Rez Abassi Acoustic Quartet: Intents and Purposes

By Will Layman 
9 February 2015
Guitarist Rez Abbasi is maybe a smidgen too young to have cranked up the volume on a Mahavishnu Orchestra record when he was 14, like I once did. He is too sensible to have taken ripping air guitar solos with Al Di Meola or Larry Coryell in his adolescence in a New Jersey basement. Abassi tells us in the notes to Intents and Purposes, the second release by his Acoustic Quartet, that he broke into playing jazz through Charlie Parker, “absorbing the music of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.” Even though Abbasi plays electric guitar, he may have been a little too cool (or too tasteful?) ever to fully geek out to the pleasures of saturated electric buzz and speed-freak fretboard glory.

But time and curiosity finally got the better of this mainstream-to-progressive guitar hero, and he headed back to the heart of the jazz-rock dreamland: the time when rock energy and jazz adventure collided without excessive cheesiness. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum andIntroducing the Eleventh House by Larry Coryell were not guilty pleasures—they were just cool, quality records. It was a time when Weather Report was daring and the slink and thrust of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were volcanic matters.

On Intents and Purposes, Rez Abbasi comes at this music from a wonderfully fresh angle. He has saddled up his acoustic band to ride across the territory of a genre that was essentially defined by being plugged in. And the first thing revealed is this: the heart of “fusion” or ‘70s jazz-rock was not its volume but its structure: a hearty and outstanding architecture of composition. By stripping away most of the bravado that tended to coat these songs in their original incarnations, Abbasi brings forward melody, detail, and thrilling subtlety.

This band made 2010’s scintillating Natural Selection, and it was a brilliant stroke to unleash it on tunes by Corea, Zawinul, Pat Martino, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock. The quartet’s sound is sharp in attack but generally transparent, clear. Bill Ware’s vibes chime and shimmer, but they let light into everything they touch. The rhythm section of Stephan Crump’s solid, resonant acoustic bass and Eric McPherson’s dancing drums is ideal: funky but pliant. And Abbasi brings both his steel string precision and a quaver of feeling from fretless and baritone acoustic guitars. The result is not watercolor renderings of the oil originals but something closer to pen-and-ink drawings: careful, revealing, but remarkably full of space.

If you know the original recordings of tunes such as Weather Report’s “Black Market”, you know that they are dense with sound. Abbasi’s band plays each component of these songs with care. “Black Market” was originally defined by a contrasting set of Joe Zawinul synth lines, several on the frothy bottom and one squiggling on top. Here, Crump locks down the bottom more simply, and the leader is on top, resonating with a graceful clarity. McPherson plays, here and throughout, with a swirling complexity that the original tune left to more than one hand. And as Ware’s vibes enter, the hint of a West Indian or African market busts alive. The whole tune is present, but we see it, somehow, more clearly through the eyes of this exceptional band.

Other tunes are also set free by the relative delicacy of this approach. Martino’s “Joyous Lake” was cool in the original, harmonically rich and ingeniously constructed, but it was put across with a relentlessness that made it hard to hear anything other than energy. In McPherson’s hands, the driving thump of Kenwood Dennard turned into a fizzy Latin groove in which each tap and snap is nuanced. It is a perfect transformation of a good thing into a great thing.

“Red Baron” is the one tune here that has become something close to a standard: a hip, swaying funk tune with a blues line that is irresistible. Ware’s statement sets up solo by Abbasi that reasonably sums up why he is such a treasure. Using his steel string, the guitarist plays across several different styles and modes: bent-string blues, boppish runs, harmonically adventures eddies found at the upper end of the chords, and rhythmic variations that draw Crump and McPherson into conversation.

A couple of the tracks here are at the more contemplative end of fusion. “Low-Lee-Tah” from Coryell is a feature for the leader alone, overdubbing several guitars in dramatic fashion. The original version had Coryell playing a set of pretty arpeggios on processed electric guitar before the band came in, but Abbasi is more impressive turning this into a multi-layered exploration of acoustic textures.

And John McLaughlin’s “Resolution”, from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire begins with a free-time beauty rather than a slow-building vamp. The original has a kind of quiet menace that turns into amped-up majesty. Abbasi and the Acoustic Quartet are much more playful, etching time and color across a free canvas before the guitar intones the melody even as Ware and the rhythm section continue to improvise. Eventually Crump’s moaning pedal point is joined by a backbeat groove by the drums, getting us into Mahavishnu territory, but the journey to that end is fascinating.

When Abbasi uses his fretless guitar, you’ll be entranced. Hancock’s “Butterfly” is a popular tune these days with vocalists, and the fretless guitar is supremely vocal in sound. Abbasi plays it with great focus and clarity. When he holds it to pitch, it has a stinging, kind-of-electric sound, warbling, buzzing. When he purposely lets the pitch wander, of course, he evokes both American bluesmen and the sitar sounds of his cultural background. On Tony Williams “There Comes a Time”, that sounds is employed perfectly. Ware’s companying on vibes almost seems like McCoy Tyner behind Coltrane’s perpetually-blue soprano saxophone.

What a joy it is to hear this music again, but to hear it refracted through another lens. It’s not just the acoustic nature of Abbasi’s group but their new-century sensibility, a willingness to play the funk when it’s there but without gimmick, the inclination to blow outside the changes when so moved, even though this music started with a consonant heart. Now if only listening toIntents and Purposes didn’t make me feel quite so old.