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Rez Abbasi's Invocation a.k.a. "Brown Radio"

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH
photo of Abbasi's Invocation (missing J. Weidenmueller) and KRTU Staff

A radio was playing on stage, likely backstage, for about half of Rez Abbasi's Invocation's set last Sunday, November 9. The folks in the first few rows could hear it pretty clearly (and in quieter moments, you could hear it all the way in the back). It took awhile to track down its source, adding a little extra something else to the performance of Abbasi's 2011 album Suno Suno in full, Rock the Bells-style.1 Invocation, the band arranged by guitarist Rez Abbasi and includes pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist David Binney (replacing Rudresh Mahanthappa), bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, and percussionist Michael Sarin (replacing Dan Weiss), more than adeptly handled the torrent of written material -- it was a music stand kind of show -- at the McAllister Auditorium at San Antonio College. Abbasi joked that it was part of the performance; "Brown Radio", he called it. It was one of quite a few light moments in the midst of some heavy material.

Sunday's show was, as previously stated, a performance of Abbasi's Suno Suno, a jazz instrumental reinterpretation of Pakistani Sufi qawwali music which is typically vocal in form but for this quintet involved a lot of interweaving melodies. It took a little while to warm up into this, though. In the afternoon's first song, "Thanks for Giving", Abbasi seemed to have a cleaner sound, every note clear as a bell, while there were many of them but not overwhelmingly so, clearly ringing out, making for a sharp contrast for Iyer's trademark freneticism. However, this didn't last too long as everyone in the band (except for perhaps bassist Weidenmueller acting as a steady anchor for the whole set) moved into a more swirling sound. Once things got up and running and Abbasi's distortion pedal got involved, it was time to settle in.

And what a ride this band can take. Just watching Vijay Iyer (who has the busiest right hand ring finger in the biz) and percussionist Michael Sarin, a contender for guy having the most obvious fun on stage, riff together was worth the price of admission alone. Saxophonist David Binney throughout the set had many moments where it seemed he had so much to say and played just the right amount, certainly enough for the shower of notes this music evokes but never too much so as to become grating. It seemed that quite often these songs were on the cusp of being overwhelming, yet the quintet had a clear hold on things, gripping the audience, mostly patrons of San Antonio arts organization Musical Bridges Around the World. In fact, this may have been one of the best attended jazz concerts MBAW has presented in recent memory. However, what may have been the pinnacle of the performance in the midst of a particularly foggy moment during "Overseas" when the quintet was just sort of vamping, watching Michael Sarin bang around on his kit, switching from brushes to sticks to mallots, facilitating the transfer by holding his tools in his mouth for brief moments like a dog with a bone, dude was invested and all over the place in all the right ways. It's worth saying again-- Michael Sarin was having more fun than anyone that Sunday afternoon, which is hard to say because it was certainly fun for the audience to watch.

Ultimately, this was a rather complex performance but nothing this crowd couldn't handle. It was a set tethered to music stands ("I have to apologize for us looking at all this music but there's no way we can memorize all this stuff," Abbasi quipped.) but still quite free. It was a good mix of Eastern music but squarely in the jazz pocket. It was perfect for a Musical Bridges show, melding cultures together for a most appreciative crowd. San Antonio truly got a world class performance. "Brown Radio" indeed-- not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

1.Though I believe "Nusrat' and "Monuments" may have flip-flopped order.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.