Jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi. Photo: John Rogers
Jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi. Photo: John Rogers

It’s jazz, but not as you know it. Guitarist Rez Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Los Angeles, brings a touch of southern Indian Carnatic music to his new works with his ensemble Invocation.

“The influences of Indian music are heard through the filter of jazz,” explains Abbasi, who showcased his new tracks at the Asia Society in New York on December 15 and December 16. “The music has its basis in jazz, and Indian influences come through that.”

Carnatic music, a type of Hindu devotional music, is one the world’s oldest musical forms, having existed for around 5,000 years. Abbasi has previously experimented with two other forms of sub-continental music – his recordings Things to Come (2009) and Suno Suno (2011) drew on Hindustani music, and qawwaali, a form of sufi spiritual music from Pakistan.

The guitarist, who is based in New York, says that his understanding of sub-continental music comes through a process of osmosis: “I’m not an expert in Carnatic music, as that would take a lifetime. For me, it’s more about listening, reflecting on, and participating in that kind of music,” he says.

Abbasi, who was voted one of the world’s top 10 jazz guitarists in a DownBeat magazine critics poll in 2015, was born in 1965 in Karachi. His parents moved to Los Angeles when he was four. His early interest in guitar playing, like most of his generation, came from rock – he listened to bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush.

Rez Abbasi. Photo: Bill Douthart
Rez Abbasi with his Invocation ensemble (from left) Vijay Iyer, Johannes Weidenmueller, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Dan Weiss. Photo: Bill Douthart

Hearing renowned British jazz fusion guitar player Allan Holdsworth turned him on the expressive potential of jazz, and he moved to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Always interested in the sounds of the sub-continent, after college he traveled to India to study tabla with Ustad Allah Rakha, a tabla master.

Abbasi spent two months in India, learning to play tabla in a group. He continued his tuition when he returned to the US, but “I realized that I wasn’t practicing it enough. I figured that if I wanted to play tabla for real, I’d have to practice it for hours a day, and I didn’t want to put that amount of time in. As I don’t like to do things by halves, I let it go,” he says.

But the experience was not wasted, as it influenced Abbasi’s musical outlook. “I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of hours of solo tabla recordings, I’ve been to concerts, and I’ve played tabla with Indian musicians. I know the science behind the music,” he explains.

Carnatic music and qawwali are religious forms of music, but Abassi, who is not a Muslim, says that musicians don’t have to be religious to play them. “The music can be detached from its religious roots,” he says. “It has a life of its own. The devotion inspired the music, but it exists in its own place. I wasn’t in a spiritual headspace while I was writing the music for Suno Suno – I was interested in how the music would come out. I was influenced by qawwali music, but not the belief system behind it.”

John McLaughlin, a guitarist noted for his work with jazz-rock group Mahavishnu Orchestra, famously experimented with Indian music in a group called Shakti. McLaughlin added extra strings over the sound hole of his guitar so they would resonate like those on a sitar. “I wasn’t influenced by John, although I appreciate what he did with Shakti,” Abbasi says. “I consider them an Indian group, rather than a jazz group. But they opened the door to the possibility of fortifying jazz music with Indian ideas.”

Abbasi’s major influence, he notes, is not a guitarist, but legendary saxophonist John Coltrane: “He is my number one. His music has touched people on so many levels. He can play a ballad that will move people, and later in life, he did some incredibly abstract pieces. He had a large scope of work, and that’s what I’m hoping for,” Abbasi says.