Despite his important work as part of groups like Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition and Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra, the New York-based guitarist Rez Abbasi is best known as a leader. Over the course of more than 10 albums, he has engaged with the sounds of South Asia; employed standout players like Vijay Iyer and Bill Ware; and reached a sharp, exultant place on his ax, as heard on his latest album, 2017’s spacious and fusion-y Unfiltered Universe (Whirlwind), featuring Mahanthappa on sax and Iyer on piano, plus cellist Elizabeth Mikhael, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss.
At Abbasi’s Harlem home in February, the guitarist, 52, reflected on the importance of being both an improviser and a composer; the singular combination of steel-string acoustic guitar, vibes and ride cymbal; and the time he got busted for taping an Ella concert. – BRAD FARBERMAN
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring the tunes played for Rez Abbasi in this Before & After listening session:
- Jim Hall/Ron Carter Duo
“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” (Alone Together, Milestone). Hall, guitar; Carter, bass. Recorded in 1972.
BEFORE: You can turn that up. Jim Hall. I don’t think I’ve even heard this before, but I can just tell.
How can you tell?
He’s essentially inimitable; no one can sound like Jim Hall, even if they tried. That’s not the case with other famous, well-known guitarists. You can hear the influence of a lot of other people in many young guitarists, but this, this is Jim Hall. I knew that, what, two notes in, right? I don’t know what record this is. Maybe it’s with Ron Carter?
Yeah, I can’t say enough about Jim Hall. Out of everybody who’s influenced my own playing, he’s absolutely on top of the list. And even to a high degree, like, to the point that it’s beyond the list. It’s not actually number one, it’s zenith on the list. I’ve listened to him for 30 years—or however long I’ve been playing—after I started playing jazz, and he still sounds as fresh as day one, and that’s really difficult to say about any other player [laughs]. Because I hear idiosyncrasies that someone’s developed over the years. With Jim Hall, it’s just all music, all the time.
- Joe Pass
“Here’s That Rainy Day” (Virtuoso, Pablo). Pass, guitar. Recorded in 1973.
BEFORE: It sounds like someone from the era of Jim Hall. But it could be someone like Jack Wilkins, and I’m not saying it is, but it’s sort of that masterful, conventional sound that I’m hearing here, coming from that era—’50s, ’60s. Blossoming from that era. Beautiful. The tone is already brighter than someone like Jim, yet still so beautiful. God, it’s so close to the tip of my tongue. I almost hear Benson in there, but I’m so hesitant to say that because if it is George Benson, it would be really early George Benson. It could be many players. I hear hints of Joe Pass, too. Oh, it’s Joe. OK, there you go.
Is this on the Virtuoso records? I heard those when I was 16 years old, and I never really listened back to them, because at the time everybody was listening to those, and I didn’t want to be everybody. Yeah, that kind of gave it away right there, too—that little chromatic thing. It’s refreshing to hear this because it’s so incredible, man. I think I’m gonna have to go backwards at this point and listen more to these old-timers. Yeah, that was beautiful. Thank you for playing that.
Did you see him live?
The first jazz concert I saw was Joe Pass accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. I was 16 years old and it was at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, and I was taping it and I got caught. Remember those days? And then security actually came by and took my tape and said, “We’ll ask Ms. Fitzgerald if this is OK or if she wants to,” I think they said, “if she wants to press charges.” It scared the heck out of me, but I knew she wouldn’t do that. So I said, “Here’s my tape, go ahead.” So I never got that. But that was the first concert I went to that was considered quote-unquote jazz. And that was pretty much the end of my rock band at that time. I jumped ship big time.
- The Sheryl Bailey 3
“The Lioness” (A Meeting of Minds, Cellar Live). Bailey, guitar; Ron Oswanski, organ; Ian Froman, drums. Recorded in 2013.
