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It’s a rare jazz musician whose work earns its own name—and rarer still in an enthusiastic but small scene like D.C.’s. Yet Nasar Abadey—the District’s dominant jazz drummer, who performs this weekend at Bohemian Caverns with his Supernova ensemble—calls his music “Multi-D.” It locates its roots in the “spiritual jazz” movement that John Coltrane and his disciples developed in the ’60s and ’70s, but rarely stays there.
The sole Supernova album, 2000’s Mirage, mixes musical elements of bebop, Afro-Cuban and -Brazilian, fusion, funk, Eastern, and even new-age music atop its foundation of avant-garde intensity a la Coltrane. Abadey, a Cheverly resident and teacher at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, explains that the name “Multi-D” is derived from the music’s questing “in multiple directions, and also in and out of multiple dimensions at the same time.”
A devout Sufi—the mystical branch of the Islamic faith—Abadey finds in his music a means of communion with higher spiritual planes. “Sometimes I’m practicing down in the basement, all by myself, and I hear voices saying ‘Yeah! Yeah, go ‘head, yeah!'” he says. “I open my eyes and I look around…and no one’s there. And that, to me, is spirits in a spirit world who are communicating with me, and they are inspiring me to continue.” Still practicing every day, Abadey continues to develop nuance and experiment with color and texture in his sound. His latest development is to play just ahead of the beat—creating a feeling that the percussion pulls the music along—and, precisely opposite to jazz convention, keeps time on the skins and accents on the cymbals (a style he developed behind D.C. free-jazz artist Brother Ah).
As a composer, he insists that he is “still scratching the surface; I’m a baby at it,” but his output betrays an adult-size ambition: This summer he premiered his first large-scale work for jazz band and string quartet (aka “Supernova Chamber Orchestra”), the three-movement suite Diamond in the Rough, at D.C.’s Atlas Theater.
Abadey began his musical journey as a 4-year-old in Pittsburgh; he would join his grandfather marching in the Shriner parades downtown, where he fell in love with the drum sounds that he felt thumping in his chest. His interest grew after a move to Buffalo, where his older cousin, the bebop drummer Frankie Dunlop, first sat him down at a real kit. Before long, a friend of Frankie’s named Pete Epps became Abadey’s drum teacher and would loan him a set of drums for his earliest gigs.
“One night I had them set up in my living room,” Abadey recalls. “My mother was in the kitchen, unbeknownst to me, and heard me playing. After I had stopped she opened the door to the living room and said, ‘You know, I didn’t know you played drums like this.’ All she knew was that I had drumstricks, and I messed up the arms of her chair, her couch pillows, and the ironing board,” he laughs. Within a year, when he was 16, Abadey’s parents had bought him his own kit.
Miles Davis and Coltrane transformed Abadey, both with their legendary drummers (Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, respectively) and Coltrane with the ecstasy his modal jazz emitted. It was the direction he would follow for the next several years—most prominently in Birthright, the group he co-founded in 1973 with his longtime friends and fellow Buffalonians, saxophonists Paul Gresham and Joe Ford. Birthright’s two long-out-of-print albums, Free Spirits (1974) and Breath of Life (1976), show the heavy influence of Coltrane in their mantra-like repetitions, sheets of sound, and even a tune entitled “Jowcol,” named for John William Coltrane himself. Abadey can be heard combining Williams’ jittery, freeform cymbals and Jones’ explosive drum work with fusion grooves and frenzied accents of his own creation.
Moving to Washington in 1977, at age 30, Abadey found himself struggling to establish himself in the city’s jazz scene; in an effort to gig more often, he established Supernova. The name comes both from Wayne Shorter’s 1969 album and from the astronomical phenomenon and its ability to expand and contract—which Abadey wanted the band to do.
In its various configurations, from trio to big band, Supernova did indeed make Abadey’s name in D.C. Thirty-two years after his arrival, he is the go-to drummer for national and international headliners who come through; Abadey has played behind Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Cyrus Chestnut, and—just last week at the Kennedy Center—acclaimed singer Giacomo Gates.
Supernova is also, in whatever form it takes, one of the most consistently interesting acts in the District. Abadey, however, has consciously scaled back its appearances, in large part to allow for more time to assist his 18-year-old son, Kush, with his budding career. (Kush, who played this summer at Michelle Obama’s White House Jazz Concert, is now a freshman at Berklee School of Music).
But Abadey also wanted to create demand for Supernova by constraining supply. “When you perform too much in one area, it waters down your appeal and makes people not want to come out to see you,” he says. “Plus, the older I get the more important each quarter note becomes to me. I don’t want to waste any more quarter notes!”