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Rez Abbasi: Top-level jazz with a South Asian influence

There are a couple of ways to look at Rez Abbasi's development as a jazz guitarist and composer.

One is to see him as a typical California rock kid who got exposed to jazz in his teens and never looked back. A fellow rocker got interested in jazz and took Abbasi to see jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. "Here I was, 16, seeing Joe Pass," Abbasi recalls. "He wasn't like Van Halen, with hair down to his butt, and he was playing circles around anybody I'd seen.

"That was when I quit my rock band," he adds. "Everybody thought I was a nerd because I started playing that kind of jazz and stayed home to practise a lot."

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Alternatively, you could see Abbasi as a part of the growing South Asian jazz movement. He works frequently with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, both in the IndoPak Coalition and the cross-cultural septet Kinsmen. Mahanthappa also plays in Abbasi's own quintet, along with award-winning Indo-American pianist Vijay Iyer.

Abbasi also serves as musical director and guitarist for his wife, Juno-winning Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia.

But if you really want to understand Abbasi as a creative musician, it's best not to look at one side or the other, but to focus at the whole. Abbasi, like Mahanthappa and Iyer, is a trained jazz musician and thoroughly versed in its traditions. At the same time, he says, "all three of us grew up in South Asian households, and we all married Indian women. So how could this not influence the music?

"Jazz is not separate from your life," he adds. "As you grow older, you try to bring these things together, your experiences plus what we call jazz."

Make no mistake: The music these three play is jazz at the highest level. As the three close in on 40, they have become some of the music's most acclaimed performers.

Mahanthappa's latest album, a collaboration with saxophonist Bunky Green called Apex, topped numerous critics' polls and put the two on the current cover of Downbeat. Iyer, whose 2009 release Historicity dominated that year's jazz polls, was recently named Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Meanwhile, Abbasi's 2009 album Things to Come, which features both Mahanthappa and Iyer, was listed by Downbeat as one of the best albums of the decade.

Of course, it's worth noting that jazz musicians have been interested in South Asian music for decades. Indian classical music depends heavily on improvisation, and offers a degree of rhythmic complexity that would dazzle any jazz drummer.

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Not surprisingly, a host of jazz musicians tried to incorporate elements of South Asian music in their own work, particularly in the sixties and early seventies. John Coltrane studied classical Indian ragas to expand his use of scalar improvisation, while guitarist Gabor Szabo released an album called Jazz Raga. Miles Davis included a number of Indian traditional musicians, most notably percussionist Badal Roy, in his early-seventies electric bands.

But, as Abbasi puts it, "that's very surface-level stuff." Usually, when a raga is incorporated into a tune by jazz musicians, they treat it as a scale to improvise on. But in Indian music, the notes of a raga are prioritized, with specific rules on how things are to be played.

"That's where the essence of a particular rag comes out," he explains. "The scale might be the same scale as in 20 other rags, but there's a different way of approaching the phraseology, and you can't touch this note before you play that note. It's a huge school of thought, and something I've only touched upon."

Abbasi recently cut a second album with Invocation, the group that recorded Things to Come, which should be out this year. A version of that group, including Mahanthappa but with pianist Matt Mitchell in for Iyer, is on tour, and plays Toronto's Rex hotel for two nights this week. "It's going to be on fire," Abassi says of the band.

And while the South Asian influence definitely informs Abbasi's writing, don't expect the music to carry a sort of overt "ethnic flavour."

"The way I approach it is sort of like a reduction in cooking – like a red wine reduction," Abbasi says. "I'm looking for the essence of stuff. I think that's where the freshness comes from. That's why I don't sound like a sitar player when I play my Indian guitar kind of sound. I'd rather not emulate a sarod or sitar. I'd rather feel what they're coming from, take the essence of that, and apply it to my own thing."

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Rez Abbasi's Invocation, with Rudresh Mahanthappa, performs at The Rex hotel in Toronto on Thursday and Friday (Feb. 10-11).

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