Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Indian Jazz of Rez Abbasi

Brian Seligman

New York city is known as the definitive scene for jazz musicians. People travel from all over the world to, either attend in the audience or, participate as musicians. Rez Abbasi is a guitarist from New York who has established himself to be unique, adventurous and extremely talented. His music has taken many influences from around world, particularly Indian Classical. His recordings “Snake Charmer” and “Bazaar” have brought his unique genre-crossing sound to an accessible level.

Much of Abbasi’s music uses the Indian Raga tradition[1]. This is a tradition in which a group of notes, ascending and descending, create the source material for the piece. A raga is similar to a “scale” in western music except that Ragas have a specific note hierarchy as well as extra-musical attributes like spiritual or seasonal implications[2]. Abbasi combines these Indian traditions along with the spirit of jazz improvisation. In his music the melodies are often based off a raga, followed by a section of improvisations based off of that melody. This gives Abbasi his unique sound to both jazz and world music circles.

Born in Pakistan, Abbasi’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was 3. There he began to play rock and roll on the guitar. In the late 1990’s he began to play accompaniment with Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia. Abbasi attributes much of his Indian influence to these years performing traditional Indian music with Ahluwalia[3]. In this setting Abbasi was making sure not to use to much jazz in his playing because it would upset the vocalist, so in his music, he makes a firm attempt to place jazz first.

Rez Abbasi is the first established guitarist in the jazz idiom to play an instrument called a sitar/guitar. This is a unique hybrid instrument that uses the sympathetic vibrating strings found on a sitar along with the standard six strings from a guitar. The result it that after a note is played along the six standard stings, the sympathetic strings vibrate creating a timbre that mimics the sitar. As well the uniqueness of the guitar allows Abbasi to bend notes to achieve the quarter tones found in tradition Indian music[4].

Abbasi’s sound is original and unique. He has tastefully combined Indian music with the elite jazz in a way that respects both traditions. Certainly not an easy task to do. He has gained the recognition of such jazz icons of Pat Metheny and Dave Leibman[5]. Abbasi continues to tour and perform with his jazz ensembles around north America. I recently saw him perform at the Rex on April 6, 2007. He is an act you won’t want to miss.

[1] Howard Mandel. Downbeat Magazine April 2005.

[2] Dorotheo Hast, James Cowdery and Stan Scott. Exploring the World of Music, (Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1999), 136

[3] Mandel. Downbeat.

[4] Hast, Cowdery and Scott. Exploring the World of Music, 135.

[5] Mandel. Downbeat.

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