Born in Pakistan’s teeming commercial metropolis Karachi, and raised in the Southern California suburb of Torrance, jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi always seems to be working at the crossroads of contrasting musical realms. He performed at the SFJazz Center last year with breathtaking vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, who draws on Punjabi folk song, love-besotted ghazels, and North African cadences. And back in 2010, he made a powerful impression at Yoshi’s with award-winning alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo Pak Coalition, a trio playing a singular synthesis of jazz and South Asian forms.
Long based in New York City, he returns to the Bay Area for a concert 8 p.m. Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory with the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet (RAAQ), a band that bridges a very different kind of musical divide (they also teach an improvisation workshop at the CJC Saturday afternoon). Featuring powerhouse drummer Eric McPherson, who spent 15 years with alto sax great Jackie McLean, and bassist Stephan Crump, a member of pianist Vijay Iyer’s celebrated trio, the band’s latest album Intents and Purposes (Enja) recasts classic jazz/rock fusion tunes in an acoustic setting. Abbas designed the project to explore an era he had largely overlooked, when acts like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Tony Williams Lifetime attained the stature of rock stars.
“I never really listened to 1970s jazz rock growing up,” says Abbasi, 50. “I got into straight ahead and studied bebop and post-bop like Andrew Hill. I studied the jazz canon, but fusion was a missing link in the chain. In recent years people have been saying ‘Have heard that Weather Report tune? You’ve gotta check this out!’ I really don’t know any of this stuff, and this was a chance to delve into it.”
The album opens with a jubilant arrangement of Joe Zawinul’s “Black Market,” a piece that effectively introduces the band’s strikingly transparent sound. Playing acoustic steel-string guitar, an instrument rarely heard in jazz contexts, Abbasi built the band around the metallic sonorities of the vibes, creating a forum to collaborate with Bill Ware (who’s best known for work with the Jazz Passengers).
They became friends in the early 1990s and Abbasi “just loved the thickness of his tone, the subtly of his playing,” he says. “That was something that just stuck with me. I learned he uses particular mallets that most guys don’t use. Many years went by and I ran into him right when I was thinking it was time to do something with a different texture. I really wanted a chamber-like group. I don’t know exactly what that means, but that partially means acoustic and very nuanced.”
The band’s sumptuous buoyancy flows from the rhythm section tandem of Crump, who possesses a remarkably rich woody tone, and McPherson, whose textural approach to the trap set can simultaneously evoke the tunes’ fusion origins and the new chamber concept. “I can’t say enough about Eric,” Abbasi says. “His dynamic is extremely wide on the drums. He can invoke any kind of expression, and his cymbal work is very specific, another metallic, shimmering kind of sound. And Stephan’s got the gut-string tone that balances the band.”
Growing up in Torrance, Abbasi first gravitated to the guitar under the sway of rock bands like Rush, Van Halen and Led Zeppelin. By the time he started Palos Verdes High School jazz had caught his ear, and he thrived in the school’s respected band program (future tenor sax star Mark Turner was a classmate). He had his first guitar epiphany when a friend took him to see Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald at the Universal Amphitheater.
“I was 16 and technique and virtuosity are elements that bring you in,” Abbasi says. “The idea that an older gentleman can play the heck out of a guitar, the polar opposite of Van Halen, all that the facility was really striking. I realized I have a lot of work ahead of me. I still love Joe pass, but he’s not one of my influences. That same year, I saw Allan Holdsworth, the polar opposite of Pass, and that was a great other kind of dimension.”
He wasn’t drawn to Hindustani music until he happened to attend a private party down the street with his family where tabla maestro Zakir Hussain was performing with santoor master Shivkumar Sharma “and it blew me away,” he recalls. “I felt that same elation when I saw Pass and Holdsworth, though I didn’t know who Zakir was. I hadn’t discovered Shakti yet. Sitting five feet away from these gentleman sitting on the floor I was amazed by the striking sounds coming out of their instruments. I had heard tabla around the house, but never saw it, with the mechanics, the fingers flying. I talked to Zakir afterward. I said, you must have gone to the mountain and practiced all day long. I was really naïve. No, not really, he said. I just performed all my life. I thought, I’ve got to get more involved with this side of my life, my roots.”
Recommended gig: Victoria Theodore at Kasman Piano
Victoria Theodore came up through UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and went on to study at Oberlin and Stanford University, where she earned a Masters in classical piano performance. She’s best known for the years she’s spent touring with Stevie Wonder as a keyboardist and background singer. Last year she released her first album, Grateful, an impressive collection of original tunes, but for her performance 5 p.m. Sunday at Kasman Piano as part of the Sundays at the 88’s concert series, she’ll be playing a solo recital.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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