The New York City guitarist Rez Abbasi dropped into Dizzy's in San Diego on Feb. 15, unveiling his latest project, a quartet featuring vibraphone master Bill Ware, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson, which is dedicated to re-examining music from the jazz-rock-fusion era of the 1970s -- through the prism of acoustic instruments.
Crump’s growling whole-notes defined the loose vamp setting up Billy Cobham’s "Red Baron," a delicious groove that Ware jumped on first, using four mallets to stir up resonant clouds of harmony. Abbasi followed with a very staccato attack, toggling between bluesy repetitions and long, improvised strands.
Weather Report's "Black Market" was next, almost totally transformed by means of instrumentation, yet still wholly identifiable. Ware represented an infinite stream of melodic development and a wicked rhythmic hookup with McPherson, who dialed up a constant whir of explosive motion. Abbasi has a way of outlining the harmonic contours without leaning on bebop cliches, even though his improvisation did swing in a highly personal way.
The dark, suspended mystery of Herbie Hancock's "Butterfly" made for an irresistible drama, from Abbasi's multinote strikes to the almost cinematic expanse of Ware's virtuoso turn. McPherson laid down a rimshot soliloquy above which Crump layered thick bow textures to set up Pat Martino's "Joyous Lake," a soaring essay of blistering solos fed by the constant churn of the drums.
"Resolution," by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was almost unrecognizable, stripped of a key riff and the general bombast of the original. The piece began as a duet between Abbasi and Crump, who plowed resonant pizzicato pitches and eerie bowing near the bridge. "Medieval Overture" came off far better and more relaxed than the Return to Forever version, capitalizing on the scathing interaction between Ware and McPherson, but it was Crump's totally "out" feature with the bow that really characterized what made this concert and concept so successful.
Fusion hasn’t aged as well over the years as other movements in the music -- the overreliance on showoff techniques and trendy technology earned the genre some serious taint -- but lost in the pretension and glitter was some truly beautiful music. Abbasi's somewhat "unplugged" distillation of these tunes is a breath of fresh air. It's rare when a trip down memory lane adds anything new -- but that’s exactly what happened for me at this concert with these stripped-down versions of tunes not universally regarded as classics. In the hands of Abbasi and company, a reassessment is due.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.