- Anniversary Song
- Swing 42
Rez Abbasi has established an enviable reputation over the course of his fourteen album releases as leader: not simply as one of the finest guitarists of his generation, but also as a musical alchemist with the ability to parlay his continent-crossing range of influences into consistently fresh and innovative compositions and reframings of the tradition. His deep musicality has been applied with equal conviction to contemporary New York acoustic jazz, the Qawwali and Indian Classical traditions of South Asia and the heady fusion sounds of the 1970s, each time applying the filter of his own musical personality to deliver inimitable results. Commissioned to present a project on Django Reinhardt from the Freight & Salvage’s Django Festival in California, he boldly redefined his engagement by turning the focus away from Django, the codifier of the Sinti guitar vocabulary, and onto Django, the composer. For Django-shift Abbasi keenly listened to Django’s full catalogue of music before choosing seven of his original pieces and two classic tunes that Django was greatly associated with. The arrangements were soon created for a contemporary trio format, with Neil Alexander on organ and electronics and Michael Sarin on drums. The results give a fascinating and original insight into an often overlooked attribute of Django’s genius.
Abbasi has kept Djangos’ melodies intact and then infused each piece with his own compositional voice, adding elements of metric and harmonic expansion and allowing his collaborators room to add their own personalities to the mix. “Neil tells a story when he improvises – he has a storehouse of musical knowledge but never just plays licks, which has always been central in my own approach to improvising. I’ve been playing with Michael for 25 years and he remains one of my favourite drummers. Both are very creative in how they sustain yet depart from various musical traditions, which is what it’s all about for me. I live that!”
‘Diminishing’ is couched in a 6/8 feel and viewed through the lens of Abbasi’s profound engagement with another great jazz composer, Thelonious Monk. “When I was working on Django-shift I was also immersed in Robin Kelley’s book on Thelonious Monk. It influenced me in surprising ways and I started hearing connections in their compositions. There’s a joy and bounce within both their styles so I approached arranging a few of Django’s tunes with Monk in mind.” For ‘Swing 42’ Abbasi created an opaque bass line in a 7 beat cycle as a counterpoint to the more direct melody before positioning the band towards a freer section for the solos, climaxing in a rhythmic contraction inspired by Carnatic music. ‘Heavy Artillery’ has a folk-like chordal guitar intro before moving into the solid blues-tinged main theme, while ‘Django’s Castle’ is enlivened by altered harmony and the characterful voices of Abbasi’s otherworldly fretless guitar playing and Alexander’s scintillating synth solo. ‘Anniversary Song’ was a favourite of Django’s, here re-presented with a very contemporary breakdown and a natural-sounding odd-meter groove: “I wanted to capture the forward momentum of classic swing, but not with a straight four-to-the-floor feel.” The band delivers ‘Cavalerie’ with a deceptively simple mid-tempo reading, though Abbasi adds his own personality through subtle rhythmic and harmonic extensions, while the normally up-tempo ‘Douce Ambience’ unfolds beautifully as a newly arranged ballad. ‘Hungaria’ expresses the playful nature of the band’s approach with camouflaged metrical shifts and rousing, joyful solo trades and an impressive feature for Sarin. To conclude, Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’ is transformed into a textural duo on fretless guitar and organ with the subtlest of rubatos for a memorable sign-off.
By radically recontextualising the compositions, Abbasi has taken his own journey towards the essence of Django’s music. “One of the stronger feelings I get from Django’s music is euphoria, and I resonate deeply with that, but equally enjoy the darker phenomena of music – both sides of the coin! I didn’t realize how prolific a composer Django was until working on this recording because the focus had always been on his heroic playing. I hope Django-shift introduces this aspect of his genius to a broader audience that may have also been hypnotized by his playing.” These unique interpretations, alive with imaginative compositional interpolations and inspired improvisations, reframe this timeless music for the modern age.