With His Band, Invocation, Guitarist Rez Abbasi Puts an Indian Spin on Jazz


The new project by jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi is billed as an engagement with Carnatic music, the centuries-old classical tradition of South India. But listeners won’t find the expected elements in Abbasi’s Invocation. For one thing, the group uses no Indian instruments, even though drummer Dan Weiss is also a tabla master and Abbasi has, in the past, picked up an electric sitar. Nor is the music organized around raga scale structure and tala rhythm patterns, the ossature of Indian music. And the song titles — “Propensity,” “Turn of Events” — betray a nerdy earnestness more typical of jazz nomenclature.

For Abbasi, who brought Invocation to the Asia Society last week, infusing jazz with Indian music is an indirect endeavor, one that sets his group’s offerings apart from a tradition of hybrids that goes back to Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin’s Shakti project, in the 1970s. Invocation play jazz compositions, all by Abbasi, and relate to Indian music on a very broad level (both styles are fundamentally driven by improvisation) and a very subtle one.

“Maybe ten years ago I would have been more adamant about engaging those kinds of things,” says Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan and raised in California, about the forms and instrumentation of Indian music. “But I’ve heard this done in crossover music, whether it’s world or jazz-Indian bands, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted to go in a more natural, less cerebral approach. And I feel like the magic is there.”

With Invocation, Abbasi has the luxury of an entire team for whom the process of associating jazz and Indian music is organic rather than didactic: polymath pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, recognized jazz masters in their creative prime who have the benefit, like Abbasi, of family roots in South Asia as well as a history of collaboration with Indian artists; Weiss; bassist Johannes Weidenmueller (who has studied mridangam, the South Indian percussion instrument); and cellist Elizabeth Means.

“Each person brings this collision of Indian and jazz together,” Abbasi says. “So when I present them with a piece of music, they’re placing it through their filter. There’s not a lot that needs to be said. Dan will sometimes do a tihai” — a kind of rhythmic flourish — “in the middle of a tune, but everyone knows what that is, and they’ll grab onto it. There’s a lot of stuff going on; there’s accents flying out the window with this band.”

That sense of seamlessness is the product of a rich history. Iyer and Mahanthappa have played together for two decades, and when they moved to New York City — both doing so in the late 1990s — they found Abbasi, who had earlier graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and has lived in the city ever since. Since then, the three have been at the heart of the loose community of South Asian-American players who have introduced new energies, forged in part by the immigrant experience, into the music. Though all work in, and lead, a profusion of bands, they keep a special place for one another, and have returned time and again to play on one another’s projects. Invocation, formed in 2008, have released two albums. Abbasi, Weiss, and Mahanthappa have a trio, Indo-Pak Coalition, that released an album in 2009 and has a new one coming. All have performed, too, with Abbasi’s spouse, the singer Kiran Ahluwalia.

The new music by Invocation, which has been recorded but not yet mixed, has a title, Unfiltered Universe, that suggests Abbasi’s catholic reach — his influences range from the canon of straight-ahead and fusion jazz all the way to the progressive rock he played in his youth. Certain elements, though, have been more narrowly tailored. In particular, Abbasi’s new compositions aim to emulate Carnatic music’s rigorous approach to rhythm. “It’s very specific, rhythmically,” he says. “All the beats are accounted for. It’s difficult to memorize this stuff, because not only do you have to memorize the music, but you have to memorize the silences.”

At the New York premiere of the new material at the Asia Society, the Indian aspects were subtle, lingering in the intricate, shifting time signatures; in a passage of vigorous traded lines between Abbasi and Mahanthappa that recalled the interplay called jugalbandi, when a raga is performed by two lead players; and in Abbasi’s solo guitar introduction to one song, “Thin King,” akin to the alap solo that starts and sets the mood of a raga, this time looped and modulated with pedal-led effects. The core vocabulary, however, remained that of jazz.

Mahanthappa, who has played Abbasi’s work for a decade, says Unfiltered Universe has certain new rhythmic and ornamental aspects, but most of all reflects his friend’s well-honed compositional style. “With Rez, each piece is almost like a mini-suite that goes through a lot of terrain, with different people improvising over different sections,” Mahanthappa says. “The improvisation becomes part of the composition. The solos are embedded in a larger framework. You feel like you are part of a larger process.”