Rez Abbasi: Rekindling his Roots

By Victoria Wasylak

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In a word, Rez Abbasi is busy.

He’s busy sandwiching multiple album releases into the span of one year; he’s busy rehearsing for hours on end, tinkering with newest favorite flavor of jazz. And perhaps most impressively, he’s busy “nurturing” his tunes with another culture’s music, as he explains in his book New Dimensions in Jazz Guitar: Expand Your Improvisatory Consciousness. Oh, and he’s performing throughout the United States for the remaining weeks of 2019.

Preparing two albums for release this fall – A Throw of Dice and OASIS with Isabelle Olivier – and another for the spring of 2020, the 53-year-old jazz guitarist quite literally never lets his fingers idle.

As 2019 comes to a close, JAZZed chatted with Abbasi about his numerous upcoming projects, his upbringing in California, and the specific art of “rekindling his roots.”

You were born in Pakistan, and then you moved to Southern California when you were four. I would love to learn a little bit more about what that was like for you as a child, and what it was like for you growing up in general.

Well, we immigrated when I was four years old, to California out of all places. I say that because there’s so much outdoor activities in California, and that kind of grabbed me when I was young, and I was out of the home most often. I was more out of the house than I was in the house. What that did was take me away a little bit from my roots and got me in the American lifestyle right away, surfing and motorcycles, football. You name it, I did it.

As I got older, I sort of had to rekindle my roots, when I realized how great of a role that can play in my music. I had to go backwards. But growing up in California was really fun, as well. As soon as I discovered jazz, for that matter, I realized that there was so much more in my culture than just the food and my parents

Right. Besides traveling, how did you rekindle that, as you were saying?

Well, definitely through the music, listening a lot and going to the concerts, mostly Indian classical music, but also Qawwali from Pakistan. It definitely was a process, but it was a natural process because the desire was already there to rekindle. I went to India and Pakistan to study after graduating college, particularly India, because I’d never been to India. I did visit Pakistan a number of times before that, but not on a musical level. It was after graduation in college that I decided I wanted to go to India and study the culture more, and the music, and go to the concerts and see the audiences that are there actually responding to the music. All of that played a role, but particularly just diving deep into the music-listening experience – and, of course, taking lessons as much as I could. I was never a really serious student of Indian music, but my wife happens to be an Indian singer, so that has provided a lot of detailed experience over the last 15 years. I’ve grown exponentially because of that.

When you were younger, and you started playing guitar, you were in rock bands as a teenager. When did you decide that you wanted to switch to pursue jazz?

Well, it’s interesting. At 16-years-old, I met a friend of mine who was also a rock guitarist, and he was a year older than me. He was about to go to USC for continuous studies in jazz, and that kind of flipped the switch right there. I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s right. I have to make a decision too. I’m not gonna go to college to become a rock star, obviously.” And so he brought me in and opened me up to different kinds of music within jazz – Charlie Parker, and he took me to an Ella Fitzgerald concert with Joe Pass. I was blown away. I thought, “Wow, there’s a whole universe here to expand from which I haven’t even touched.” It was kind of an overnight thing. My mom still says to this day that she’s grateful because, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with rock and roll, but that sometimes comes with partying, too.

It was like a turnaround. The next day, I was practicing all the time, and I had a big schedule routine of six hours to practice, and I would stay home. I quit my rock band. I stopped partying. It was really quite a turnaround. I even played classical guitar then, too, because that was sort of part of the agenda. My parents just saw that, and went, “Wow. This kid really made a 180,” and then they helped me with my college degree. They put me through college because they saw how dedicated I was in music. As the first immigrants [from my family in America], it was sort of incumbent on them to become lawyers and doctors and businesspeople. I think my father was seeing this boy that wanted to take a different path – especially becoming a jazz musician, which is very American. That was great to see him actually embrace that rather than push that away.

Were you ever apprehensive about that decision because it was so sudden? I mean, were you ever nervous? Or did you feel completely confident and that this was what you needed to do with your life?

Well, I’m still nervous.

Really?

Oh, yeah, because I mean, there isn’t any set protocol for this kind of lifestyle. I mean, of course, we play concerts, we put out records, which really now means very little compared to what it did even 15 years ago. It’s an artistic statement that most of us strive for, but financially, it’s like, “Oof,” you know?

People are not even people buying CDs at the venues anymore when you play – it’s very rare. They know it’s all on streaming [services]. We teach, we apply for grants, there’s sort of this laundry-list of things you need to have your hands in, in order to actually make a living of this. But my apprehension didn’t start really happening until after college when I had to become realistic about what my decisions were. But at 16 years old, you’re not really thinking like that. It’s more of an intuitive direction that you’re pulled in to. And you feel the beauty hand-in-hand with what you’re doing, as opposed to feeling the beauty on one hand and then feeling the business on another hand. It’s a hard balance. But back then there was no balance. Really, I would just practice eight hours a day.

