Reviews of ‘Bird Calls’ by Rudresh Mahanthappa and ‘Intents and Purposes’ by Rez Abbasi

Two new discs revisit and revise Charlie Parker and ’70s jazz rock


By MARTIN JOHNSOM
Feb. 23, 2015 

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is 43, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, who is 49, share more than South Asian and American roots. Each musician is a vital figure on his instrument, the two jazzmen rose to prominence about a decade ago, and they have played together in several bands.

Earlier this month, each released a recording that takes vintage repertoire in a new direction. Mr. Mahanthappa’s disc, “Bird Calls” (ACT), offers a series of tunes inspired by the music of Charlie Parker—but so deeply abstracted that it is no rote tribute recording. Instead, the saxophonist who counts Parker as a cornerstone influence sought to trace the jazz great’s impact on his own style. Mr. Abbasi looks back to the jazz rock of the early ’70s on his “Intents and Purposes” (Enja), but he rearranges this repertoire for an acoustic ensemble.

Mr. Abbasi’s recording is especially interesting, as he didn’t listen to much jazz rock when he was growing up. He was an adolescent when this fusion was all the rage, but he shunned it, preferring traditional jazz for his studies and listening. Thus he brings a fresh set of ears to his set list of classics by Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Larry Coryell and others. Also, his band, the Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, is well suited to this music. The band features vibraphonist Bill Ware, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, and the vibes/guitar front line creates sumptuous textures and intriguing harmonies. Mr. Crump’s bass sound is deep and resonant and Mr. McPherson’s drumming makes excellent use of his brushes and tom toms.

All of these elements come into play in this repertoire. For instance on Joe Zawinul’s “Black Market,” a hit for Weather Report in 1976, Mr. Crump’s bass is able to approximate the catchy lines that Jaco Pastorius brought to the original, while Messrs. Abbasi and Ware take an innovative approach to the lead roles. The band’s take on Mr. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is more concise than the original, as the solos are shorter, but the improvisations are more wide-ranging in their musical references. Overall, the band lightens the tone of the pieces on this recording and, in doing so, it displays the versatility of work that might otherwise seem dated.

Mr. Abbasi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Los Angeles. His early influences on guitar were Jim Hall, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. He moved to New York in 1987, and since then he has played with a wide variety of performers, including rhythm-and-blues great Ruth Brown and such leading jazz musicians as trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Greg Osby. He is also producer and musical director for his wife, vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia.

Mr. Mahanthappa was born in Italy to Indian parents and grew up in Boulder, Colo. He settled in New York in 1998 after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and a masters from DePaul University in Chicago. His most important sideman gigs include stints with pianists Vijay Iyer and Danilo Pérez, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and drummer Jack DeJohnette. “Bird Calls” is the latest recording by Mr. Mahanthappa where he reconsiders his musical roots. Recordings such as “Kinsmen” (Pi Recordings, 2008) and “Apex” (Pi, 2010) explore his connections to India and Chicago, respectively. “Samdhi” (ACT, 2011) offers his take on ’70s jazz fusion, which is an influence.

For those listeners who are not dedicated students of Charlie Parker’s music, “Bird Calls” may work best initially as an academic exercise. Mr. Mahanthappa lists which Parker tune influenced the originals on his disc, and a minute or two of comparative listening is instructive and revealing. It is easy to connect the dots from Parker’s evergreens to the new material, and in doing so, the building blocks of Mr. Mahanthappa’s passionate yet complex style are apparent.

Both of these recordings are as ambitious as they are accomplished. “Intents and Purposes” takes an often overlooked and frequently disdained aspect of jazz history and makes a case for its spot in the canon. Rather than treat it as sacred text, Mr. Mahanthappa takes Mr. Parker’s music on his own terms.

For today’s musicians, jazz history is often the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It’s nearly impossible to address the glorious history of the music without getting lost within it. With their new recordings, Messrs. Mahanthappa and Abbasi solve that classic dilemma.