Abassi’s Fascinating “A Throw of Dice” Soundtrack

Rez Abbasi - A Throw of Dice-cover_

A THROW OF DICE / ABASSI: Mystery Rising. Hopeful Impressions. Love Prevails. Facing Truth. Amulet and Dagger. Seven Days Until News. Duplicity. Jugglers. Snake Bite. Moving Forward. Wedding Preparations. Morning of the Wedding. Gambling Debt. Boy Changes Fate. Falsehood. Changing Worlds. Chase for Liberation. True Home / Rez Abassi Silent Ensemble: Pawan Benjamin, t-sax/s-sax/fl/bansuri fl; Rohan Khrishnamurthy, mridangam/ ghatam/khanjira; Rez Abassi, gtr/el-gtr/el-sitar-gtr; Jennifer Vincent, bs/cel; Jake Goldbas, dm / Whirlwind Recordings (no number), available HERE

This very unusual album, due for release October 19, is actually a film score written for a silent movie, director Franz Osten’s Indian-German 1929 film A Throw of Dice (A Romance of India). The actual movie has been uploaded on YouTube, but is taken from a British copy with a very romantic-sounding score. Commissioned by David Spelman, Abassi’s intent was to focus on orchestration, “to showcase these influences within a small ensemble while keeping the score sonically interesting throughout.” He had to find “a group of musicians that were versatile enough to play and improvise on a variety of instruments and in a variety of stylistic frames.”

He certainly succeeded. The music here is nothing if not eclectic, constantly straddling the gap between Eastern and Western musical ideas, using such Western instruments as the electric guitar, bass and cello along with such Eastern ones as the mridangam, ghatam, khanjira and something new to me, the electric sitar-guitar (oh, how George Harrison would have loved that one!). You can hear this instrument at the beginning of track 3, Love Prevails.

Much of the music is through-composed and changes both tempo and time signature fairly often. It is not static music although it is also not loud or abrasive. I could easily visualize a viewer of the film who is musically inclined getting wrapped up in the musical progression; even in the opening track, the six-minute Mystery Rising, Abassi shifts key, tempo and time signature often enough to lose even the most attentive listener, yet never quite does so because at heart the music remains accessible while still being creative.

The rhythmic base alternates between a jazz beat and that of Middle Eastern music with a few twists and turns in between. In Facing Truth he uses a steady, uninflected 4/4 played by the bass for the first minute and a half, then suddenly has the tenor sax pick up this motif while the rhythm switches to Indian mode. At 2:30 the melody stops to allow for an Indian percussion solo before flute and guitar-sitar come in to offer their own contributions (some of it possibly improvised). Amulet and Dagger begins with low groans from the cello before moving into a free jazz passage played by Abassi on guitar and Pawan Benjamin on tenor sax. Abassi keeps the listener off-balance by tossing in further rhythmic shifts, pauses and stops in the music. It probably fits the film pretty well (of course, there’s no way I can watch the film on YouTube and still plays Abassi’s soundtrack—the two different soundtracks collide with each other), but even as a stand-alone suite the music is so unusual that you get sucked in.

There’s a bit of a rock beat in Blissful Moments, and this, of course, does not fit into the context of a 1929 film, but wow these modern jazz folks sure like their rock music. Happily, it doesn’t last long. Duplicity is one of the few tracks on the album that is repetitive and doesn’t contain much in the way of development.

One of the most interesting and arresting tracks is Jugglers, which features a sort of chase chorus between Abassi’s guitar and Benjamin’s soprano sax. Snake Bite is also interesting, opening with a flute lick that leads into a rhythmically amorphous passage played by Abassi and the rhythm section. Some of the effects produced here sound as if they were accomplished by running the tape backwards; perhaps he did. Moving Forward mixes a sort of gentle rock beat with Eastern sounds, while Wedding Preparation mixes it with jazz.  The latter is very interesting, however, for its shifting, asymmetric beats, with a fine soprano sax solo by Benjamin.

One could go into detail like this on every track in this fascinating album, but the listening experience is far better than my words could describe. It is, simply put, one of the most interesting and eclectic jazz albums of the year.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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