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Aaron Greenwald is Executive Director of Duke Performances, the professional performing arts presenting organization at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Invocation: An Interview with Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi […]

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi and Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances.

Aaron Greenwald: Describe the evolution of Invocation from Hindustani music to Qawwali to Carnatic music? How do you write jazz that incorporates these South Asian influences?

Rez Abbasi: The group was formed in 2008. My concept for the trilogy came naturally as I played more with the group. The debut release, Things To Come, magnified elements of Hindustani music, in large part through the contribution of Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia. The follow up, Suno Suno, emphasized Pakistani, Qawwali music, a sound that I’ve admired for most of my life. On this recording, the hybridity came from capturing a spirit as opposed to using specific techniques or theory. The trilogy, Unfiltered Universe, will be recorded this year and has its footing in Carnatic, South Indian music.

My approach to creating new jazz music while employing elements of South Asian music has changed over time. My initial, overt project came in 2003 with the album, Snake Charmer. Prior to that I had a natural inclination of doing a hybrid project but since I had never heard a viable, strong example within jazz history, was very hesitant. I was well aware of John Coltrane’s dealings and John McLaughlin’s assimilation but as much as I loved that music, never thought it actually captured the nuance of a true hybrid between Indian and jazz music. So I knew it would be a long term project. Since recording Snake Charmer, my compositions have slowly departed from an overt style of employing Indian-Pakistani music to a more natural or intuitive way. I haven’t used the sitar-guitar for example, haven’t employed tabla or any Indian percussion – Indian sounds that can be found on Snake Charmer and its 2005 follow up, Bazaar. What has influenced my compositions over the years is more affective listening and playing with Indian musicians of many types – a rote process.

For most listeners, my music will come off as modern jazz, which is fine with me. They’ll hear something that may sound fresh and really, that’s all that counts. For fans of Indian music, it’s very likely they’ll catch the nuance of a rhythm or melody or an inflection of a phrase that can be called “Indian”.

Greenwald: [Can you] talk about what each of the players in the ensemble brings to music [and] your long associations with Johannes, Dan, Vijay and Rudresh?

Abbasi: I chose this specific core band because each of them have something to offer within the framework of hybrid music, specifically Indian and jazz. For instance, Dan Weiss is a professional tabla player as well and brings an enormous rhythmic prowess to the music. In fact, all the members here are drummers; they have dealt in complex rhythms and shifty-pulse oriented music. I’ve had relations with all in various ways, however, Dan and Rudresh have been musical partners for over a decade partly due to Rudresh’s project, Indo-Pak Coalition. We’ve toured a lot and will record our second album soon.

Greenwald: What does an ensemble of this size and scope allow you to do that a smaller ensemble might not?

Abbasi: The piano and cello open up a lot of textural possibilities. I’ve studied western classical music and have a sweet spot for cello. One day I hope to write for a string quartet. With this ensemble I like the singularity of the cello because I use it akin to another voice in the music as opposed to part of a section. The combination of the piano and cello provides a mini orchestra within a jazz group. The orchestration that’s chosen for a given melody has a lot to do with what’s perceived so if a composer weighs their options well, the results can be truly breathtaking. Of course, the idiosyncrasies of the players also provides much in the sense of subtlety and scope.

Greenwald: How does your study of tabla and Carnatic music impact the manner in which you approach guitar?

Abbasi: One word: rhythm… although I’ve also been very inspired by the melodic content of North and South Indian classical and [its] influence in my playing can be heard in the way of ornamentations such as meend and gamak.

Greenwald: What are the characteristics of Carnatic music and how do they manifest themselves in what you’ve written for Invocation?

Abbasi: I find the rhythmic dexterity to be fascinating. It’s very math based and most performers of the music can account for every beat, dancers included! The mathematical combinations are worked and reworked. One of the concepts I used in the new material is the idea of expansion and contraction. For example, a Carnatic musician might play a cadence using a six note figure, repeat it with one less note, continue the process until they’re left with only the last note and resolve that on the down beat of the cycle. That can also be done backwards by adding a note each time. I magnified this process into a larger piece utilizing multiple instruments playing different roles. It’s a pretty cool effect that creates an under-movement within the movement of the tune, kind of a rhythmic layering.

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation performs Thursday, February 25, at 8pm, at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, with a special opening set from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition.

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