Eight hours?

Well, yeah. You’re going to college, so some days it would be three, some days it would be 10. But it would be very much all the time and as many hours as you can put in.

That’s incredible. How do you not burn out?

One of my former teachers, Joe Diorio always said to us, “Practice now while you’re young, because when you get older, it gets harder.” And I just wore that on my sleeve. I was practicing before I even met him, of course, but I might have been 18 or 19 when I met him. The thing is, when you’re in the situation, that’s what you want to do. Seeing it from an outsider’s perspective, absolutely, it seems nuts. It seems like way too much time to do one thing. But when you’re fortified with all this new material, and you’re listening to records, and you just need to get to this one place to be satisfied, which you never really get to. That’s just another lesson I learned as I got older. I’m still practicing a lot, because I’m not at the level that I feel like I need to be. That’s what motivates me to continue.

You have two albums coming out this fall, and then another one coming out in the spring of 2020. So that’s going to be three records in one year. How is that possible? That’s a lot of material in not a lot of time.

It’s part of that dynamic I was talking about. When you have something ahead of you that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are more motivated to get something done. The first album is a film score I did called A Throw of Dice, and I did that in 2017 [commissioned by the New York Guitar Festival]. It’s actually just coming out now. Then, the newest project was released November 15, and it’s called OASIS and that is a collaborative project with a French harpist, Isabelle Olivier.

That sort of just happened really quickly. We received the grant from the French American Cultural Exchange Program, and in order to fulfill our requirements, we stepped up the game and we composed new music and talked through a bunch of things. Then, Peter Williams – he runs the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California – asked me to do this Django Reinhardt festival, the music of Django Reinhardt, and I told him, “If I’m gonna do that, I’m not going to play it in the style of gypsy jazz. Because there’s so many people doing that in a great way and that’s not me.” That’s just not what I do. I told him “I want to do it in my way.” And of course, he said yes. I rearranged the Django Reinhardt music, which first of all, I didn’t know he composed so many darn tunes. Shame on me for not knowing that. I always see him as a giant of the guitar, but really, he’s got a lot of compositions.

I went down [through] all his records, basically, and I chose the ones that stood out to me, and the ones that I felt that I could actually add something of my own to. There were a handful of them. I ended up picking 10 of them, and I rearranged them for acoustic guitar, organ and synths. That came out really, really interestingly and it provides the listener with this traditional element that has been modernized through my lens, if you will. And I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to that.

It sounds like they’re very different projects, the three of them.

Yeah, absolutely. I guess I’m known for being very diverse, and that’s okay. My nature tends to be that I get bored of things quickly, so I just need to constantly shuffle things around. A lot of artists are like that.

Right. It’s a blessing and a curse, I suppose, but it does expose you to a lot more. I feel like you would learn more by wanting to switch things up frequently.

I find it to be blessing more than a curse because I learned from a lot of different people. I mean, I am a sideman. Also, I do a lot of work with different people, but I’m not one of those guys who’s in everybody’s band, right? It felt like I played with hundreds and hundreds of musicians every year. It’s helped me get in the heads of certain people that I really wanna play with, and we can work on my music or on Django Reinhardt music or something, you know? Then I see how they interpreted it, and that’s the learning process for me, too.

I really wanted to ask about what it was like working on a film score, because that’s a completely different art form from writing your own music “normally,” as you would for your own album. I feel like it’s a very delicate, difficult process to accurately match music to a film.

Yeah, and you’re correct in saying that. It’s a 1929 black and white silent film that’s 74 minutes long. One thing I learned quickly is that the use of silence is very different when you apply it to a silent film versus a jazz project. In a jazz project you can use silence as much as you want. In a film, you take away the music, and something sounds wrong.

It’s a strange phenomenon, actually, and that really excited me in one way, but at the same time, it’s forced me to continue to write a lot of music and put that burden on my writing. But within that burden, within that framework, it really opened the doors to all kinds of possibilities. I wrote a lot of stuff that I would never have written for a jazz group, per se. Based on that element – the silent element and also the fact that the characters were so deep and the acting was so deep, and the story was so deep – all of that really galvanized a lot of great ideas, melodic ideas, rhythmical ideas and so forth, textural ideas too.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your education and your mentors. You went to the University of Southern California and you went to the Manhattan School of Music. Looking back at your years at both of those schools, what would you say would be the biggest takeaways from each?

