Presenting the Worldly Jazz Beat of Naya Baaz

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Naya Baaz is guitarist Rez Abbasi, left, and sitarist Josh Feinberg.

(Photo: Kiran Ahluwalia)

Since moving to New York City in 1987, veteran guitarist-composer Rez Abbasi has been a boundary-pushing presence on the scene. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, his family moved when he was 4 to Southern California, where he later attended USC and studied with guitar great Joe Diorio, who encouraged a 21-year-old Abbasi to make the move to the Big Apple.

Aside from countless gigs and projects over the past three decades as both sideman and leader — including three recordings with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa as a member of the Indo-Pak Coalition — Abbasi has released a slew of adventurous recordings ranging from fusion-oriented fare (1995’s Third Ear on Ozone) to searing post-bop (1998’s Modern Memory). Playing strictly acoustic guitar on 2015’s Intents And Purposes (Enja), he turned a nostalgic nod to his ’70s fusion heroes John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, Larry Coryell and others. And his acclaimed 2020 release, Django-Shift (Whirlwind), radically recontextualized the music of gypsy jazz icon Django Reinhardt.

Along the way, Abbasi has hinted at melding Indian music and jazz, most notably on 2005’s Snake Charmer and 2006’s Bazaar, both of which found him playing a customized Jerry Jones Sitar-Guitar in an organ trio setting with drummer Dan Weiss doubling on tabla. His wife, Indian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, contributed Punjabi vocals and tanpura drones on those seminal hybrid offerings. His latest manifestation of jazz-meets-Indian music is Charm (Whirlwind), his first release since receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition in 2021.

Abbasi collaborates with California-based, New York-born sitarist Josh Feinberg on a groundbreaking project dubbed Naya Baaz. Feinberg, a former bassist who studied with Dave Holland, shifted to Hindustani music while attending New England Conservatory, later studying with sitar maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. The East-meets-West Naya Baaz includes five-string cellist Jennifer Vincent and versatile drummer Satoshi Takeishi.

“As someone with a background in both jazz and Indian classical music, I’m able to draw upon my varied training and musical lexicons to bridge the gap between these two musics,” said Feinberg. “It’s more about allowing the walls to come down between these two vocabularies.”

“People like to compare it to Shakti,” added Abbasi. “But I feel like that’s like comparing painters from different times. Shakti has established a particular facet of the jazz-meets-Indian music thing. Whereas, Naya Baaz is really dealing through a different paradigm. Throughout the whole record there’s a lot more chromaticism than you’ll hear on any other sort of Indian-meets-jazz record. That was our paradigm: How can we extend chromatic melodic material and chromatic harmonic material?”

The “X” factor in Naya Baaz’s exotic formula is Feinberg’s unprecedented sitar playing. “Noone has played these kinds of chromatic melodies and harmonies on sitar before,” said Abbasi. “That’s the revelatory factor of this band. The music on Charm is not necessarily just a world music album, it’s a jazz record. And the way that Josh plays the sitar is opening new doors within the jazz canon.”

As Feinberg explained, “I worked with a luthier to add frets to the instrument at various places to both increase the range and allow chromatic fretting for larger areas of the instrument. I also worked with him to create an instrument that would play in tune up the neck on more than one string and lower the string height, which allows easier string crossing (not a widely used technique in traditional sitar playing), which facilitates chromaticism, arpeggiation and other Western melodic devices.”

A student of the Maihar Gharana school of playing, Feinberg is one of the first American-born sitarists to earn the love and respect of Hindustani music connoisseurs. While he alludes to a more traditional Indian raga sound on only two pieces from Charm — the folkloric “Bhairavi” and the duet “Peony” — he engages in more richly harmonic territory and dazzling leaps of chromaticism (both uncharacteristic for Indian music) on pieces like the high-energy, Mahavishnuesque “Behkayal (Without A Thought),” the complex “Chick’s Magnet” and the thoughtful “No Lack There Of.”

“Josh and I focused on creating a polyphonic landscape as opposed to a monophonic one, which is more often heard in crossover jazz/world projects,” Abbasi explained. “There’s all kinds of keys rolling through these tunes, and it’s striking how he was able to deal with that and allow me the freedom to write whatever I wanted. And he’s helping me build my solos with his harmonic intentions.”

Feinberg and Abbasi had originally met through the jazz and Indian music worlds over the course of years. “During the pandemic I reached out to Rez to create a collaboration,” said Feinberg. “I felt that at this point in my career I had established myself as an authentic and reputable traditional performer, and it was now time for me to explore some more collaborative endeavors. We would send each other clips and add, edit or supplement the other’s ideas. After about eight months of this, I flew to New York, and we took a week together to collaborate in person and compose the tunes for the album.”

The two forged an easy partnership, pulling together a coherent hybrid sound while expanding each other’s compositional ideas. “Make It So,” a piece originally inspired by the chromatic lines of Bach, was expanded by the guitarist’s harmonic input. “Emancipation,” originally written by Feinberg on piano, was also further developed during the writing process by Abbasi.

“The thing with Indian music and jazz is that they are both fortified by improvisation,” said Abbasi, “so it makes sense that they find a place to live together. Shakti did it their way, and I feel like Naya Baaz is capturing it in our own unique way.”

“Both musics use microtones, both use motivic development, both use improvisation, interplay, call-and-response, solo/accompanist paradigms, scales, virtuosity and musical depth,” added Feinberg. “This is a parable for life: There’s far more that unites us than divides us.” DB



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