Rez Abbasi – Things to Come – Sunnyside SSC 1236, 58:44 ***1/2:
(Rez Abbasi – guitar, producer; Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; Vijay Iyer – piano; Johannes Weidenmueller – bass; Dan Weiss – drums; Kiran Ahluwalia – Indian vocals (tracks 2-4 and 6); Mike Block – cello (tracks 2 & 7))
Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi coalesces his rock, jazz and South Asian influences into a melodically and rhythmically complex suite of tracks on his latest sojourn, Things to Come. Abbasi grew up in Southern California listening to typical teenager heroes like Eddie Van Halen. But at 16 Abbasi hit a turning point when he saw Jim Hall on stage. Later, when Abbasi started to seriously study music, he eventually went full circle back to the roots of his own cultural background and added Indian and Pakistani material to his music education.
Abbasi is not alone in melding Indian and Pakistani artistry within a jazz template, so it should not be a surprise to find likeminded artists in Abbasi’s crew: alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Vijay Iyer and Abbasi’s wife, Kiran Ahluwalia, who guest vocalizes on four cuts. The band’s formidable rhythm section consists of bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss.
Abbasi’s eight originals share common particulars. They yield divergent constructional changes, rhythmic intricacy and show contrasts between lyrical characteristics and harder tones. Opener "Dream State" is a good example. The cut commences with harp-like strings then progresses into a rolling groove punctuated by Abbasi’s guitar and Mahanthappa’s sax. In due time Iyer is given room to roam and produces an avantgarde inclined solo. Abbasi then enters with a shaggy-haired and rock-styled expression propelled by quick fret runs while Weiss and Weidenmueller alternate between a vigorous, off-centered rock beat and craggy rhythmic intervals. The song culminates with a Mahanthappa solo that is invigorating and explosive.
Another representation of Abbasi’s democratic approach where he leaves space for everyone is the bop-oriented "Why Me Why Them." The melody grows from Weidenmueller’s solo bass to a firm bass/guitar discourse to a trio setting and finally an animated exchange of piano, sax, guitar and the rhythm section. The piece is highlighted by Abbasi and Mahanthappa solos that match naturally rough elements against minutely detailed contours that are in turn balanced by a refined Iyer solo piano break. Throughout Weidenmueller and Weiss alter the beat and time signature to support the arrangement’s prismatic sound coloring.
The connotation of shading and tonal tinting is subsequently enhanced on "Hard Colors," one of several tunes that feature Kiran Ahluwalia’s otherworldly voice, which cuts across the top of the instruments with an intangible and respiratory harmony. Her unusual intonations are brilliantly bordered by balmy sax and Iyer’s piano spirals. As Ahluwalia suspends her singing Abbasi then takes center stage with six-string leaps and bounds that recall the aforementioned Jim Hall. Iyer gets the final solo stretch with darting lines that have a sense of urgency and agitation, like sharp neon etching a night sky.
Paints, hues and pigments are further unraveled during "Realities of Chromaticism," which gradually wheels along via an angled succession of chords. Guest cellist Mike Block opens the piece at a deliberate gait, but before long Abbasi pushes the tempo forward as he flirts with rock-aligned riffs, while Weidenmueller stays busy with undulating bass pulses, sometimes grasping the rhythm closely and other times nearly relinquishing it to Weiss’s fluctuating drumming. Mahanthappa drives in a turbulent solo that hammers away at the harmony. "Realities of Chromaticism" is expansive: peaceful intimations are dispersed in a roundabout fashion but twisted by tempestuous moments, most notably Mahanthappa’s song-ending combustible alto sax workout, a performance that is one of the album’s outstanding instances.
One of Abbasi’s models – someone who has inspired many guitarists – is Pat Metheny, whose effect is most clearly heard on the longest section, the multidimensional "Within Safety." At the onset, Abbasi’s playing is imprinted with a distinguished lyricism that accompanies some brief vocal styling by Ahluwalia. After that introduction, Abbasi furnishes a slightly unstable harmonic framework that echoes Metheny’s brandname touch, which in turn sets up an Ornette Coleman-ish solo from Mahanthappa, succeeded by an Iyer keyboard excursion that delivers a dash of energy akin to a tingling electrical charge. The 11-minute outing traverses much more terra firma before finishing up.
Abbasi makes use of unencumbered jazz concepts alongside precisely constructed compositions which imparts Things to Come with an impression of the old and the new coming together, similar in some aspects to Steve Coleman, Greg Osby and others of the M-base collective. That does not mean Abbasi reproduces Coleman’s viewpoint, but rather that both create and embrace diversified musical modes – in Abbasi’s case South Asian, rock and jazz – that cross reference each other in comprehensive configurations.
1. Dream State
2. Air Traffic
3. Hard Colors
4. Things to Come
5. Why Me Why Them
6. Within Sanity
7. Realities of Chromaticism
— Doug Simpson