Blindfold Test: Rez Abbasi


This is Rez Abbasi’s first Blindfold Test.

(Photo: Kiran Ahluwalia)

By the time he topped the category Rising Star–Guitar in the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll, Rez Abbasi already had released several critically acclaimed albums. He has maintained a busy schedule in recent years, composing a score for a 1929 silent film (documented on the 2019 Whirlwind album A Throw Of Dice) and collaborating with harpist Isabelle Olivier on Oasis (Enja).

Abbasi’s latest project is the trio album Django Shift (Whirlwind), a salute to the music of Django Reinhardt featuring acoustic guitars, organ, synthesizers and drums. For his first Blindfold Test, Abbasi commented on the music via videoconference from his home in Harlem.


“Cheap Knock Off” (Thumbscrew, Cuneiform, 2014) Mary Halvorson, guitar; Michael Formanek, bass; Thomas Fujiwara, drums.

Is it Mary Halvorson? I don’t really know her music that well, but on the couple of records I have heard, I feel that she combines the cerebral and the heartfelt, and sincerity—all those elements—very well.

I like her playing, with all the various intervals. I think guitar players sometimes get too much into scales, and she’s definitely not one of them [laughs]. I appreciate her somewhat unconventional way of approaching music, in general.

Will Vinson/Gilad Hekselman/Antonio Sánchez

“Upside” (Trio Grande, Whirlwind, 2020) Vinson, alto saxophone, keyboards; Hekselman, guitar; Sánchez, drums.

I love the drum sound on this. The guitarist is sort of in between a Pat Metheny and a Kurt Rosenwinkel sound, which is always a nice sound. A lot of reverb. I really appreciate the space they’re using between the phrases. On a tune like this, it’s so easy to play eighth notes all day long.

I’ll take a wild guess and say maybe Matt Stevens? Or Gilad? It’s definitely from that generation that’s inspired by Rosenwinkel, but they’re all finding their own way, of course. It’s not the new record with Will Vinson and Antonio Sánchez? Well, that’s strange, because I heard a fourth member. That’s why I didn’t guess that group [right away], because it sounded like a quartet, with a keyboard or something.

Jeff Parker

“Go Away” (Suite For Max Brown, International Anthem/Nonesuch, 2020) Parker, guitar, vocals, sampler; Paul Bryan, bass, vocals; Makaya McCraven, drums.

Love the groove. I used to listen to a lot of West African music … and it kind of reminds me of that. A little King Crimson in there.

Is it Jeff Parker? From what very little I’ve heard of him, his records of late are very groove-oriented, first of all, and they harken a little bit back to the ’70s and ’80s, but very modern. And I can tell his playing because he actually plays bebop lines over all this stuff. He’s articulating funk with bebop, and it’s kind of unique in that sense, and I like that. It’s a bit of a jam-band vibe.

Alexander Noice

“Breathe In The Ether” (NOICE, Orenda, 2019) Noice, guitar; Karina Kallas, Argenta Walther, vocals; Gavin Templeton, alto saxophone; Colin Burgess, electric bass; Andrew Lessman, drums, percussion, Roland SPDSX.

Sounds like early David Bowie meets Thelonious Monk. I wouldn’t consider this jazz, but I guess that’s beside the point. Sounds more like progressive rock, or progressive pop. Great energy. I love the rhythmical bounce. Very loopy. It’s an interesting composition. It’s in your face, constantly, so you have to be somewhat acceptant of that. … [The guitarist’s] vocabulary reminds me a little bit of Mike Stern, that sort of repetitive, chromatic approach-note kind of thing.

Miles Okazaki

“The Lighthouse” (Trickster’s Dream, Pi, 2020) Okazaki, guitar; Matt Michell, piano; Anthony Tidd, electric bass; Sean Rickman, drums.

Sounds like they’re influenced by Rush. This is a little bit of a guess, but is it Miles Okazaki? He’s a great writer and conceptualist. If it wasn’t for his playing, I could tell it was him by the fact that the tune is so heavily rhythmically based. He’s really a musicologist when it comes to digging deep into rhythm. The only reason why I wouldn’t have thought it was Miles is because usually he doesn’t use electronics.

He’s one of these guys who harkens back to a period that’s before all these people started to employ guitar pedals and all that. I’ve always seen him as someone who’s reaching for something that is in the guitar itself.

David Roitstein/Larry Koonse

“Mamulengo” (Conversations, Jazz Compass, 2015) Roitstein, piano; Koonse, guitar.

I love that piano intro. Really beautiful composition, they put a lot of thought into that. Kind of influenced by Egberto Gismonti and Ralph Towner. Very Metheney-ish composition there, for the solo—or Lyle Mays, not sure which one. You pretty much stumped me on this one.

I was so taken by the composition that it sort of overshadowed the improvisations. [after] I’m a huge Larry Koonse fan. When I was a freshman at USC, he was just graduating [from the university]. Larry just blew my mind. He sounds so great. It’s so relaxed, the way he plays. He pushes out of the bounds pretty organically, and then steps back in. He’s utterly musical, and it’s pleasing to hear him on acoustic guitar. Larry’s a perfect example of why I’m happy I spent my younger life in Los Angeles.

John Abercrombie

“Ralph’s Piano Waltz” (Current Events, ECM, 1986) Abercrombie, guitar; Marc Johnson, bass; Peter Erskine, drums.

I haven’t heard these records for a while, but I was certainly influenced by John. I took a few lessons from him when I was 22, when I first moved to New York. He was such a beautiful soul. I remember in the lesson he would always say, “Play in a melodically relaxed fashion.” At the time, I really didn’t know what he meant—I kind of did, but as I evolved, I realized what he meant: Let things happen, don’t be so on top of things all the time. His compositions are often so simple, but they speak volumes, and that’s similar to his playing. John has been an influence on a lot of people. We’re gonna all miss him. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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