Rez Abbasi's Invocation doesn't get around much -- partly because its guitar-shredding leader has so many other projects on the bubble‚ and partly due to the time & gig demands of two other members: Pianist Vijay Iyer‚ whose 2012 release Accelerando is at or near the top of just about everybody's Top 10 Jazz Releases list; and altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa‚ who has a raft of his own projects to tend to‚ most notably his upcoming bombshell release Gamak. (Watch this space for words of wonder and praise.)
So when the quintet decided to hold a "reunion" in the cozy confines of the Cornelia Street Café‚ I abandoned the raft of amazing groups populating the West Village's Winter Jazz Festival‚ bundled up against a driving rainstorm‚ and ran across West 6th Street as fast as I could. The downstairs concert space was jammed from the stage to the stairwell‚ and most of us watched in bemusement as bassist Johannes Weidenmuller attempted to re-set the heavy red curtain that separated the stage from Cornelia Street's "green room."
"See the joys of being a jazz musician‚" Abbasi deadpanned‚ tongue firmly in cheek.
"A jazz musician in New York City‚" Mahanthappa added‚ off-mic.
With the decorative issues settled‚ the band gathered itself and Abbasi played the first notes of "Thanks for Giving." Mahanthappa came in after one measure‚ echoing Abbasi's spare melody line‚ and then the rest of the band came in hard and strong on the muscular opener to Invocation's 2011 Enja release Suno Suno. Mahanthappa stayed with the melody while Abbasi threw in sharp-edged harmony‚ and then Iyer took off on the kind of powerful‚ percussive solo we've come to expect from him. Weidenmuller poured a perfect foundation as Dan Weiss gave an explosive drum clinic for the young student sitting across from me. For his part‚ the student spent most of the 70-minute set in the same pose: Head cocked‚ eyes down‚ one ear towards the stage‚ obviously listening like mad… and there was a lot to listen to!
Abbasi's compositions on Suno Suno -- four of which made up the entire Cornelia Street set -- are inspired by Pakistani Qawwli music. According to Abbasi‚ Qawwli was "originally sung by Sufi mystics in order to give praise to a higher power… or God‚ if you will." Pair that up with Mahanthappa's own approach to jazz (which has elements of the Indian classical Carnatic form) and Iyer's next-level piano skills‚ and the harmonic result is something that sounds like nothing you can name. Try as you might‚ this square peg won't fit in any round hole: The dissonance and discord evokes avant-garde "free jazz‚" but the overall direction is too defined‚ while simply throwing it into the World Music bin is nothing but a cop-out.
Take Abbasi's in-the-clear opening to "Onus on Us‚" which had loops and feedback washing over us from the jump‚ working up to a righteous run that played forwards but sounded backwards. ("Yeah‚ Rez‚" Mahanthappa said approvingly as the band came in for the head.) The technology is all over everywhere nowadays‚ but Abbasi's approach is solely his own. Then there was Mahanthappa wringing every possible note out of his axe on the epic "Monuments"; maybe the piece was rooted in the Middle East‚ but Mahanthappa had me flashing back on a death-defying soprano-sax solo Dave Leibman served up in concert for Miles Davis' On the Corner-era band. Iyer added dark accents to another Abbasi moment in the clear by plucking piano strings with his left hand‚ and his hushed opening on "Monuments" set a meditative tone that was in complete contrast to the house-crushing monster the piece comes to be. In short‚ these guys think differently‚ and the music is better (and more unique) for it.
The swirling closer "Overseas" put a driving exclamation point on the set‚ as Iyer set up Mahanthappa's final fusillade with a solo that absolutely killed. Having seen Mahanthappa blow up the house two years before at Lake George Jazz Weekend‚ I just sat back‚ smiled‚ and watched him flow & go as Abbasi switched between fingerpicking and chording‚ Iyer comped liked a demon‚ Weiss went even bigger than before‚ and Weidenmuller found notes below the bridge of his bass. Four songs‚ 70 minutes‚ and not a moment that wasn't on point… and it doesn't get any better than that.
It may seem like an incidental detail‚ but it's not just the tremendous musical chemistry that makes Rez Abbasi's Invocation such a next-level experience -- it's that these guys really like each other‚ and that comes across with and without the music.
"You didn't plug my gig‚" Mahanthappa playfully chided Abbasi before "Overseas."
"I didn't need to plug your gig‚ man‚" Abbasi laughed. "That's gonna be packed!"
See what I'm saying? Other gigs‚ other projects… and that's why I ran through the rain to catch this show‚ because who knows when it'll happen again?