Rez Abbasi – Unfiltered Universe (2017)

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The final installment of Rez Abbasi’s Indian/Pakistani jazz trilogy holds just as many surprises as the first two. Unfiltered Universe, now out through Whirlwind Recordings, pools the vast knowledge of South Indian folk forms held by guys who happen to be some of the best jazz musicians in New York, a Subcontinental supergroup Abbasi has dubbed “Invocation.” We’ve just heard Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax) and Dan Weiss (drums) reconvene with guitarist Abbasi for Mahanthappa’s ground-breaking Indo-Pak Coalition for the edgier Agrima and now it’s Abbasi’s turn to lead. Invocation adds even more star power with Vijay Iyer on piano and its bassist Johannes Weidenmueller is a student of Carnatic percussion.

It all starts with Abbasi, the composer. He’s breathed in much through his deep research into Carnatic music tradition, and breathes it out again informed by his progressive jazz DNA, a highly improvisational hybrid that manages not to sound like disparate styles haphazardly mashed together.

This alchemy is for sure exotic, but vaguely so. Case in point is “Propensity”: the driving rhythms have the hallmarks of modern jazz but the harmonics hint of another world; those familiar enough with southern Indian music might be able to recognize the connection but others won’t. It doesn’t really matter as Abbasi uses those regional influences as the starting point to get to a destination that’s his (and his Invocation band’s) alone. The solos by both Mahanthappa and Iyer make clear that they buy into Abbasi’s strategy to the point of modifying their well-known ways of expression to fulfill that vision.

At times you can hear Elizabeth Mikhael’s cello lurking around. As a guest musician, she doesn’t get featured prominently but plays a key role in adding a small chamber music element to Abbasi’s protean direction as in “Unfiltered Universe,” which uses intuition as its fuel. Paced by Abbasi’s thoughtful lead, Iyer’s comping also improvises and uses space effectively, carrying it over into his own solo. Weiss and Mahanthappa combine on a loping two-note trill that precedes an ending returning to the original motif.

Abbasi goes free for the one hundred second rumination “Thoughts”, setting up a contrast with his unaccompanied, calculated intro that launches “Thin-King.” Here, Weiss makes his off-center rhythms a moving target, but Abbasi, Iyer and Mahanthappa take turns throwing out quips that all somehow sync up with that elusive drumming.

“Turn of Events” starts with a couple of minutes of group improv, eventually coalescing around a Weidenmueller marching bass figure, but a more controlled chaos soon re-emerges, with Abbasi, Mahanthappa and Iyer competing for positioning, coming together to set the stage for Iyer’s unobstructed solo turn, and Weidenmueller offers up spontaneous expressions in near-silence, setting the stage for a tension building finale.

There’s a contentious pulse that runs through “Disagree To Agree,” which never fully explodes until Mahanthappa’s fiery solo turn and the alto saxophonist erupts again during his spotlight on “Dance Number.”

Coming on the heels of the Indo-Pak Coalition’s latest album, the amazing thing aren’t the similarities between that release and Unfiltered Universe but how divergent they are in spite of being built on the same fundamental ideas and using the same musicians. Rez Abbasi has demonstrated (again) that creativity and originality is more than just ideas and knowledge, it’s about vision.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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