Completing a trilogy of albums whose compositions are infused with the various, colorful strands of traditional music from his Pakistani/Indian homeland, New York guitarist Rez Abbasi’s Unfiltered Universe presents the line-up of pianist Vijay Iyer, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss, plus guest appearances from renowned classical cellist Elizabeth Mikhael. Previous releases Things to Come and Suno Suno focused, respectively, on Hindustani and Qawwali music, whereas this collection of seven new numbers explores and embraces the more rhythmically exuberant, South Asian elements of Carnatic instrumental music.
Originally hailing from Karachi – and creating fresh, contemporary sounds here with players who themselves are all well-versed in north and south Indian music – Abbasi sees his subconscious responses as an equally important source of inspiration alongside the imprint of his treasured, cultural heritage. “I have an intuitive way of approaching composition – an idea of searching but not searching, being conscious but not conscious. So with all of the influences I’ve absorbed (including Indian music, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Jim Hall, Keith Jarrett, Led Zeppelin), why would I want a tunnel-vision thing happening when I can have this ‘unfiltered universe’? I’ve had the good fortune to play alongside some great Carnatic musicians – a lot of jazz players don’t get to do that. But instead of interjecting specific Carnatic ideas, I use their energy as a foundation.
“Earlier albums featured the distinctive sounds of, for example, tabla and sitar – but on this recording, there’s no Indian instrument at all, so it’s an experiment in camouflaging that exoticism. There’s certainly a rhythmic and improvisational empathy between Indian music and jazz; but here, what you’re hearing is what you’re not used to hearing” – something which Abbasi defines more acutely as ‘creative music with a jazz weighting’ rather than the quite different concepts of ‘Indian jazz’ or ‘Indojazz’.
Abbasi’s complex meters are often based on underlying, architectural structures of expansion and compression which, in propulsive, shifting ‘Thin-king’, give rise to its beautifully searching melody; and enigmatic, tumbling ‘Turn of Events’ finds an exciting, flowing synergy between cello, guitar and sax. Carefully-crafted ‘Propensity’ features a bassline which moves by an eighth note, almost undetected, through multi-time-signatured sections: “There are five-and-a-half beats there, six beats here, like the idea of someone breathing or walking irregularly”. Rock-grooving ‘Disagree to Agree’ is an angular, stoic reflection on prevalent political turmoil; and the contrasting joyousness of ‘Dance Number’ has its roots in Abbasi’s and Mahanthappa’s intense sessions working with a Carnatic dance company, the guitarist’s writing echoing the vitality of their steps and rhythms.
Rez Abbasi concludes: “With Unfiltered Universe, I’d like to trigger an emotional response which, perhaps, could change something subconsciously. If my music can impact listeners on that level, I feel I’ve succeeded. But my essential musical message is that jazz can also be this – it can be creative without being totally improvised and moving without being stylized. I hope listeners will live this record”.
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