Asia Society will premier a jazz powerhouse this month in the form of Rez Abbasi’s Unfiltered Universe, who will be “exploring Carnatic classical music from Southern India through the idiom of jazz.” The shows take place Thursday-Friday, December 15-16, 2016 at 8:00pm, and the band is comprised of Rez Abbasi (guitar), Vijay Iyer (piano), Rudresh Mahanthappa (saxophone), Johannes Weidenmueller (bass), Dan Weiss (drums), and Elizabeth Means (cello).
We recently chatted with Abbasi about the project and more. See what transpired below…
With a lineup like this, I’m sure it’s difficult to find time in everyone’s schedules to make it work. What is so special about the project that entices these busy musicians to make the time?
You are right about the time issue. I never posed such a question to them because it’s somewhat rhetorical. Our third album is coming out in 2017 and that tells me enough. I think the compositions contain a lot of character and at the same time, I allow each player to shine and say what they want and so that makes for a win win situation. People often leave groups when the leader is overbearing or when the music doesn’t breathe, both of which are never a problem with any of my groups.
How did Iyer and Mahanthappa, two modern beasts, come to be involved with this project?
I agree with you that they are “modern beasts” but will add that everyone in the band is on equal musical footing. I played with Rudresh when he first came to town some 15 years ago I’m guessing and soon after he put together a couple bands that he called me to play in. One is Indo-Pak Coalition and the other is Kinsmen. I also began using him with my organ project, on an album called Bazaar. Eventually hearing more of Vijay through Rudresh’s quartet and Vijay’s own, I realized I had to write some music with them in mind. I had already been playing with Dan in my organ trio and Johannes came to mind because I played with him in Dave Pietro’s group. They are all rhythmical monsters and brilliant orchestrators of improvised and written music and so I knew it would be magical. With the addition of guests Kiran Ahluwalia on Hindustani vocal on our debut, Things to Come and Elizabeth Means on cello for our latest Unfiltered Universe (out 2017) the textural possibilities have been limitless.
Sonically, what are you trying to accomplish with Unfiltered Universe?
I’ve had a lot of experiences playing with and listening to Carnatic, South Indian classical music. I have a long ways to go but been lucky to sit with a number of Carnatic musicians and dancers. If even by osmoses I’ve picked up on the vibration of that music, it served to influence my compositional output. With this new project, I made an effort to pull from that influence. I call the project Unfiltered Universe simply because the Carnatic influence doesn’t override all my previous influences. In other words, it’s not so overt that a listener of jazz will be able to point out the influence. On the other hand a listener of Carnatic music might be able to grab onto a rhythmical figure, or an ornament or scale influenced from the Carnatic world. Jazz listeners, however, will hear surprises…
Why will Asia Society be a special spot for these performances?
I am honored to be presenting this particular project at Asia Society. One reason is that my introduction to the venue was through performing a series of concerts with Rudresh’s Kinsmen project, so it has personal history. Also Vijay performed one of his large projects there several years ago. The Asia Society continues to be an international hub for a number of asian artists who seek to evolve their art form. And for Asian-americans, we’ve found a unique home to present our art based on a multicultural upbringing and that should be celebrated. I’ve also seen a number of talks and other music concerts there so it holds a special place in my heart and mind.
Tickets are $20 for Asia Society members; $25 for students/seniors; and $30 for nonmembers. More information and tickets are available at AsiaSociety.org/NYC. To reach the Asia Society Box Office, please call 212-517-2742 between the hours of 1 pm and 5 pm EST Monday through Friday. Both performances will be broadcast live at AsiaSociety.org/LIVE.