[by Petr Dorůžka, Prague] The Karachi born, New York City based jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi comes to Europe for a ten day tour which includes two gigs in Czech Republic – 23 April he plays in the Prague Reduta club, and on 27 April at Jazzfest in Brno. He is joined by his Indian wife Kiran Ahluwalia, who is a well known singer on her own right.
Rez, you left Pakistan when you were 4 years old. Did you come back to rediscover your roots?
Rez: Yes, I of kind took a backwards approach. But I am fortunate in that I’ve been able to perform a lot with Indian musicians of various styles. That’s the best way to learn in the long run. So the music I compose and conceive is very much coming out of the spirit of sharing ideas with jazz musicians and Indian musicians.
You also studied tabla with Alla Rakha. For how long?
Rez: I didn’t physically study with the great master but attended many group classes of his for a month and continued to study tabla with one of his best students for a year.
Alla Rakha was a lifelong partner of Ravi Shankar. Did you have a chance to meet him also or take a lesson from him?
Rez: No, however I did attend a master class given by another sitar maestro, Ustad Shahid Parvez. Honestly, the desire to try and play the guitar like a sitar didn’t last with me. It doesn’t appeal to me when I hear people doing this sort of thing because it just sounds like imitation. That being said, however, I do strive to be influenced by all music on a much subtler level. It becomes more of a jazz approach from the streets rather than an academic thing. So if there is a flavour of Indian music in my playing, it comes from my intuition rather than picking up a sitar.
How much have you been influenced by the people you’ve worked with?
Rez: I’ve learned most of that through my relationship with Kiran and her music and through the other Indian players I’ve worked with. Masters like Kadri Gopalnath, A. Kanyakumari, Gaurav Mozumder and a host of jazz players that strive to incorporate Indian music into jazz, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer and George Brooks.
In the Czech magazine Muzikus I’ve read comments about Kiran singing in unison with Rez’s guitar. Who takes the lead? And, can you somehow predict where the other will move? Or you just relay on a set of prepared memorized tunes?
Kiran: When Rez has composed a specific melody for me to sing then I sing it but with Indian ornamentation. Since we come from two different musical backgrounds, the first step for us is to sit down and decipher everything – he tells me the melody step by step and I write it in a way that I can understand. The final result is us doing the melody together. In terms of improvisation – we figure out which scale would work the best. When I am improvising then of course he is listening and playing things that relate to him on the spot.
Rez: Sometimes we play the melodies in unison and that is written out. When Kiran improvises, I often play some chords or melodic ideas around her as an accompaniment. She is another improviser in the group and the musicians treat her as such.
What the Western media now describe as world music in my opinion was already started some decades ago by the Bollywood composers. By default they have to know both Eastern and Western musical idioms and are finding effective ways to fuse them together. Would you name any Bollywood (or even Indian composer in general) who should get more recognition from the western audiences?
Kiran: Yes world music is a term used primarily by English speakers to describe music that comes mostly from ‘far off’, non-English speaking places. In that sense ‘world music’ is centuries old. And yes, Bollywood music has long been open to influences from other non-Indian musical cultures although in India the influences that Bollywood music takes in are never presented as collaboration. I like a lot of Bollywood composers. A R Rahman is totally deserving of his recent recognition at the Oscars. Some other Bollywood composers I like are go by names “Salim-Suleman” and “Shankar Ehsaan Loy”.
Rez: The Western media has not done a good job in describing forms of music in general. The term world music is much too broad and just like the term “fusion” cannot give justice to the multitude of sounds we hear today. The original Bollywood composers did incorporate some great ideas but modern Bollywood is more concerned with making Pop hits. It’s rare but there is some good stuff coming out today. A R Rahman and Sanjay Divecha are some that have done a great job melting the borders of music.
Fusing jazz and Indian music has a long history, with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, modal jazz playing. Was that any inspiration for you?
Rez: Not really. I do like that sound but only later in life was I introduced to artists like McLaughlin. I wasn’t a big listener of the fusion from the 70s. I do like Coltrane’s incorporation for sure and think it was absolutely sincere but it only scratches the service of the possibilities. In terms of what some other musicians did with Indian music, I personally find the outcome contrived. Musicians too often put groups together based on the prospect of fusion. To create music that has its roots in various forms, takes composers that are also rooted in those forms. My music is solidly grounded in jazz and becomes modernized through incorporating music from India as well as 20th century Western classical music, all music that I firmly am rooted in. The syntheses of sounds are just that, a synthesis. A listener should hear it all as one sound, no separation.
A colleague of mine who stages concerts in Greece says that he prefers to hire Indian musicians instead of the local ones, because Indians have much better memory of tunes and learn the new pieces quicker. Do the Indians really have some special musical genes, or is it just a myth?
Rez: I think it has to do with the way they train as students. I was brought up in America, but the Indian musicians I’ve worked with usually don’t read western music and therefore use their ears more which ultimately strengthens memory. But it can also become limiting if indeed they are learning complex music from a western composer. Initially it takes longer for the music to be learned so I think it balances out in the end. And they do have their own way of writing things out.
Kiran, you are coming to Prague and Brno with Rez’s jazz group. So, it will be Kiran joining only in the jazz tunes, or is there also space for ghazals from your solo albums?
Kiran: These concerts will be Rez’s compositions and artistic vision. I will be adding my Indian vocalization (if that’s a word) and improvisation to Rez’s jazz tunes.