents and Purposes didn’t make me feel quite so old.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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