Q&A with guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi, one of the foremost modern jazz guitar players the world over

"We know it’s impacted world culture in many ways. So much music is inspired by jazz even if it doesn’t sound like jazz and because it was born from the African-American experience which was couched in racism and civil unrest, it will always carry with it a deep concern for diplomacy and human dignity. With instrumental music it’s not as easy to convey a message but I hope listeners feel something emotional and real when hearing my music."

Rez Abbasi:  A Unique Jazz Personality

Voted #1 Rising-Star Guitarist in the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll and subsequently placed in the “Top-Ten Guitarists” alongside luminaries Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi is one of the most original voices on the current scene. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, removed at the age of four to the vastness of Southern California, schooled at the University of Southern California and the Manhattan School of Music in jazz and classical music, along with a pilgrimage in India under the guidance of master percussionist, Ustad Alla Rakha, Rez Abbasi is a vivid synthesis of all the above stated influences and genres. Making New York home for the past 25 years, Abbasi is considered by many to be one of the foremost modern jazz guitar players the world over.

(Rez Abbasi / Photo by Kirana)

He has honed his skills with performances throughout Europe, Canada, the U.S., Mexico and India and has performed and recorded with many jazz greats including, Grammy winner Ruth Brown, Peter Erskine, Kenny Werner, Barre Phillips, Tim Berne, Michael Formanek, Billy Hart, Gary Thomas, Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mike Clark, Tim Hagans, John Beasly, Ronu Majumdar, Kadri Gopalnath, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Vijay Iyer, Marilyn Crispell, Greg Osby, Howard Levy and a host of others. With 15 albums of mostly original compositions under his belt, Abbasi continues to find new groups of musicians to help his musical vision come to life. Abbasi’s new album features an ambitious trio recasting the compositions of legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt. On his, "Django-Shift" (2020), album merges many of Django Reinhardt‘s rarely heard compositions with Abbasi’s arranging skills and acoustic guitar stylings along with world-class drummer Michael Sarin and multifaceted keyboardist Neil Alexander. The resulting sound is one that respects MrReinhardt‘s character yet departs from it in meaningful and personal ways.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well of course, music gives a person the opportunity to travel so I have seen and been influenced by some of the places I’ve played. Jazz music has been a great vehicle for social expression because it works through a lens of spontaneous communication and when you take that dynamic out to the real world, your nature is to be open and welcome people with an open mind. So, it’s not only that my view of the world has directed benefited but it’s also that the world I communicate with on a daily basis also benefits. Now if more people worked from that perspective, we’d have a more accepting and peaceful planet.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

I see things from the point of an artist first and my instrument is just the source that helps to manifest that. I never think of myself as a jazz guitarist and often don’t relate too well to guitarists who are stuck in jazz guitar history or thought. As far as my sound, I can’t describe it, I leave that up to the listeners. All I can do is create and that happens best when I get out of my own way and past my self-imposed limitations.

"I think you can’t compare music from the past to what’s being made today. They’re two different time periods and that means culture was different in let’s say the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s than 2020. But to get specific, I think overall the music was deeper from the past. There was more innovation and creativity was rewarded where today creativity doesn’t get you too far. So we end up with a lot of formulaic music, even in jazz." (Photo: Rez Abbasi)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I think you can learn from everyone and in just about every situation. I don’t think of “importance” as a key component but rather growth potential from any experience. Now there probably are a few times I could think of that I felt were not important! But an experience that did stick with me was when I was in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s group and we were opening for Jack Dejohnette’s group. Jack listened to our set and after said he really liked it and also liked my playing. But more importantly I told him that this trio is particularly difficult to play in since there is no bass player. He set me straight very fast by saying we sounded great and that there was no bass element missing at all, that I should just play because all the instruments are heard well and that’s what counts. It kind of took a lot off my shoulders the next time Rudresh’s trio played, which was at the Newport Jazz Festival because I remembered Jack’s words!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The latest memory is from last week which was the first time I played jazz with anyone in 6 months. It was a small get together but was interesting to feel the communication. It’s kind of like riding a bike where it takes a minute to get used to but then you forget you haven’t done it for so long. And of course, the type of bike matters, like the people you’re playing with!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think you can’t compare music from the past to what’s being made today. They’re two different time periods and that means culture was different in let’s say the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s than 2020. But to get specific, I think overall the music was deeper from the past. There was more innovation and creativity was rewarded where today creativity doesn’t get you too far. So we end up with a lot of formulaic music, even in jazz. Plus, since there are so many good players in jazz, there are that many more albums being released. That can be good but unfortunately music listeners don’t often have the time to shuffle through to find the really good stuff, hence my point about creativity being buried.

"I see things from the point of an artist first and my instrument is just the source that helps to manifest that. I never think of myself as a jazz guitarist and often don’t relate too well to guitarists who are stuck in jazz guitar history or thought. As far as my sound, I can’t describe it, I leave that up to the listeners. All I can do is create and that happens best when I get out of my own way and past my self-imposed limitations." (Rez Abbasi / Photo by John Rogers)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

More fans of jazz, more demand would equal better tours and venues that can host more artists. Right now, the scene is a joke, and that was before the pandemic. Not all but many presenters, agents, managers only want artists that will draw large audiences. When your music is somewhat eclectic it leaves you with fewer opportunities, unless you become a media baby which is rare. So, the rest of us are fighting to keep good tours alive. Of course, you can tour for pennies and lose your shirt but that’s not what I’m referring to. At my level I expect to have respected venues book my groups and some do but others don’t even write back. That’s just the reality but I don’t think it should be like that for any artist who has worked hard to forge a career and make a strong statement with their music.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

To be as objective as possible about not only my music and playing but also truth as it relates to anything. Also, to be humble and not too satisfied with your own playing and allowing yourself to make mistakes. At the same time being aware of the things you like about your playing, it’s a balance of ego and none ego with a leaning towards none ego. It’s a tough balance because we need just enough ego to create confidence but that can be one unbalanced easily. Also, since there are so many great players these days, I feel like it’s necessary to search deeper to find the magic. It’s not enough anymore in my opinion to be another technical wizard. At one point in history it was impressive and to a certain extent still is but it depends more on what’s behind the playing, what are the notes, what is the phrasing and most importantly the personality and magic that can’t be spoken about. Any good technician can play a fast Charlie Parker line, but Parker had something that is inimitable for 99% of players. But the important thing to learn from this is not to try to sound like him but to find that kind of sense of personality through your own music and playing.

What is the impact of Jazz on socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?                                                                   (Photo: Rez Abbasi)

We know it’s impacted world culture in many ways. So much music is inspired by jazz even if it doesn’t sound like jazz and because it was born from the African-American experience which was couched in racism and civil unrest, it will always carry with it a deep concern for diplomacy and human dignity. With instrumental music it’s not as easy to convey a message but I hope listeners feel something emotional and real when hearing my music.

"All I can do is create and that happens best when I get out of my own way and past my self-imposed limitations."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

As a musician I’d like to go back to 1965 to hear the John Coltrane Quartet live. As a non-musical trip I’d be interested in going into the future about 200 years to see how things pan out for the human species.

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