Rez Abbasi ‘Django-shift’ LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

One of the defining characteristics of a Rez Abbasi recording is surely his ability to weave threads from contrasting musical traditions and genres into a simultaneously familiar yet new sound. Over fifteen album releases the guitarist has found many ways to achieve this creative goal. His 2005 release Snake Charmer’s melding together of Indian music and jazz for example or his acoustic variations on jazz-rock themes from his band RAAK to his more recent soundtrack for the silent classic of Indian cinema: A Throw of the Dice or Suno Suno from 2011 which saw his group Invocation explore Qawali, the spiritual music of Pakistan. Of his fifteen releases, this is the third for Whirlwind Recordings as leader. Interestingly he also played on Michael Janisch’s 2019 Whirlwind album Worlds Collide.

Abbasi’s background has played its part in his musical approach. Born in Karachi in the mid-60s his family moved to California before the decade was out. He describes how he gradually became conscious of the cultural contrasts between his adopted country and his place of birth on extended visits to Pakistan as he grew up. He’s been New York-based for 25 years.

On his most recent release, Django-shift from August 2020 Abbasi surprises by giving another twist to the genre. This time he’s taken the compositions of Django Reinhardt as his starting point. His stated aim is to retain Django’s compositional character while infusing the music with his own compositional voice. He goes on to explain he kept the melodies intact as a foundation on which to build his voice in the form of harmony, meter changes and texture. Abbasi says ‘one of the strongest feelings I get from Django’s music is euphoria but I also enjoy the darker phenomena of the music’. Fascinatingly he also heard connections between the music of Reinhardt and Monk, in particular, the ‘joy and bounce within their styles’, so he set about arranging Django’s tunes with Thelonious Monk in mind.

On the recording, Abbasi is joined by Neil Alexander (organ, electronics and synthesisers) with Michael Sarin (drums). Of the nine tracks, seven are Reinhardt compositions, the remaining two: September Song and Anniversary Song are tunes chosen because of their strong association with Reinhardt.

Abbasi is possibly playing with audience expectations on the album’s opener ‘Diminishing’ with a teasingly smooth guitar sound and the familiar Django melody but pretty soon the tune’s familiarity is dismantled and reassembled with equal weight given to Alexander’s keyboards. This veers between something resembling a 60s organ trio and a prog’ rock-inflected riff to a sound reminiscent of a fairground Wurlitzer. The aural associations are multiple but enticingly hard to place, making for an exhilarating listening experience; this is true throughout the whole album.

On ‘Heavy Artillery’ Monk’s essence is most definitely in mind and expressed in the funkiness of the keyboard part which leads the tune. Abbasi’s guitar plays a supporting role for most of the track only coming to the fore in an exquisite solo during the songs concluding quarter.

After eight tracks of musical inventiveness the album eases its way out with a variation on Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’; its low key with beautifully layered organ textures which gives Abbasi’s guitar part the frequency its low register needs to fully occupy the space. It’s the perfect way to round off this project but I’m left wanting more, so it’s time to dust off my only Django LP and listen again, this time from a new perspective.

James Read