Rez Abbasi & Invocation – Unfiltered Universe [TrackList follows] – Whirlwind WR4713, 50:00 [11/10/17] ****:
A heady infusion of ‘creative music with a jazz weighting’.
(Rez Abbasi – guitar, co-mixer, producer; Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; Vijay Iyer – piano; Johannes Weidenmueller – double bass; Dan Weiss – drums; Elizabeth Mihael – cello)
Things inevitably must end. With his 50-minute, seven-track album Unfiltered Universe, guitarist Rez Abbasi concludes a trilogy of records with his group Invocation. The band started with Things to Come (2008) and then issued Suno Suno (2012). These three releases have two items in common. They incorporate elements of Indian and Pakistani music. The first project highlights Hindustani influences; the second focuses on Qawwali as a base; and Unfiltered Universe uses Carnatic music as a foundation. All three Invocation CDs also include artists who have garnered a lot of acclaim over the years: Abbasi on guitar, Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Dan Weiss and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. Cellist Elizabeth Mihael also returns as a special guest.
Those who might think this is an overt Indo/Pak-Western hybrid are wrong. Abbasi perceives his subconscious reactions as an inspiration. “I have an intuitive way of approaching composition,” he states, “An idea of searching but not searching, being conscious but not conscious. So, with all of the influences I’ve absorbed (including Indian music, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Jim Hall, Keith Jarrett, Led Zeppelin), why would I want a tunnel-vision thing happening when I can have this ‘unfiltered universe’?” One of the notable differences on Unfiltered Universe from earlier Invocation albums is the instrumentation. Abbasi says, “On this recording, there’s no Indian instrument at all, so it’s an experiment in camouflaging that exoticism. There’s certainly a rhythmic and improvisational empathy between Indian music and jazz; but here, what you’re hearing is what you’re not used to hearing.” Abbasi describes this tactic as ‘creative music with a jazz weighting.’
The tunes are arranged so that they build up and escalate from one to the next. The seven-minute opener “Propensity” reveals surreptitious South Asian origins in its initial introduction, but then leans heavily into hard jazz fusion heightened by Mahanthappa’s wild alto solo and Abbasi’s stunning and ripping fret runs. There’s also some interesting interplay between Mihael’s cello and the guitar/sax. Mihael isn’t a featured player throughout the album, but is ear-catching in a larger role during the 9:32 title track, which is the closest the ensemble gets to chamber jazz. This a dynamic demonstration of Abbasi’s concepts on intuition being foremost. Abbasi takes the first lead solo, while Iyer comps and showcases how he can exploit space in very operative ways. Iyer carries his naturalistic minimalism into his own lengthy improvisation. “Unfiltered Universe” goes farther into an obstreperous area when Abbasi, Weiss and Mahanthappa merge on a scampering drone, before the whole band returns to the central motif to close out the title track.
The record’s midsection includes a two-part medley. The 1:41 “Thoughts” is an idiosyncratic Abbasi solo summary which leads into the driving, loose-limbed “Thin-king,” where the group employs an explorative melody as a jumping-off point for a polyrhythmic journey where the pacing and timing continually evolves and progresses. Some drummers are the bedrock while other musicians go into the other reaches of soloing, but here Weiss maintains an asymmetrical rhythmic manner and Abbasi, Iyer and Mahanthappa switch themselves around the ever-changing percussion. Somehow it all works, and everyone harmonizes.
The CD’s opus is the 12-minute “Turn of Events.” This ambitious tune applies rhythmic variability as a compositional and improvisational tool. Weidenmueller lays out mottled bass lines, Weiss exhibits his fluctuating drum aptitudes, and Abbasi, Iyer and Mahanthappa supply supple melodic lines which often move in different progressions: across, under and over. Abbasi lets his composition advance purposely, but by the five-minute mark everything heats up, and from there the arrangement runs the gamut from fiery to slower. At one point, Abbasi and Mahanthappa co-craft undulating, simultaneous but separate melodies over the rhythm. Another highpoint is a Mihael and Weidenmueller duet, which is followed by an Iyer solo where he illustrates the piano’s rhythmic possibilities. Rez Abbasi & Invocation conclude with the eight-minute, enigmatically-named “Dance Number.” This is a groove-flecked track piloted by Abbasi’s forceful and riffing guitar, and then by Mahanthappa’s intricate alto sax soloing, and finally by Iyer’s euphoric piano. If Unfiltered Universe fell under your jazz radar during 2017, give it a listen. Abbasi is an inspired guitarist and composer with significant flair as player and writer. Plus, this is a group of brilliant musicians who have put together a maximal improvisational music album permeated with vim and vitality.
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