Well, one of them is just to see how many different areas within jazz there are. Not every student is alike, so to be able to have an ensemble with someone who’s really just straight-ahead, and then someone who’s really into this freer improvisation, and then someone who’s really into, let’s say, early Coltrane versus late Coltrane – having all that in one area, in one room, or ensemble, it’s really helpful because you really get an understanding of the possibilities of where you can go with this music. That actually alters your compositional ideas, also. It helps you figure out your own path, first of all. It’s like a filter. And then, of course, having the professors who have all kinds of experience under their belt and they’re willing to freely share that with you, that’s a beautiful thing too. You don’t get that too often anymore. The gigs are so far and few between out there, so college is actually a good experience at this point.

Regarding your book, New Dimensions in Jazz Guitar, we’ve talked this whole time about how much you’ve learned and where you learned it from. How did you go about putting together a book and kind of trying to present that to other people? What was that process like?

It was a cathartic process, because I had all this information and I was teaching students privately or at some of the workshops I do. I just thought, “Why don’t I put this in a book so more people can understand it, and maybe get something out of it, instead of just one by one or classroom by classroom?” I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from students with this particular material that I wrote out in the book, and some of the book deals with how I’ve applied Indian classical concepts to jazz in a less overt way.

It’s not all about trying to sound like Indian music, which is what most [players] shoot for when they study world music of any sort. The book is more about how Indian musical concepts might help expand your current vocabulary as a jazz musician. It’s also about having a compositional attitude towards playing solos and telling stories within the solos. I feel happy about it because I distill these larger topics into concrete exercises that I think are highly effective.

It’s for intermediate to advanced players. It’s not like it’s gonna completely change your personality, or your playing, but it’s addressing elements that I found Indian musicians address and Western musicians don’t address as much. For example, there’s a chapter on addressing the idea of pulling emotion from a scale.

In the West – particularly with the guitar, since we have to learn every skill with multiple fingerlings – we tend to anchor our practicing on running up and down scales. Simply in order to learn the fretboard right, you’ve got to get through that. But the problem by doing so, is that often, by default, we sometimes deprive ourselves of this juicy stuff within scales. Then that becomes normalized. We were just running up and down the scales, and we’re not even thinking about what’s within this scale. I’ve devised an exercise that helps, and it acts like a mirror, and engages your emotional output, on something as simple as scale. This is what I’ve gotten from listening to Indian classical musicians. They really pull out choice notes, and they don’t simply run up and down these combinations of notes which are called scales.

That’s one aspect. Another exercise is to bring out various emotions, like love and anger and joy, within a scale, which ultimately gets you closer to the degrees of emotions that we might be overlooking in our soloing, stuff like that. It’s kind of philosophical in nature, but it’s also very direct also.

When you were putting this together, did how Leonard come to you and say, “Would you be interested in doing a book?” Or was it vice versa, that you wanted to do a book and they were the right folks to do it?

I told them what I wanted to write, and I gave them a brief synopsis, and they were on it. They just thought it was very interesting to come from that Eastern angle. And look, I’m a jazz musician first and foremost. When I say the Eastern angle, again, it’s not so overt. I’m not trying to sound like I studied Indian music. I’m approaching the book as a way of nurturing my own jazz through another culture’s music. I think they were really keen on putting something out that was very unique and can only have been done by someone who’s experienced all this. My father was born in India, my mom was born in Pakistan, I was born in Pakistan, and I’m American. I have all that within me to provide my students.

When you’re putting this book together, how on earth do you sandwich all of your background and experience and knowledge into just a few pages? You very much have to be concise to fit all of that in authentically. What was your process for doing that?

It’s not a large book, but it’s a very condensed book. The concepts are concepts that you can live with for years and years. It’s not about 50 voicings or 80 scales: “Here’s all the possible scales.” It’s not that kind of book. Those are good, too, but this is about more of a philosophical approach to how to be able to see the fretboard in a larger way, let’s say, since it’s a guitar book. But, it also can be used for any other instrument too, many chapters, in fact. I’m not saying I can’t add to the book at this point – I mean, this is an ongoing process. But at that point, a few years ago, when I started writing it, I felt like that is what needed to be written at that point.

The accumulation of all my training and my experiences playing with Indian classical musicians or various types of world musicians and a lot of jazz musicians – it all sort of just came to fruition in this one piece, this one book.

I feel like it’s such an extraordinarily unique contribution to the jazz lexicon because you have such a unique background and unique angle on everything, musically.

I totally appreciate that. My former teacher, Joe Diorio, also said the same thing and that really is why I did it. The world absolutely doesn’t need another book with 100 scales and 100 different chord voicings. There’s plenty of that. I’ve got shelves of those books, and I rarely open them because it’s like, “Okay, there’s nothing that says ‘me’ in this.” My approach is about the people who are going to play the material and then how can you take what you know already and expand that? Not like, “Here’s 50 voices you have to learn.” It’s not like that.

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