Rez Abbasi: Unfiltered Universe (review)

Guitarist Rez Abbasi's third look at various South Asian musics, with his band Invocation (including Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer), is one of the best of the year in jazz.

Rez Abbasi, restless but focused, is one of the very best guitarists in jazz today. His versatility means that he maintains several bands that allow him to pursue many interests. With his acoustic quartet, he might explore fusion tunes from the 1970s. With his quartet Junction, he uses electric keyboards to rocket him into conversation with the volcanic saxophone player Mark Shim. With his band Invocation, he has explored South Asian music of various kinds and its relationship to the new jazz of the 21st century.

Unfiltered Universe is the third recording by Invocation, coming five years after the sizzling Suno Suno. Each time, Abbasi has this band explore a different style of South Asian music, and this recording digs into Carnatic music, an ancient style from southern India. The band features two other South Asian musicians who are among the most celebrated jazz composers and leaders of the last 15 years: alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and pianist Vijay Iyer. Abbasi is in every way their equal.

Iyer and Mahanthappa have worked on this music on their own; Mahanthappa specifically explored Caranatic music on his 2009 recording
Kinsmen in collaboration with saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. The rhythm section Abbasi has chosen, percussionist Dan Weiss and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, are also deeply sympathetic with Abbasi’s approach. On Unfiltered Universe, classical cellist Elizabeth Mikhael joins in some situations. The result, then, is a collection that inhabits music from India without any tables or sitars. Indeed, in most ways the compositions seem to avoid any obvious tropes from Carnatic music but, instead, find sympathy and connection to another culture in a manner more integrated and implied.

I hesitate to try to understand the relationship of the music on
Unifiltered Universe to Carnatic music, of which I have limited knowledge. But if you start with “Thoughts”, a short solo electric guitar improvisation, you can certainly hear another culture’s influence in the way Abbasi bends notes into eerie quarter tones and in the way he builds and phrases melodic lines to sound a world away from bebop or fusion. Aided by some processing on his guitar, Abbasi’s tone is unabashedly “sitar-esque” on just this one track.

“Thoughts” is programmed as prelude to “Thin-King”, where Abbasi’s sound is clean, but the line he plays, first solo and then in octaves with acoustic bass, suggests a cultural collaboration less obviously. When the band enters, things get more complex, with a tempo that slow down and speed up — or perhaps what I’m hearing is a polyrhythm of two tempi overlaid in which different ones come to the forefront in waves. It is hypnotic, and the soloists take turns playing brief improvisations in a round-robin with the tempo shifts accompanying each change. This sounds forbidding, perhaps, but the contrary is true — each burst of melody from piano, alto saxophone or guitar is as natural as breathing, in and out, tension and relaxation. Weidenmueller solos over a simpler, static rhythm, a short respite before the polyrhythm returns for its conclusion. But, importantly, “Thin-King” made me reflect on the nature of the phrasing from its prelude, suggesting part of what is at the heart of the whole recording.

The longest, most compelling track is “Turn of Events”, which also trades in rhythmic variety, with bass lines, drum grooves, and melodic lines that can be moving in different counts over and across each other. This composition develops slowly, from a set of whispers and hints into a burbling momentum over the course of four minutes. Once it catches fire, Abbasi voices a slow, syncopated melody for guitar, alto sax, and cello, one that has a long form, again morphing and developing more complexity over time. Eventually, the leader and Mahanthappa improvise in rippling counterpoint over a rhythmic accompaniment that seems even more complex than that in “Thin-King”.

There is more to “Turn of Events”, and trying to describe all of it in writing would be counter-productive. (Iyer shines with a solo that is as strong as any in his own catalog, for example.) As a whole, however, it gets at what I admire most about
Unfiltered Universe as a thrilling example of what American creative music is doing with such joy and success in 2017. This “new jazz” has developed extraordinary variety and freedom. It borrows from every source imaginable — Western classical music, so-called “new music”, Carnatic music or any other global source that interests the musicians, the daring history from Armstrong and Ellington to Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton, the glories of soul and hip-hop — and the result is integrated, personal, and beyond category, beyond border, and beautiful.

“Disagree to Agree” (great title!) has a melody that might seem Carnatic or might seem Mahavishnu (that is, from the fusion catalog — which in John McLaughlin’s case was also influenced by music from South Asia), but ultimately it simply develops a case of the funk, as Iyer plays a soulful solo over a grooving 6/8, which leads Mahanthappa to a ripping start to his solo over stop-time figures. I don’t know if you’d call it dance-able, but it is hip-shaking at least, even as it feeds to players a thousand reasons to play their hearts out. (The last track is called “Dance Number” — and it uses just enough 4/4 time to earn that title in Western terms, but you know it’s not that simple in the end . . .)

The playing throughout this recording is breathtaking. The hand-in-glove relationship between Weidenmueller’s bass and Weiss’s drumming is the
gee-whizzzz foundation of it all, and they sound that much better when Iyer takes advantage of the piano’s percussive heart to become a third gear in the intricate dialogue of accents and fills that are possible in the groove of this music. Mahanthappa is, by now, a sure thing in the music: as tonally rich as Arthur Blythe in his prime, with a singing quality that also makes in a descendant of Cannonball Adderley.

Rez Abbasi strikes me as being underrated
as a guitarist. His compositions and bands are so interesting that it’s easy overlook the playing itself. It is fleet, fiery, and melodic — Abbasi seems always to be looking for a right note and then, viola!, finding it. Here, he phrases with the little hiccups and string-bends that suggest the South Asian music that is inspiring him, but he is equally in debt to the jazz legacy of Grant Green or Pat Martino. Unlike those players, however, his tone is thick and informed by the last 30-40 years of American guitar. As a whole, he is the complete package.

There have been recording in 2017 that were more ambitiously pitched as forward-looking new jazz, and there have been others that gave me joy.
Unfiltered Universe, however, is both an explosive piece of creativity and a heart-lifting listen. That makes it one of the best jazz recordings of the year.