South Asian American Jazz Quintet Explores Carnatic Genre

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A group of jazz musicians with a distinctly South Asian inflection, will be heard at Asia Society in Manhattan performing a new sound that combines Carnatic music and western jazz. Their program will be webcast live to reach a wider audience Jan. 23.

Pakistani-born jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi’s quintet, Invocation, featuring Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, perform live at Asia Society’s New York City venue, unveiling a new project that explores Carnatic classical music from Southern India through the idiom of jazz. This is the final installment in a triptych made by Abbasi that puts a jazz lens on the musical traditions of South Asia. Invocation previously explored Hindustani music and qawwali in a pair of critically acclaimed recordings.

Abbasi, along with Iyer and Mahanthappa, is one of a trio of jazz musicians who are forging distinctly South Asian-inflected voices on the contemporary scene, said Asia Society on its website. Abbasi is one of the foremost guitar players in modern jazz, a product of the Manhattan School of Music. Early in his career he made a pilgrimage to India to study with tabla master Ustad Alla Rakha, father of Zakir Hussain. The mission of Invocation’s music, Abbasi declares, is “to create a global-based music steeped in jazz. This tradition follows in the footsteps of some of the greatest jazz musicians. Coltrane, Ellington, and Gillespie all immersed themselves in music from around the world.”

Iyer and Mahanthappa are renowned their music. Iyer is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University. Mahanthappa is a New York-based alto saxophonist and composer who “hybridizes progressive jazz and South Indian classical music in a fluid and forward-looking form reflecting his own experience growing up a second-generation Indian-American,” says his website. Mahanthappa has been awarded a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and commissions from the Rockefeller Foundation MAP Fund, Chamber Music America and the American Composers Forum. He has been named alto saxophonist of the year in Downbeat’s International Critics Polls, Jazztimes’ Critics Polls and by the Jazz Journalists’ Association numerous times.

Abbasi’s music has been well received. “Abbasi creates a sinuous, sometimes haunting, and always evocative blend of contemporary jazz and Asian influences,” a review in Time Out New York said. His music is “neither Eastern nor Western, but effortlessly global … proof that jazz can be as vital and boundary-pushing as ever,” said the music news outlet All About Jazz. Abbasi recently placed in the Top-Ten “best guitarists” in Down Beat’s International Critics Poll.