Rez Abbasi is a forward-thinking guitarist, a composer with a sense of history, and a musician who busts through boundaries regularly. He has made music with two prominent colleagues (Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa) who share with him both vanguard interests in improvised music and a South Asian heritage. To be fair, however, lumping him in with anyone is a disservice. His last recording prior to this summer’s Behind the Vibration was a collection of songs from the early-70s jazz-rock era played by his acoustic quartet: vibes, bass, and drums in addition to the leader’s acoustic guitar. It was a gem—and a recording that had essentially no precedent.
The new disc reverses course by featuring Abbasi’s most “electric” band to date, playing only original compositions. It is very much an extension, though, in that it reflects his renewed interest in the “fusion” style he had been exploring acoustically. The wholly new band is dubbed Junction and features Ben Stivers on keyboards (and also, I believe, handling the bass chores on keys), Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and a MIDI wind-controlled synth. Is this, then, a fusion record? Is Junction a new fusion band?
Abbasi, of course, is no stranger to electric guitar. His playing here first struck me as being newly influenced by John McLaughlin, as if Abbasi’s relatively recent interest in ’70s fusion had sent him back to this powerful player. But then I listened to some of Abbasi’s older records again. Other than adopting a slightly steelier tone within this newly electric band, his approach to phrasing and note choice is quite consistent with older records—this is Rez Abbasi speaking his own language, but perhaps in a slightly different accent than before. The feeling is the same.
Yet there is a difference, and I hear it mainly the compositions and arrangements. “Groundswell” is a great example; its snaking set of melodies for B3 organ, guitar, and tenor sax are placed on a set of low, droning chords that pulse in funky, syncopated long tones. Grahowski’s drums are in constant fusion-y motion, as if Billy Cobham had melded into a contemporary master like Chris Dave or Dan Weiss. While Shim solos, Grahowski is playing a series of complex and complimentary fills on his toms that pump everything with adrenaline. Yet it is also no surprise when the tune ends with a minute of impressionistic quiet before a reprise of the main melody.
“Matter Falls”, the closer, lopes along in a slow strut that would be considered “funky” were it not for the complex time signature and tempo changes as the tune moves from section to section. The effect is some combination of “fusion” with groove music and the challenging compositions that are typical in contemporary New York jazz. A similar flavor permeates “Holy Butter”, with Abbasi taking a first-out guitar solo that lurches forward and leans backward with the trickiness of Charlie Parker and the directness of Son Seals.
The absence of a bass player on Behind the Vibration is certainly a defining characteristic. “Self-Brewing” has the throbbing, buzzing bass line that works best from a synth, a repeated note in insistent rhythmic punch. Shim’s synth and tenor alternate with Abbasi’s guitar in harmony up top. Stivers takes a first solo on Fender Rhodes electric piano here, evoking the great Rhodes heroes the ‘70s (Corea, Hancock), perhaps, but sounding equally modern in his abstract approach. When Abbasi takes off, the rhythm section comes down to half-time, and the guitar gives us just a small taste of the Carnatic style that Abbasi sometimes plays in.
The bass lines sound more chill and human on other tracks. For instance, on “Inner Context” the cool and careful movement of ghost-like bass notes from a keyboard is the constant, tying together the intriguing, opaque chord changes. Stivers’ organ solo is smooth and sleek, owing a touch, perhaps, to the amazing B3 work that Jan Hammer achieved on John Abercrombie’s enduring ECM debut, Timeless. “Uncommon Sense” starts with a long guitar intro, leading to a leaping and charismatic line for tenor along with guitar that seems to need nothing but the double-timed drums of Grohowski to stay afloat. The synth baseline toggles between chord tones beneath it all, but it acts more as the reminder of the them than as a bass part. Really, what makes this composition so ingenious is the fact that this “bass line” is really the melody in certain places and the accompaniment elsewhere. But it is integral to the composition, not just a set of harmonic ideas.
The synth solo (by Shim’s MIDI? I can’t tell, and maybe that’s part of the problem) on “New Rituals” is my least favorite thing here. It sounds canned, creepy, and machine-like compared to the B3 solo that immediately follows it. The air coming from a Leslie cabinet or the vibrations that emerge from a guitar amp or a tenor sax put the pulse into most of these tunes, and this moment comes closest to feeling “old” to me. But, even here, there are long stretches of originality that dazzle—such as the final two minutes, during which the band plays “free” of straight tempo and tonality before handing things off to the drums for a quick solo before the theme returns.
In his very brief notes on the album, Abbasi writes that the music is intended to create an intersection, a junction, where all the music that he and his band love can come together. It’s not jazz, then, but (as he puts it) “music of now”.
That seems fair. To my ears, it is equally plausible as an updated kind of jazz-rock or fusion, an aggressive, powerful rethinking of the music of the 1970s that briefly seemed to change everything. Abbasi’s fusion imagines what today’s improvised, progressive instrumental music would sound like if it allowed itself to be lit up with the fire of that old era. And, perhaps because Rez Abbasi is himself neither nostalgia for that era nor afraid of its bombastic errors, it almost all sounds fresh again.