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Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet – Intents and Purposes – Enja

Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet – Intents and Purposes [TrackList follows] – Enja ENJ-9621 2, 53:49 [2/10/15] ****:

(Rez Abbasi steel string, fretless, and baritone acoustic guitar; Bill Ware – vibraphone; Stephan Crump – acoustic bass; Eric McPherson – drums)

When most musicians do an album of 1970s-era jazz-rock fusion, there is a sense of returning to a prior timeframe, of sharing nostalgic years with fans. But on guitarist Rez Abbasi’s latest outing, the 54-minute Intents and Purposes, the goals and results are different. Listeners familiar with fusion might recognize some of the titles—and some of the artists who penned the compositions—but this is not meant to be a trip down the path of memory, a rekindling of old music or the past coming into the present. Abbasi discovered jazz in the early ‘80s, but he bypassed fusion, and instead studied Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and the like. “This album is not a historic perspective of the ‘70s jazz-rock scene,” Abbasi explains. “The compositions I chose were simply based on my aesthetic and a vetting process that in its own way became an exercise in liberation. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the process, I learned a lot and as it turns out, have a newfound appreciation for this music in any form.”

The eight tracks—with material associated with Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and others—are transformed into conduits for melodic improvisation by Abbasi (who uses steel string, fretless and baritone acoustic guitars); vibraphonist Bill Ware (who has worked with the Jazz Passengers); acoustic bassist Stephan Crump (he’s spent time in the Vijay Iyer Trio)  and drummer Eric McPherson (another veteran: his credits include the Fred Hersch Trio). One of the essential elements of even the most maligned jazz-rock/fusion was a strong melody, which was too often obscured by overcharged electric guitar, plodding grooves or noisy keyboards. And melody is what Abbasi focuses on. It’s refreshing to hear this music realized with an altered approach but not abandon the foundations. Abbasi states, “Supporting the compositions with an acoustic-centric vision while taking away their surface electronic identity was enough of a change.”

The quartet launches with Weather Report’s “Black Market,” the title track (written by Joe Zawinul) from Weather Report’s 1976 record of the same name. Like the original, Abassi’s “Black Market” commences with a bass intro, but from the start it’s clear this translation is gentler and more relaxed, with a sunny sensation due to the interaction between Ware’s vibes and Abbasi’s guitar. The cut develops nicely, especially via McPherson’s pirouetting percussion and Ware’s expressive harmonies. When the foursome moves into a delicious mini-jam near the conclusion, it’s like extra icing on a cinnamon bun. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is next. The 1974 version, from Hancock’s Thrust LP, was a jazz-rock feast of electric bass, synth textures, soaring soprano sax and groove. Here, Abbasi abates the arrangement down to the essence, creating a tune both identifiable and alluring. Abbasi plays a fretless steel-string guitar, and the way he curves his notes instills an impression of empathy with the melody. Abbasi’s musical education includes tutelage from master percussionist, Ustad Alla Rakha, and thus it’s no surprise to hear Abbasi add an Indian tint by way of his guitar, evoking the tones of a sitar. Rakha has influenced other artists, including guitarist John McLaughlin. So, it’s apt Abbasi covers the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Resolution,” (from 1973’s Birds of Fire). The Mahavishnu rendering is rock-slanted, with a labored, slow groove. Abbasi restructures McLaughlin’s conception, expanding the piece’s underpinning. “It’s such a harmonically captivating tune and Mahavishnu didn’t improvise over that harmony,” Abbasi discloses. “I wanted to extend it. We came up with the idea of Stephan and I setting up the tune with an improvised intro and then having Bill solo over the unfolding of the melody. It builds very organically.” “Resolution” is a perfect CD midpoint, since it begins with grace and beauty and evolves over five minutes into an up-tempo number with precision-based energy.

The rest of the CD is correspondingly charismatic, whether or not listeners are acquainted with the source material or not. The quartet does an impressive interpretation of Return to Forever’s “Medieval Overture,” (the opening cut from 1975’s Romantic Warrior). Corea’s initial, heavy-going tune was permeated by a prog-rock inclination, but Abbasi spins sublime acoustic moments, including a duet segment matching guitar with percussion; Crump furnishes crisp arco bass during another section, where he provides an atmospheric ambiance; and throughout “Medieval Overture,” Ware showcases his vibes talent. One thing to notice is how Abbasi’s intricate and fast acoustic guitar equals what Return to Forever’s Al di Meola accomplished on electric guitar. Abbasi takes a solo spotlight on Larry Coryell’s “Low-Lee-Tah.” Coryell issued this on the 1972 debut of the Eleventh House, his jazz-rock/fusion ensemble. Coryell’s version had electric guitar, trumpet, electric keyboards and an era-specific sound. Here, Abbasi concentrates on lyrical qualities, doing an overdubbed duet with two guitars, and utilizes his distinctive baritone guitar in an astute aspect. Intents and Purposes finishes with Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time,” from the Tony Williams’ Lifetime 1971 album, Ego. Williams’ version was a cluttered by a psychedelic-rock stance also marred by uninspired vocals and verse. Abbasi’s adaptation is a complete turnaround, converting the leaden piece into a tune with delightful dynamics, a persuasive melody and stimulating exchanges between Abbasi (on fretless guitar), Ware and the vibrant rhythm section. When the last, lingering notes fade off, the quartet’s final words sum up the album’s experience. “Nice.” “Yeah.” “That was beautiful.” “That sounded good.” “That sounded really nice, that felt nice.” The warm, sensitive recording was done at Systems Two Recording in Brooklyn by engineer/mixer Michael Marciano (he also mastered the disc; Abbasi assisted on the mix). Marciano’s work supplies a first-class, faultless, bright sound which complements the acoustic instruments. An online promo video has excerpts from the material, and offers interested listeners an opportunity to hear some of the music and see a bit of the studio session.

TrackList: Black Market; Butterfly; Joyous Lake; Medieval Overture; Resolution; Red Baron; Low-Lee-Tah; There Comes a Time.

—Doug Simpson

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