Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guitarist Rez Abbasi's Acoustic Quartet, "Natural Selection"

The instrumentation of vibes, piano, bass and drums became something quite significant with the advent, singularity and longevity of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Add a guitar and you had the Gary Burton-Keith Jarrett ensemble for their influential recording around 15 years after that. Come up the years to 2010, take away the piano, and you get the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, shown to excellent advantage on the recent CD Natural Selection (Sunnyside 1264).

The MJQ of course used their instrumentation to get a sound nobody else had come up with before. Each player had a specific role to play and the sum total was extraordinarily fresh and new. The same thing could be said about that Burton-Jarrett gathering. And, yes, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet has yet another something going for it.

The premises are simple. Rez sticks to an acoustic guitar; Bill Ware is on vibraphone; there's Stephan Crump on acoustic bass; and Eric McPherson mans the drums. Just because this is an acoustic band though it doesn't mean that they play some kind of fossilized pre-electric music. The all-acoustic instruments give them a sound potential that they realize in ways that are modern, in the sense of being made and conceived today, and the individual personalities of the musicians and the direction they take on the six Abbasi originals and four "covers" are most definitely their own.

There are no "standards" in the typical sense here. A number by the aforementioned Jarrett, a Joe Henderson number, Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and a piece by the famed devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. What matters, though, is that they make each of the pieces their own.

And the group texture is not delicate, but aerated, so to say, by the natural ringing qualities of struck vibes and cymbals, by bright guitar chords, anchored by acoustic bass and bass drum. The music then is chiming in its way, but it is not overly polite or drained of spirit. Eric McPherson and Stephen Crump drive the group with direct but elaborate rock-swing channels of expression. Bill Ware's vibraphone pivots between the natural percussiveness of the instrument and the melodic-harmonic possibilities it has latent in its make up. Bill is equally a key ensemble member and has a very convincingly hip way of comping as well as a nicely developed solo presence.

And then there is Rez. This is an outstanding outing for him as a guitarist and as a composer-arranger of the material. Because of the style parameters (Indo-Pak, "fusion") he comes out of one automatically thinks of John McLaughlin, with or without Shakti, and has expectations from exposure to that. Rez goes his own way though. He plays ravishing lines and shows harmonically-melodically that he thinks differently than John.

The end effect is of a program of exceptional merit. The pieces have beauty, the playing is exemplary and Rez Abassi shows that he has a great deal of depth to what he does and can do. It gives notice that he has arrived, truly, as a guitar-playing force, a real artist, a fully developed plectrologist at the top of the heap.

Excellent, excellent music here. This is one that you should spring for if you have the coin. It pays you back with much musical interest!

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