BEFORE: The guitarist has some beautiful precision. It’s that kind of vocabulary that sounds in the mold of bebop, so I really can’t tell who it is. When people start using different vocabulary, then I start hearing more personality when they’re playing. Not that touch has nothing to do with it, because, actually, touch has a lot to do with the way something comes off. But I’m not familiar with this player—at least aurally; I’m sure I’ve heard this player. And it sounds beautiful. Band sounds good.
AFTER: I’m glad you played a female guitarist. I’m really happy you did that. And I swear, it was on the tip of my tongue. … I met Sheryl, like, 28 years ago, when we were in New York and we played duo, and immediately I recognized that she’s really wonderful. I always knew she was going to take the mantle and run with it. And she has.
- Sonny Sharrock
“Little Rock” (Ask the Ages, Axiom). Sharrock, guitar; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone; Charnett Moffett, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Released in 1991.
BEFORE: The composition is so simple but powerful. Very cool. This might be … Sonny Sharrock. Yeah? I haven’t really heard a lot of him, but again, there’s a unique player who phrases differently, who has put his influences at bay and come up with something of his own. I’ve never heard this before, so I can’t say I’m into Sonny, but I love what I’m hearing. We all need more of this in our lives—in other words, imperfection that equals this notion of perfection. And most guitar players are trying to be so perfect with their phrasing, perfect with everything, that sometimes it sounds like practice on the bandstand. I really love how he’s just so him. It’s so human—like, “We’re not perfect, but I have a lot of things to say.” I miss that in today’s world, actually.
- Grant Green
“Somewhere in the Night” (Street of Dreams, Blue Note). Green, guitar; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Larry Young, organ; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.
BEFORE: I’m not keen on the tuning element. It seems a little out, the tuning. Guitar and the vibes [laughs]. I mean, it’s a pretty old recording, right? But those notes are cool. Ooh, nice. Is it Grant Green? Yeah, of course. It’s a giveaway when he does this trill or tremolo thing on the left hand. It’s really beautiful.
Are you big into Grant?
I wasn’t big into him, because, it’s weird, when I discovered Jim Hall, I discovered people like Grant Green as well. I think I was more drawn to Jim’s tone, right away—and of course the compositional aspect of Jim’s playing—so I just went into the shed with that. But that’s not to say I overlooked Grant; I mean, I definitely have some of his records, and it’s profound. What he plays is profound. And I know Jim Hall was very influenced by Grant, too. At one point he actually wanted to play like Grant Green—I think, as I recall. I think it was just one of those things that didn’t last too long for me. What I really love about him, just listening right now, is the solidified downbeat. He’s like James Brown on the downbeat. It’s right there.
He’s in the pocket.
Well, in the pocket, but even on the downbeat. He’s in control of the band, and that’s something that’s really great.
I chose this specifically because you have a band with guitar and vibes.
Oh, right, right. Yeah. That’s with an acoustic guitar.
I thought you might have something to say about the meeting
of guitar and vibes, and how to do it.
I do it the only way I know how to do it. But that band with Bill Ware on vibraphone, and Eric McPherson on drums and Stephan Crump on bass, yeah, we’ve done two records. That’s an acoustic guitar project, and specifically steel-string acoustic guitars, which really have this unique quality with the vibraphone and the ride cymbal. If you put those three together, you get this very interesting hybridity of high-end, yet it’s very musical. It’s not just high-end; it’s attack of high-end, with all three. I’m very proud of those records; I want to do more with that. But I love vibes with electric guitar as well. Of course, Grant Green brings out the acoustic nature of even an electric guitar. It’s a [thinline hollowbody] electric guitar. So I don’t really miss any acoustic-ness from his tone. It’s still amazing.
- Mary Halvorson
“Platform” (Meltframe, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar. Recorded in 2014.
