Abbasi’s Supergroup Premieres Commissioned Work

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The sextet Invocation includes Vijay Iyer (left), Johannes Weidenmeuller, bandleader Rez Abbasi, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Dan Weiss.

(Photo: Bill Douthart)

In a striking example of East-meets-West, Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi led his Invocation sextet for the premiere of Unfiltered Universe at the Asia Society in New York on Dec. 15 and 16. The third in a trilogy of works exploring the confluence of South Asia musical traditions and jazz—2009’s Things To Come blended Hindustani music with jazz harmonic sensibilities while 2012’s Suno Suno bridged qawwali devotional music of Pakistan with jazz—Unfiltered Universe presented the ancient sound of Carnatic classical music from Southern India through a modern jazz prism.

Accompanied by a stellar crew featuring longtime colleagues Vijay Iyer on piano and Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax, along with Elizabeth Means on cello, Johannes Weidenmeuller on bass and Dan Weiss on drums, Abbasi steered the ship with his commanding, slightly distortion-tinged lines that at times recalled guitarist Pat Martino’s pan-global fusion experiments of the mid-’70s (Joyous Lake, Starbright). Commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Unfiltered Universe was recorded in the studio for an upcoming release.

The opener, “Disagree To Agree,” began in a mellow hush before the pace quickened and Abbasi and Mahanthappa jumped on frantic unisons over Iyer’s jagged, dissonant comping while Weiss supplied slick subdivisions and unexpected accents underneath. A dramatic solo break for Mahanthappa, with the entire band dropping out, had the fire-breathing sax star wailing in the most distinctively pungent alto voice since Arthur Blythe. Abbasi followed with a tasty, warm-toned solo that showcased his unique legato style.

“Unfiltered Universe” had piano and cello pitted in a countermelody against saxophone and guitar unisons as Weiss fueled the opening section with a simmering Clyde Stubblefield-esque funk beat. This suite-like composition segued to a piano trio section that had Iyer pouring out a torrent of notes in his solo while yet another section featured a turbulent sax-drums breakdown between Mahanthappa and the remarkably flexible Weiss.

The raga-like “Thin King” opened with a slow solo performed by Abbasi utilizing a trippy “backwards” guitar effect. As the piece developed, each of the principal soloists extrapolated on the angular theme individually, as the baton was passed from Iyer to Mahanthappa to Abbasi. Mahanthappa blew with white-hot intensity on this heightened number while Iyer was a whirlwind of focused energy on the keys—more Don Pullen than Cecil Taylor. And Abbasi dug deeply into his Martino bag on this number, delivering some blistering speed-picking with a Carnatic edge.

The dense “Propensity” found Abbasi and Mahanthappa locked in on some tight unisons on the head, fueled by Weiss’ propulsive drumming, and featured some of the most aggressive soloing of the set by the guitarist and alto ace. Iyer followed their furious flurries with a sparser approach by contrast, a kind of gentle, dissonant unfolding after the storm. The loping 6/8 “Turn Of Events” evolved from a dreamy rubato soundscape to some blistering call-and-response between Mahanthappa and Abbasi that had them pushing each other to some kinetic heights. Cellist Means also played a spectacular solo here that morphed into a low-end conversation with Weidenmeuller before Abbasi and Mahanthappa returned to the tight harmonies of the angular head, à la the Allman Brothers.

The concert closed on a lively note with “Dance Number,” a swaggering Bollywood backbeat tune that had Abbasi pulling out his best Holdsworthian legato licks. Iyer’s piano trio interlude on this vibrant song was a flood of ideas and chops.

This Indo-jazz supergroup is bound to garner much acclaim when it tours in early 2017. For more info on Abbasi, visit his website. Additionally, fans in Chicago might want to check out Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition (featuring Abbasi and Weiss) in a special 6 p.m. show at the Harris Theater on March 13. DB



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July 2019
Anat Cohen
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