Guitarist Rez Abbasi Embraces Pakistani Musical Influences on "Suno Suno"

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In guitarist Rez Abbasi's Suno Suno ("Listen Listen" in Urdu) the music has a heaven-and-earth quality. It's built on melodies with an elusive, indefinable vocal quality, and solid grooves. It has an almost indescribable center and a hard edge. There is nothing standard about the songs or the soloing. Instead, in Suno Suno, each piece suggests a filigree tale that unfolds logically yet unpredictably. Even as the design is clear, it's often hard to tell where the writing ends and the improvisation begins.

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Much of the inspiration for this music came from Pakistani Qawwali, a devotional Sufi music (popularized in the west by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) which, not unlike Gospel, is meant to elevate the spirit and bring the listener and participants closer to a higher power. However, in Suno Suno there are no obvious references -- not for most Western ears anyway. In fact, Abbasi reaches beyond a simple 'translation into jazz' for something more essential. "I've been listening to Qawwali most of my life," says Abbasi, "and making a conscious effort to bring that element into my compositions, was a natural and powerful step. Something I was intent on not doingwas imitating for example, Qawwali melodies. Rather, I wanted to utilize my history with the music as an intuitive tool for composing."

He continues, "People are used to hearing overt influences in what is called a jazz hybrid, but I think the new paradigm that gets the best results is to write from the raw elements and feelings that lie just under the musical radar. This way the result remains organic and not simply a juxtaposition of genres."

Performed by a group of singers, two harmoniums, and a percussionist, and paced by the clapping of the ensemble, Qawwali is an expression of praise whereby melodies are often repeated without variation in order to create a trance-like euphoria.

In Suno Suno, his eighth recording as a leader, Abbasi says in the album notes, "The challenge was to capture some of the power, passion and joy of Qawwali with an instrumental jazz group, without direct imitation." His group, "Invocation" comprises Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Vijay Iyer, piano; Johannes Weidenmueller, bass, and Dan Weiss, drums. It's the same core band as Things To Come (2009), Abbasi's seamless blend of South Asian music and avant-jazz that was hailed by DownBeat as one of the decades best albums. Keeping the same band for over three years, and developing relations between the members in this and other projects has been a plus.

Rez Abbasi's Invocation is one of the more unique groups in jazz. Each of the members is well versed in the jazz canon and history of South Asian music. Abbasi states, "The way in which we collectively interpret my music is different than how I originally conceived it, and that's a good thing. It means that this group has a reason to exist beyond the compositions themselves. I don't need to inform these players that I'm creating some sort of hybrid, because they are themselves living hybrids and that will be reflected in the musical outcome."

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Abbasi has lived in the United States since he was four. He began his studies at the University of Southern California and soon moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music. His influences in guitar evolved quickly from George Benson, to Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, and, most decisively, Jim Hall. Other notable influences were John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Bela Bartok and Claude Debussy. Still, some of his most significant musical education occurred closer to home, down the street from his house, in fact.

"My dad used to sing Urdu love songs called Ghazals," he recalls. "I'd hear that around the house growing up. At larger get togethers, relatives would put on a virtual talent show, playing everything from the flute to percussion instruments. There was a lot of musical nurturing going on. But it really hit me when I was 18 and my parents brought me to a house party down the street from us. The two musicians playing were, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, a master of santur (a hammered dulcimer) and tabla maestro, Ustad Zakir Hussain. Watching their virtuosity from only five feet away and knowing I was culturally related to them in some fashion, was a big eye opener."

Soon after, Abbasi began studying Indian music with a disciple of Ravi Shankar. This prompted a two-month trip to India upon graduating from college. On this trip he sat in on classes by percussionist, Ustad Allah Rakha [Zakir Hussain's father]. "It was a great experience to see how this master taught the long standing tradition of tabla to a new generation. This was one benefit of going out there and soaking up that culture," Abbasi says.

Upon his return to New York City, Abbasi continued to study tabla for a year. Since then, he has performed and recorded with an array of musicians including Ruth Brown, Kenny Werner, Barre Phillips, Marc Johnson, Billy Hart, Marvin 'Smitty' Smith, Gary Thomas, Dave Douglas, Ronu Majumdar, Kadri Gopalnath, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Mike Clark, Marilyn Crispell, Kiran Ahluwalia, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Greg Osby. His noteworthy relationship with Mahanthappa has produced two award-winning albums, Apti - Indo-Pak Coalition and Kinsmen. Abbasi also continues to arrange and record for Indian vocalist and Juno Award winner, Kiran Ahluwalia.

The opening track, "Thanks for Giving," built around a melody that came to Abbasi in a dream on Thanksgiving morning, 2010, and "Onus on Us," are the two pieces on the album that "are most influenced by Qawwali." he says. "There's a call and response between Rudresh and me on those tunes along with a strong groove element that hints at Qawwali.

"Monuments" features "overlapping grooves and metric modulation, something stemming more from Indian Classical." "Nusrat," dedicated to the late, phenomenal Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, features a strong theme that reappears throughout. " The idea on Nusrat was to capture the energy that comes from chant-like repetition."

"Overseas" and "Part Of One," continues to underscore the fact that there's a strong groove element to this album. Abbasi continues, "Suno Suno is like coming full circle for me. It assimilates everything I'm aware of into one sound. My music is modern jazz, informed by western classical, blues, funk and Indian classical musics. On this album, Qawwali became the final ingredient to surface.

Abbasi concludes, "At it's core, Jazz invites the notion of embracing various cultures - that's specifically the reason why the term "fusion" is shortsighted - rather than emphasizing the slow brewing process of musical evolution and looking at the whole, "fusion" falsely places attention on desperate elements."

Rez Abbasi · Suno Suno
Enja Records · Release Date: November 8, 2011

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