When he was four, Rez Abbasi and his family moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to Southern California. At 11 he received his first guitar. “It was an SG-shaped guitar from a Sears-type company, but it was like a goldmine to me,” he recalls. Abbasi quickly began playing the same music as other budding guitarists his age: Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Rush, Yes, and Van Halen. At 16, a friend turned him on to Charlie Parker, and he was soon exploring the jazz style of Joe Pass and the jazz-influenced music of players like local hero Larry Carlton and fusion god Allan Holdsworth. “I loved of the intricacy of the music, as opposed to the five chords of rock,” he says. He went on to learn jazz and classical music at the University of Southern California and Manhattan School of Music, and study with percussionist Alla Rakha in India.
Since 1989, Abbasi has lived in New York City, where he plays and teaches. He also acts as musical director and producer for his wife, singer Kiran Ahluwalia. Ahluwalia was featured on his 2005 album Snake Charmer, which combines jazz and Indian influences in a seamless mix. Abbasi explored this synthesis further on 2011’s Suno Suno. On both records, rather than use scalloped necks and tablas à la John McLaughlin’s Shakti, Abbasi subtly weaves South Asian elements into a classic jazz quartet that features drum kit, acoustic piano, and upright bass. His occasional sitar or sarod-like quarter-tone bends and Qawwali-style glissandi are thoroughly integrated with long, fluid, smoothly distorted lines that display awesome jazz technique without flaunting it. Even as Abbasi continues these East-meets-West explorations with his group Invocation, he records acoustic guitar versions of famous fusion tunes with another collection of musicians.
Abbasi’s latest record, Behind the Vibration [Cuneiform] features yet another aggregation: Junction. With its electric keys and electronic wind instrument sounds, Junction’s music could easily have sounded like ’70s fusion, but somehow doesn’t. Among other things, GP talked to Abbasi about why that is.
In what way is Junction’s music different from that of the Invocation band?
Thanks for noting that. Junction is very electric-centric. I use a lot of effects on the guitar. The horn player uses a MIDI wind controller, as well as playing tenor saxophone, and that becomes another electric voice. The keyboard player has a variety of keyboards. There’s no bass player—it’s keyboard bass. But it’s also different because the voices of the instrumentalists are different. I am writing towards the individuals. If I always wanted to write for the same people, I would only have one band.
Was there a reason you decided to go with no bass?
I was going to use electric bass but thought a keyboard could electronically manipulate the sounds more.
I think it’s safe to say the Invocation band plays off your ethnic roots, whereas this record seems to display little of that. Was that a conscious decision?
I started the Invocation group in order to reflect my South Asian-ness. The members of that band include two elite South Asian musicians, Rudresh Mahanthappa on saxophone and Vijay Iyer on piano. The drummer, Dan Weiss is a great tabla player and Johannes Weidenmueller, the bass player, has also studied a lot of Indian music. When I write for these people, it’s going to bring out the Indian-ness of my writing, because they will interpret it that way. It’s also a reflection of what’s going on around me. If the saxophone player in Invocation does something that spurs Indian phrasing, then you will probably hear it from me, whereas with Junction there’s no one who does that. Maybe that’s why it’s not coming out as much.
I don’t think of Behind the Vibration as a non-Indian album, because it’s a continuum of what I’ve learned from previous records and from studying Indian music and jazz. Compositionally, there are a lot of things in Junction that are reflective of South Indian dance. For example, the tune “Holy Butter” came about during a tour I did with South Indian dancers. Watching and playing for these dancers, the music ingrained itself in my own being and now it’s baked into the music.
You were talking about using effects on the record. There’s an interesting reverse echo at the beginning of “Uncommon Sense.” What were you using to create that?
That’s an Empress Superdelay pedal. I use that reverse sound more often these days to camouflage some of my Indian ideas and phrases because I never really wanted to sound like a sitar or a sarod player. Though I love those instruments, the guitar cannot really cope with that kind of microtonal sound, at least not a fretted guitar. The reverse effect allows me create my own personality with those kinds of phrases.
On “Self-Brewing,” are you occasionally blending some reverse delay into the solo with an expression pedal?
That’s exactly what it is. It can easily go over the top, so you have to be in control. I have heard people use expression pedals and thought, “Whoa.” They use the pedal the same way they play—there’s no subtlety or filter.
You’ve been playing D’Angelico guitars for a long time. What do you like about their guitars?
The guitar I’m playing now, a Japanese-made ES-XX model, is exceptional. The neck is perfect for me. Now that I have found the proper strings, it is amazingly consistent all across the neck. Just talking about it makes me feel like polishing it.
What strings work with it?
I came to the conclusion that I needed a particular gauge for each string. I use D’Addario strings, but they don’t make a set that facilitates what I need. I basically use an .011 set on the bottom, which is .049, .038, and .028. And then I use a .020, .016, and .013 for the top three strings.
Is that an unwound .020?
Yes. I wish they made an unwound .021, because I would use it. They only make a .022, and that’s a little too thick.
You get a great overdriven sound. What are you using for distortion?
There are a couple of cuts on Behind the Vibration that have the perfect distortion sound for me: a Zendrive pedal through the clean channel of my DV Mark amp, although I’ve just switched to a J. Rockett Blue Note pedal. I’m seeing if that might be the ticket. But there are a couple where I had to manipulate the sound after we tracked.
How did you manipulate the distortion tones that you didn’t like as much?
I always like to record an extra direct signal just in case. I ran the DI track through the distorted overdrive channel of one of my DV Mark amps. Sometimes in the studio headphones you can’t hear how much distortion or reverb you have.
Did you replace the original sound or add that to the sound from the basic track?
A little bit of both. The gain channel of the DV Mark sounds very different than the clean stage of the DV Mark with the Zendrive. We compared the Zendrive cuts to the new tracks, and tried to get them to be similar.
Are you using the DV Mark in the live Junction video?
When taking amps to gigs, sometimes you prefer the smallest ones. I think that was my signature model Evans head. I use that through a Raezer’s Edge 1x12 cabinet. I am always searching for equipment, but at some point you need to be able to manipulate what you have for better or worse.
What picks do you use?
I use a Dunlop 1.5mm. Any heavier and it sounds like a real warm, fat guitar, which is great for solo work, but when you start playing with a band it doesn’t cut through. I can’t stand records where the guitarist is not conscious of the orchestration—where bass, bass drum, and guitar start clashing.
Behind the Vibration reminds me of the heyday of fusion.
It doesn’t sound like a throwback. It sounds modern. What do you feel are the elements that bring it into the present?
I think everything is a hybrid. Everybody is influenced by everything around them whether they know it or not. With Junction, I chose the members of the band precisely because they play so many other styles. The saxophone player plays a lot of electronica. The drummer plays in heavy metal bands. The keyboard player plays with the Bee Gees. They are all very strong jazz musicians, but they bring all these other things to the table. I think that’s what you are hearing, because in the ’70s, most of the fusion guys came out of jazz to play rock. We actually played rock, jazz, heavy metal, and pop music. It’s a different zeitgeist. I think the record could only have been made now.