Review: Rez Abbasi Quintet in timely concert at Blue Whale
There was a rewarding symmetry at work in Thursday night’s performance by the Rez Abbasi Quintet at the Blue Whale. Not counting the interplay between the musicians, which was also quite evident, the performance comes just days before the first observance of International Jazz Day, an undertaking by UNESCO and Herbie Hancock that emphasizes the global reach of the music.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Southern California before moving on to New York City (Abbasi studied his craft at USC), Abbasi has built a career on underscoring that worldwide reach. His early albums merged jazz with the sound of Indian classical music, and his latest release, “Suno Suno,” by his Invocation ensemble taps a roster of top-flight players for an album that looks to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and South Asian Qawwali music for inspiration.
But getting back to that symmetry: The record “Suno Suno” includes Abbasi’s longtime collaborators, such as saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and pianist Vijay Iyer, but the group’s touring incarnation included a pair of new faces with the Claudia Quintet’s Matt Mitchell on piano and saxophonist David Binney (full disclosure: Binney’s sister Ann works at The Times). Both proved themselves not only suited to the task of taking on Abbasi’s head-swimmingly knotted compositions, but added new wrinkles in songs that easily stretched past the 20 minute mark.
Opening the set with the sprawling “Thanks for Giving,” the group showed that the bedrock of the ensemble lay with its rhythm section, anchored by German-born bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and acrobatic drummer Dan Weiss.
Weiss has recorded a number of eclectic solo percussion albums thus far in his career, and his endless array of rolls and punches across his kit kept the song’s pulse racing as Mitchell deconstructed the insistent opening melody. As Binney joined in with a fiery, twisting turn, the piece accelerated into a spiral that became nearly hypnotic.
Another song, “Monuments,” began with a searching, off-balance solo introduction from Mitchell before coalescing into a more cyclical, head-bobbing groove that found Binney and Abbasi chasing each other through a knotted series of runs, and a later piece introduced as something new featured a bluesy turn from Mitchell and an interlude of lightning-quick fretwork from Abbasi that briefly recalled the fiery pacing of John McLaughlin.
“Overseas” may have been the finest showcase for Abbasi’s complex compositional ear. With Weiss tapping out a somewhat bent bop drive across his cymbals in a series of fits and starts, Mitchell slowly tip-toed around the melody before Abbasi entered with an eerie distant effect on his guitar. As the song grew more deconstructed and spacey, Binney surged deep into his instrument with dizzying speed as Weiss charged the group ahead with a locomotive drive.
While introducing his band, Abbasi sounded almost apologetic for the length of his compositions, which he referenced in describing his source material in the Qawwali tradition that the music looked to “transcend time” in its devotional pursuit. “I probably should’ve said that from the beginning,” Abbasi admitted, acknowledging that his parents were in the audience. “If you work backward it’ll all make sense,” he said.
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