Rez Abbasi's New World Vision

Electric sitars, tabla drums, and Indian ragas are not typical ingredients in small-combo jazz. But for New York-based guitarist Rez Abbasi, incorporating these exotic elements alongside more traditional ones seems a logical musical development.

“Jazz is really a mixture of African rhythms and European harmony, so it has always been a multi-cultural affair,” he explains.

Abbasi’s latest CD, Snake Charmer [Earth Sounds], is a forward-looking mix of post-hard-bop exploration, rock energy, and Indian tradition that juxtaposes a guitar/organ/drum trio against colorful Eastern-tinged backdrops. “I think it’s very 21st Century to compose texturally,” he says. “It’s not enough just to have a direct composition anymore. You need to have other layers, as well. So Kiran Ahluwalia sang traditional Indian vocals and played a drone instrument called the tanpura, Danny Weiss played tabla and drum kit, and I played a Jerry Jones-built electric sitar on several cuts.”

Although John McLaughlin had explored Indian sounds with Shakti back in the ’70s, Abbasi—who prefers the tone of a solidbody D’Angelico NYSD-9 direct into a Marshall Valvestate combo—sees Snake Charmer as a more organic combination of the two styles. “We’re a jazz group with Indian influences, whereas Shakti was more of an Indian group with John McLaughlin added,” he says.

And while many of Snake Charmer’s improvisations are based on Western modes—and nod to Ornette Coleman’s harmelodic approach (the elimination of harmonic structure in lieu of linear melodic improvisation, sometimes called free jazz)—Abbasi’s melodic lines and use of additive rhythms (small rhythmic fragments that add up to form a larger cycle) have a decidedly Eastern accent. “I studied tabla with maestro Alla Rakha in India, so that certainly affected my conception of melody and rhythm. For example, the motive to ‘Kismet’ is a repeated line in 13/8, but the band actually phrases it as two 13/8 motifs within a larger cycle of 13 quarter-notes. Every other time the phrase repeats, it lands on an upbeat and the rhythmic emphasis seems to get turned around. I’m also very influenced by Indian ragas that incorporate micro-tonal melodic ornamentation—these are things not usually found in the jazz lexicon.”

Ultimately, Abbasi is less interested in redefining genre labels than in simply following his muse. “Technology is making the world smaller every day, so there’s more cross-cultural pollination than ever,” he concludes. “In that sense, I feel Snake Charmer is really a reflection of its time. I was born in East Asia, grew up on the West Coast listening to surf music, studied in the Indian tradition, learned jazz in New York, and, ultimately, wound up with my own sound. I don’t try to categorize it, because it’s essentially indefinable. I just think of it as this beautiful little place that’s right in the middle of everything.”