REZ ABBASI GROUP featuring KIRAN Ahluwalia at the Rex Hotel (194 Queen West), Thursday and Friday (March 17 and 18), 9:30 pm. $7 (Thursday), $9 (Friday). 416-598-2475.
There have been many attempts at East-meets-West fusions since the psychedelic 60s, when even country producers were throwing in some sitar twang to spice up their sound with a little Indian flava. Yet even those experiments that went beyond the usual sitar-and-tabla dabbling for exotic effect rarely dealt with anything other than the textural and scalar aspects of the music. That's where New York's downtown jazz scene guitarist Rez Abbasi comes in.
While some might be familiar with Abbasi's formidable improvisational chops, and others know him for his tasteful acoustic support work for forward-looking ghazal singer Kiran Ahluwalia, Abbasi's latest recording, Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds), with his enhanced organ trio - involving keyboardist Gary Versace and percussionist Danny Weiss - is an ambitious attempt at a true Indo-jazz hybrid that employs the rhythmic and harmonic elements of both forms to create something new.
"I've bought a few of those Indo-jazz fusion recordings, but none of them ever really worked for me," says Abbasi from his New York home. "The problem is that I haven't heard a successful confluence of Indian and jazz music.
"Some people have compared what I'm doing to Shakti, and they're a great band - John McLaughlin is a monster guitarist - but they're not really dealing with harmonic issues and free exchanges. With my music, I want to hold onto the traditional aspects of each form and unite the best elements of both. Through my use of a sitar-guitar along with the great voice of Kiran Ahluwalia, we've been able to deal more with the colouristic component of Indian music and break through some boundaries."
It's really that use of the electric sitar-guitar hybrid as a lead instrument that sets Abbasi's project apart from the rest of the Indo-jazz crowd.
Although it may be seen by some as a cheap gimmick, for Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Los Angeles listening to Van Halen and Rush while playing guitar in a high school rock band, it's an essential part of his unique cultural exchange program.
"It's not simply an electric sitar - it's really it's own instrument, which is what I like about it. In becoming more familiar with it, I felt I could use it on Snake Charmer as just another instrumental voice, like a tenor saxophonist might use a soprano sax.
"I'm still experimenting with manipulating the instrument in different ways to try and come up with new sounds. I want to see just how far I can take it. We have to take risks if we want this music to progress."
Ahluwalia 's involvement in the project appears to have been directed by fate. Evidently, they connected so well during the recording, their collaboration continued outside of the studio. They were married in December.
"As I was starting to think about trying to find someone to sing on Snake Charmer," chuckles Abbasi, "I got an e-mail from Kiran saying she was looking for a guitarist to play in her band. It's just one of those things. I guess it was meant to happen." email@example.com