Pakistani-born guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi is in many ways the embodiment of East-West fusion. His family relocated to Los Angeles when he was four years old, he later traveled to India as a student of master tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, and for the past 18 years he has resided in New York City. His formal music education began at the University of Southern California and was completed on the East Coast at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied jazz and classical composition. During the past two decades, Abbasi has recorded and performed with many of the most progressive figures in jazz, Indian, and world-fusion music, as well as releasing eight critically acclaimed albums as a leader. He is married to celebrated Indian vocalist and frequent collaborator Kiran Ahluwalia.
Abbasi’s 2009 release, Things to Come, established a new benchmark for the integration of Indian modalities with Western jazz, and he has begun work on a new album with the same band that will similarly showcase his extraordinary electric guitar playing—but Abbasi’s latest release, Natural Selection (Sunnyside), finds him temporarily putting aside his beloved D’Angelico NYSS-3B electric for several acoustics— including a National resonator. From the brilliant interpretation of vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Lament” to groundbreaking originals such as the Andrew Hillinspired “Up on the Hill” to the Indianinflected guitar duet take on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet’s Natural Selection teems with fresh ideas and soulful virtuoso musicianship.
What is going on conceptually with Natural Selection?
There are a few facets to it, most obviously that I wanted to utilize the steel-string acoustic guitar as a viable up front instrument for progressive jazz, and not simply for ballads—which is why I put a group together that would bring out the essence of acoustic music in a progressive fashion. Another facet was that I had just came off of doing a record at a level of composition that I hadn’t achieved previously—Things to Come—and I wanted to mirror that record with one that included other people’s music in addition to originals. But one of the criteria for that was to do gems that transcend any time or historical idea because they’re so strong. Tunes that people know but that I never hear played, and likely have never been played on guitar before. The four I chose were Joe Henderson’s “Punjab,” Keith Jarrett’s “Personal Mountains,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Lament.” I wouldn’t have done the latter tune with another group, but I felt that because there’s acoustic guitar, vibraphone, drum set, and upright bass, that the music could really can take on another form in a jazz context. He’s written some really angular melodies, but somehow they’re all very vocal-like. That retains the modernity, but also the humanistic quality, which is not as much thought process as it is heart.
Describe how you approached your arrangement of “Lament.”
All four of the tunes are so great that I didn’t want to ruin them by over-arranging. With “Lament,” I began by transcribing the melody. I listened to Nusrat’s vocal interpretation of the melody and tried to reinterpret it on guitar, which was quite a task because the way he articulates the notes and phrases is very difficult to capture on a fretted instrument. In terms of arrangement, I wanted the piece to open up with more energy for solos while retaining the character of that mysterious melody. I did that by writing bass lines derived from the very interesting raga, or scale, that the melody is based on. The essential thing is that there is an implied note in the piece which when brought to the surface, can produce powerful results.
Describe the scale.
It depends on which note you consider the tonic, and I’m not sure how he heard it. The notes with Eas a tonic are E, G, A, Bb, D low to high, whereas if G is the tonic, they would be G, A, Bb, D, E. Either way, there is something inherent in the composition, and how he emphasizes certain tones. The note that is implied is a B natural. You hear it in the harmonic accompaniment, but when it’s played melodically, when soloing, it really resonates as a surprise. So, in tonic E, as I thought of it, the B natural pushes the solos into a different area because the Bb has been the strong tone up to that point. In Western music the Bb would be considered a “blue note,” more of the note you may not expect, but here, the B natural, or perfect fifth is what pushes the piece into a different area. I’ve rarely thought of tonality like that in jazz before and it’s as simple as one note.
Why did you choose the particular instrumentation and instrumentalists that you did?
It dawned on me years ago that pairing steel-string acoustic guitar with vibraphone would produce an amazing and texturally unique sound. I met vibraphonist Bill Ware, about ten years ago, and when I heard one of his records I felt like he really had a different tone, because he plays both acoustically and through an amp. He also uses some subtle effects, which gives him an interesting balance of sounds. And, like me, he is rooted in all the traditional jazz ideas while at the same time extending into the avant garde, so I knew we would be able to cover a lot of musical ground.
Once I had chosen the core instruments, I decided to continue with the concept and make a real acoustic project, and that’s when I thought of acoustic bass and drums. I had seen bassist Stephan Crump perform a number of times, including with the Mahavishnu Project, but I was particularly taken when I saw him with Vijay Iyer. There were a lot of Indian rhythms and over-the-bar-line things going on, and Stephan was just so solid and his tone was so round, so I thought he would be a good choice. I had also seen drummer Eric McPherson numerous times, and he played on the last Andrew Hill record. I was really impressed by his freedom of groove. He has a groove, but it doesn’t dominate unless he wants it to. He plays in a circular fashion, and if you see the circle, you know where the beats are without having to be shown all the time. His style is quite unique.
You get several very different guitar sounds. What instruments did you play?
I used a Guild Songbird for improvisation on much of the record. It is a thinline acoustic-electric, but I mostly recorded it acoustically. The guitar is very lightweight, and the particular one I have has lots of character and really projects. My other primary guitar is an all-cedar model built by Thomas J. Wray. You don’t see many steel-string acoustics with cedar tops, and this one was so beautiful and played so well that I bought it on the spot. It sounds really huge when playing chords, so you can get very plush harmonies. I used it mostly on the solo and duet tracks. My third guitar was a National resonator, which I used because it has a sort of sarod-like character to it, in that the top is made of metal, yet it also has a really deep and beautiful acoustic quality.
Do you use different types of strings on each guitar?
I string the Wray with John Pearse Silks, which give me kind of a nylon string and steel string effect together, and on the other guitars I use hybrid sets with extralight John Pearse steel strings on the bottom and individually selected D’Addario .013-, .016-, and .022-guage strings on the top. I use similarly gauged sets on my electric jazz guitar.
It sounds like you are using a pick on much of the album. Do you use the same picks for acoustic that you do for electric?
I do now. In the past I have used copper picks for acoustic, but they can produce extra noise with steel strings that I didn’t want to have to deal with, so now I just use 1mm Pickboy Luminous picks. I tried about 25 different types of picks before settling on them. I do also play with my fingers sometimes, like when I’m comping behind the vibes or bass.
Given that the covers on the album weren’t originally guitar compositions, how did you go about adapting them for guitar?
try to emulate the phrasing of the saxophone on Keith Jarrett’s “Personal Mountains” or Joe Henderson’s “Punjab” in the way that I did for “Lament,” because I didn’t feel it was so unique that I needed to do that. An example of adapting a line for guitar would be the melody on “Personal Mountains,” where I sometimes slide into a note Indian-style, so to speak. In those cases I would approach the line on two strings as much as possible, rather than vertically, to make it easier to slur into the pitches from between notes. It is mostly just a matter of being conscious of the overall musical quality of your phrasing on the guitar—though that’s really true for everything.
Describe the ways in which Indian techniques enter into your guitar playing.
I’ve never studied the sitar or the sarod because to really learn to play either of them I would have had to give up everything else. So, I learned some of the techniques on what you might call a jazz street level. In other words, I wanted those things to influence me and see what came out naturally rather than imitating them exactly. The music is in my blood somehow because I was born in that part of the world, but I also happen to have been influenced by rock and roll and jazz and other music since I was a kid—and I happen to play guitar.