Rez Abassi and Vijay Iyer transform jazz

Rez Abbasi - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Rez Abbasi

Last Sunday's concert at McAllister Auditorium, Invocation, was the brainchild of jazz composer and guitarist Rez Abassi, who brilliantly used the Pakistani Sufi musical form, qawwali, as a palette to color American jazz with subcontinental moods. He was accompanied by Grammy nominated Vijay Iyer on piano, the soulful Dave Binney on saxophone, and the highly versatile Michael Sarin on drums. Johannes Weidenmueller provided a velvety backdrop to the flowing sounds on bass. The artists were hosted by Musical Bridges Around the World, a non-profit dedicated to enhancing San Antonio’s cultural landscape through scintillating musical performances from around the world. I had an opportunity to speak with Abassi and Iyer about their music.

Both musicians draw inspirations from traditional Pakistani and Indian music, and apply them to jazz; their parents were part of the first large wave of South Asian immigrants to arrive in the U.S. Abassi regularly uses these influences from the subcontinent to stretch the expression of his guitar playing to produce sitar-like sounds, and is known for employing what he calls “emotional listening” to get into the spirit of the music. He also collaborates with his wife on arranging her poetic ghazals by applying jazz’s harmonic structures to this otherwise melody- and rhythmic-centered South Asian musical form.

“While there is a lot of science in terms of technique and theory to my jazz music, it should ultimately move you and be emotionally potent, and that can only come from an organic process,” said Abassi.

Continuing the theme of staying organic in the creative process, Iyer added, “This art form is really about being yourself and being true to who you are and to your heritage, but it is also about creating something new.” Iyer provided deeper context on the identity exploration he, Abassi, and other South Asian jazz musicians grappled with while growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in America. “It is in that context I met Rez,” Iyer said. “We have all of these common experiences by virtue of being brown in America and being from the same subcontinent. It’s been about furthering that line of inquiry and becoming more ourselves, and it’s been nice to collaborate with someone who has a slightly different orientation and learn his music and grow into it.”

In retrospect, my conversation with Iyer and  Abassi did much for my understanding of the concert. The glorious trance-like dips the music would sometimes take, suddenly made sense because qawwali music is meant to achieve a meditative state of mind, and has deep Sufi philosophy embedded in it. At times, it appeared as though several artists were pursuing their own solos simultaneously, producing a slightly cacophonous slice of sound — a quality I later learned was inherent in qawwali music.

Abassi and Iyer will continue to work together, as well as on individual projects ranging from the newly created Rez Abassi Trio, heavily featuring his revolutionary guitar skills, to Iyer’s collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava on a live soundtrack for the upcoming film, Radhe Radhe.

For information about upcoming Musical Bridges Around the World concerts, visit

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