Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – His compositions have been described as “sheer genius.” Pakistani-American jazz guitarist and bandleader Rez Abbasi is a tour de force and his creative jazz-Qawwali blend is helping to popularize modern jazz in South Asia.
“It’s a process, put it that way,” said Abbasi in an interview with Jazz Beat. “It’s a matter of maturity, and as I feel like, you know, as I’ve matured things could have surfaced in a different way than they did let’s say 20 years ago when I was actually studying more of the music.”
Qawwali, a form of the 700-year-old Islamic Sufi devotional music, is very popular in South Asia, particularly in the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan, Hyderabad, Delhi, and other parts of northern India. It was introduced to the world through the work of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who fused Qawwali and Western music.
Abbasi extrapolates from the many elements of South Asia’s rich culture and music to produce an organic style of music.
“My main agenda is not to make it sound overt and sort of canned. It needs to be very organic,” the accomplished guitarist explained. “The elements you hear from South Asia in my music are sort of under the radar. They are there for sure and you would hear them more if you actually knew Indian classical music or perhaps Qawwali. If you know that music, then you might hear it in my music. If you don’t know that music, then you might think of it as an expression.”
Interview with Rez Abbasi:
Rez Abbasi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but his family moved to Los Angeles, California when he was four. He grew up listening to Qawwali music at home. One day, when he was 11, his uncle brought home a guitar as a gift for him and his brother.
“We turned off the lights and we both played this melody, I specifically remember this — it was a Led Zeppelin melody,” said Abbasi who now has eight albums under his belt. “We wanted to test each other as to who could play better and I won this competition. It was kind of obvious in the sense that I would pursue something musically.”
Abbasi would eventually learn much more about the string instrument, American jazz and pop musicians and famous Indian and Pakistan composers. He started his music education at the University of Southern California, then moved to New York and completed his education at the Manhattan School of Music, where he majored in jazz and classical composition.
As a young guitarist, Abbasi was influenced by legendary American guitarist Jim Hall. He was also a big fan of bands like Rush, Van Halen and the Rolling Stones. He liked jazz and Indian classical music. He says he practiced playing for hours every day, and eventually began writing his own modern jazz music.
Abbasi, who now lives in New York, was a guest performer last week at Blues Alley, located in the historic Georgetown area of Washington, DC. A sign posted in front of the popular jazz club announcing that Abbasi was playing drew a large audience, including South Asians of various age groups.
“We had a mixed audience. We had a lot of South Asians come through, which is somewhat unique for a jazz concert,” said an elated Abbasi. “It’s a great phenomenon that we’re seeing that more of these types of people are coming.”
“Her music is unique and it really opens the door to the melodic element of Indian music,” he says proudly. Abbasi adds that the new age groups are not taking jazz as something that came out of the 1940s.
“It has expanded,” he notes. “So, when they hear my music they hear that expansion and I think they are very open to it.”
After his recent successes, particularly with his new album Suno Suno, Abbasi was hailed as an “amazing guitarist” by guitar great Pat Metheny. “Unique and beautiful music – and best of all – very original…I’m really impressed,” Metheny was quoted as saying.
Abbasi has also elicited praise from some of the biggest and most respected jazz critics. Guitar Player magazine describes Rez Abbasi as “a highly talented guitarist and composer deserving major attention.” The online All About Jazz magazine says, “Abbasi sounds like no one who has gone before him. His compositions are sheer genius.”
For more on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America