Many jazz albums are just collections of tunes, and that’s fine. But others are more conceptually unified than that—they may represent the exploration of a musician’s compositional theories, attempts to fuse music from diverse cultures, or something more. In our new feature, What’s the Big Idea?, we’ll periodically ask a musician to provide some background or context for an album we think needs it.
In this installment, we talk to guitarist Rez Abbasi, whose new album Continuous Beat is not only his first trio record, but is different from his previous releases in many other ways as well. It’s out today from Enja. We sent Rez seven questions about his album and his music, which he was kind enough to answer.
Your sound is very different on this record – what did you do differently, and why?
This is my first trio recording and I realized before doing it, why I never did one prior. The reason is because my ears get a little jaded with hearing the same texture throughout an album. I like more textural surprise and that’s one of the reasons I often use a fourth or fifth person in my groups…That way it gives me more colors to shape the music with. So when I was conceptualizing this trio, the idea came up of using some effects and live electronic manipulation in order to give the listener a wider listening experience. Furthermore, I only use the manipulation on the written melodies in order to give the solos a contrast and clarity with the various raw guitar sounds. So it is a trio but occasionally gives an illusion of being a larger group, or at least a quartet.
There are three non-originals (not including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which we’ll talk about in question 3) on this record—one by Keith Jarrett, one by Gary Peacock, and one by Thelonious Monk. Why did you choose those three pieces, what did you do to make them your own, and how do they fit into the album’s overall concept?
Well firstly, these are some of my favorite musicians of all time. Secondly, I felt these pieces would be great in guitar trio especially because they were composed and played on piano. Thirdly, I had scheduled to play a concert with Paul Motian which was cancelled due to his health. Besides writing a few new tunes for this date, I wanted to do some tunes that were modern standards that I felt he would relate to. Monk, Jarrett and Peacock happened to be deeply affiliated with Mr. Motian.
As far as making them my own, I think by now, if I relate to any music that’s not composed by myself, it’s going to come across as my own merely through my playing and interpretation. More specifically, for this album, some of the effects I mentioned served to open up the tunes in even a more personal way. I actually created the electronic manipulations based on each arrangement of a tune, not as an after thought. So for instance, Jarrett’s “The Cure” would not have been chosen if it weren’t processed hand and hand with creating the effected sound and arrangement. It kind of all happened together.
Why close this album with “The Star-Spangled Banner”? And as before, what did you do to make it your own, and how does it fit into the album’s overall concept?
The album opens with an improvised piece based on an Indian Raga that I’ve had the opportunity to explore in my wife, Kiran Ahluwalia‘s group—she’s a professional Indian vocalist. This intro is bookended with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Both reflect my multicultural background as I’m an Indian/Pakistani-American. I was born in Pakistan and we moved to the states when I was four. My father was born in India but after partition moved to Pakistan. So it becomes this all-encompassing approach, an improvised piece based on Indian classical music and an arranged Western piece based on Western classical and jazz music. In between, there are hints of most everything else, which to me is modern music.
What specific challenges are involved in transposing a piece written on piano (e.g. the Jarrett or Monk compositions) to guitar?
I let the music dictate that and try not to think of the limitations of the guitar versus the piano. As mentioned before, the electric guitar offers the opportunity to electronically enhance the signal, and that’s what I took advantage of. Most compositions in modern history were written on the piano so it’s kind of a normal process to transfer things to other instruments.
How did you choose the backing musicians for this record, and why have you chosen to feature different personnel on each of your albums?
Each group is different because I write a variety of music. The trio couldn’t do the music I wrote for my previous album and vice versa. That’s not to say all the musicians couldn’t all play in either group, they could, it just means I hear a certain character and personality on some music and a different character on other music. Everyone I play with is an amazing musician, this is why I live in New York.
With this trio of bassist, John Hébert and drummer, Satoshi Takeishi, although we’ve played in various groups for over 15 years, we’ve never played as a trio, which is why it’s kind of special. With any group, it’s important to get members that correlate with your own vision, but it’s even more important in a trio. In a trio, the participants are always interacting so in order to get to the magic, everyone really needs to be on the same page.
This is your first album on Enja, after two albums on Sunnyside in 2010, and you’ve hopped from label to label frequently in the past—is that your decision, or the labels’? Discuss this to whatever degree of detail you’re comfortable with.
This is my second album for Enja. The first came out last year—Suno Suno, with my quintet with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Johaness Weidenmueller and Dan Weiss. I feel like I’ve found a home with Enja. It takes time to build up to a label like Enja. The founder, Matthias Winckelmann, has become more selective with his output and he also doesn’t pigeon-hole himself in a style of jazz like so many other labels. We are planning on another release in 2013 for Invocation. The music is being prepared now.
Does this album represent a potential future path, or is it a one-off, the documentation of an experiment?
I have three groups that I lead so I would like to keep them as active as possible, although that’s not easy since the industry is usually interested in the group with the new album. None of the groups are one-offs but it does take time and patience to write inspired music for each and release new albums. If I could put out two albums a year, I would!
Here’s some video from the sessions: