Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet - Intents and Purposes
(Enja Records. ENJ9621-2. CD review by Rob Mallows
Jazz-fusion without electric instruments? It sounds counter-intuitive. Like bacon without eggs, something’s missing. It’s the sound power, the rock-influenced beats and bass tone that fans are drawn to. Take that away and what are you left with? Well, judging by this acoustic album by Pakistan-born, California-raised, New York-based guitarist Rez Abbasi, what you’re left with is simply great tunes with a different flavour.
In this jazz-fusion lite format, the Rez Abassi Acoustic Quartet (RAAQ) - Abassi on guitar, Bill Ware on vibes, Stephan Crump on acoustic bass and Eric McPherson on drums, formed in 2010 - demonstrates that, plugged in or not, the emergence of jazz-fusion and jazz-rock in the ’seventies led to some unforgettable tunes. Many of them are on this album.
Abbasi, who was last seen in the UK as a member of the Kiran Ahluwalia Group, and also plays in Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak, comes to these tunes fresh, having had little interest in jazz-fusion in his career. That unfamiliarity gives him leeway to interpret the themes in each of the tracks. In reviewing this album, I went back to the source and listened to the originals again. For listeners familiar with the originals, this album might jar at first listen. With Abbasi's acoustic guitar to the fore, tracks that were previously piano or sax focused, such as Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly from his 1976 Thrust album, have a sparser feel when compared with the sharper tone of the original.
In truth, not every translation by Abbasi is a success: his version of Pat Martino’s Joyous Lake loses something without the original’s electronic keyboard’s expansive presence. Yet on the whole, the RAAQ does justice to the chosen tracks and demonstrates why each has earned its place in the jazz canon. Their interpretation of Return to Forever’s Medieval Overture is so different from the original track that it becomes almost an original tune in itself, even though the superstructure of Corea’s original remains apparent. The two best tunes on this album are Billy Cobham’s memorable Red Baron, which loses none of the original's funk as Bill Ware’s vibes fill in the thinner sound of the acoustic bass and guitar; and Joe Zawinul’s Black Market, on which Abbasi’s flowing guitar lines bring out the original melody beautifully.
In interpreting some of the greatest tunes in jazz-fusion, Abbasi’s taken on a big challenge. The album is not perfect, but on the whole he gets it right. This is not simply a lazy re-hash but a full-blown reinterpretation: with the acoustic sound replacing the surface electronic identity of the originals, the end result is satisfyingly challenging.