BEFORE: Whoa. I like the confidence, that’s for sure. I like the way they’re separating the heavy low-end distortion with a melody on top. That’s really hard to do with all that overdrive. A little Nirvana influence [laughs]. I really appreciate that they, whoever it is, knows what the heck they want to say. It’s very direct. Yeah, I’m down with it. Not everything is my aesthetic choice, but it’s not me playing it. It’s really captivating for what it is. I don’t know if I’d listen to it on a Sunday afternoon—but maybe; you never know. It’s really hard to tell, for me, who this can be.
AFTER: Oh, OK. Right, right, right. That makes sense. Interesting. I haven’t heard her play solo-guitar before, but I know she uses a lot of effects. I actually like her compositions a lot; it’s this wide range of material that she enjoys playing with. That was interesting. The overdrive sound kind of shook me up a little bit at times; it wasn’t, aesthetically, always pleasing. But I think her whole gamut of ideas is … she’s onto something. Big time, you know.
- Jeff Parker
“Jrifted” (The New Breed, International Anthem). Parker, guitar; Josh Johnson, alto saxophone; Paul Bryan, bass; Jamire Williams, drums. Recorded in 2015.
BEFORE: Great vibe, right off the top, man. It almost sounds like an old CTI record. But there’s no one who played like this back then, I don’t think. But yet it does sound of the present day. Somewhat. I really like the searching quality of the guitarist. And there’s definitely that tradition in his playing, him or her. It’s funny, because the vocabulary’s not what defines this person for me, because the vocabulary sounds somewhat conventional. It’s more the quirkiness, and the articulations, and the phrasing, although I don’t know who it is. But those are the things that stand out to me. It almost sounds like it’s from the ’80s, man. I really don’t know. The saxophonist is very similar, in the sense that it’s very traditional vocabulary but there’s a quirkiness about he or she that is defining that sound. And I really like that. But I have no idea who this is. Must have been a record that I just really overlooked.
AFTER: It doesn’t sound dated or anything like that, but I think because of all the woodwinds in the back, for some reason, these big orchestral arrangements, it almost sounds like the CTI era, but more modern. And his playing doesn’t sound of that era, actually. It sounds very much now. It’s cool. It’s a very cool atmosphere. Yeah.
- John Scofield
“Blackout” (Bump, Verve). Scofield, guitar; David Livolsi, bass; Eric Kalb, drums; Johnny Durkin, percussion. Recorded in 1999.
[Ed. note: In the print edition, a production error caused a paragraph of text from a previous issue to appear in this place. The correct transcription follows. JT regrets the error.]
BEFORE: It almost sounds like a Scofield thing or something. Oh, is this Scofield? Well, man, I didn’t even hear the [guitar] notes yet. I get the vibe and … now I can tell it’s Scofield, now that he plays a few high notes.
I can’t say enough about John Scofield, man. My friend just took me to the Blue Note last year, and I haven’t seen Sco in many, many years. Decades. Because at one point, when I first moved to New York, I would see him all the time. And so my friend took me to the Blue Note, and I was blown away. It takes a lot to blow a guy like me away, who’s heard a lot already. I was still like, “My God, this guy is unbelievable.” He’s in a realm of his own. He’s a profound human being. One thing I love about Sco is—same thing I love about people like Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie—that they’ve taken their styles and also composed as a reflection of their improvisation. So they carry these two torches, of composition and of playing; they’re not simply jazz improvisers or soloists. And another thing that I love about Sco, he’s so versatile. You can hear him over rhythm changes play like nobody, and then you can hear him play like this. And he brings this bluesy, almost country-ish sound to all this. It’s mind-blowing. And maturity—that whole factor of restraint, and space, and being spontaneous. Using your intuition. He came out of a Jim Hall impression also. I’ve said it before: It doesn’t matter what your tone is, you can hear that Jim Hall approach in someone like John Scofield, taking it to an entirely different place.
Read Michael J. West’s profile on Rez Abbasi from the June 2015 issue of JazzTimes.
Preview, buy or download songs from the album Unfiltered Universe by Rez Abbasi on iTunes.Originally Published