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Shez Raja - Journey to Shambhala Rating: 4 out of 5 A well balanced group performance where the ensemble playing is key. Raja's bass is at the heart of the music and his writing exhibits a growing compositional maturity,

Shez Raja

“Journey to Shambhala”

Raja Records RR001)

Shez Raja (electric bass),Monika Lidke (vocals), Pascal Roggen (violin), Alex Stanford (piano, keyboards), Vasilis Xenopoulos (saxophones) and Chris Nickolls (drums) with guests Trilok Gurtu (tabla, konnakol, djembe, cajon), Wayne Krantz (electric guitar).


Shez Raja is a British-Asian bass player and composer, originally from the Wirral but now based in London. He began playing classical violin at the age of nine before switching to electric bass at thirteen. After studying at Leeds College of Music Raja became an in demand session musician, his credits covering genres ranging from folk to hip-hop. Among those he has played with are the bands Elephant Talk and Loka plus the hip-hop artist MC Lyte.

Raja formed his regular working band, or Collective, in 2007 and subsequently released three studio albums, “Magica” (2007) “Ten Of Wands” (2008) and Mystic Radikal” (2010). The line-up has included some of the best UK based jazz musicians, among them saxophonist Andy Sheppard and trumpeter Claude Deppa.

Raja is something of a showman and has established an excellent reputation for the exciting qualities of his live appearances. In 2017 I was fortunate enough to enjoy an electrifying performance by him and the Collective at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny.

In 2014 Raja released the album “Soho Live” recorded over the course of several appearances at London’s famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. Besides Raja’s regular Collective the album also included contributions from illustrious guests such as saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and Soweto Kinch, clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings and trumpeter Jay Phelps.

The studio album “Gurutopia” was released in 2016 on the New York based Dot Time label and featured guest appearances from two leading American jazz musicians, trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist Mike Stern. The involvement of these two big name guests represented quite a coup for Raja and helped to ensure that his reputation continued to grow, both in the UK and internationally.

Raja’s latest album, the first to be released on his own record label, features two more famous international guests, the Indian percussionist and vocalist Trilok Gurtu and the American guitarist Wayne Krantz. These two join Raja’s regular Collective members comprising of Monika Lidke (vocals), Pascal Roggen (violin), Alex Stanford (piano, keyboards), Vasilis Xenopoulos (saxophones) and Chris Nickolls (drums).

“Journey to Shambhala” is a semi conceptual affair with Raja’s liner notes describing the inspirations behind the music thus;
“The music on this album is inspired by a short story that I wrote called ‘Journey to Shambhala’. It tells the tale of a young man who embarks on a journey to discover the mystical city of Shambhala. He has a wild experience of excitement, danger, friendships, love and deceit but ultimately this tale about the pursuit of happiness holds the message that, as in life, the journey often holds as much wonder as the destination.
The story was partly inspired by travels with my family to the Punjab region of the Indian sub-continent as a young boy, where I immersed myself in the musical culture of my South Asian roots.
My vision for this record was to merge my rich musical heritage with my diverse playing experiences to create exciting and passionate music that blends East with West. I wanted to create an authentic and distinctive sound and was delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with the Indian percussion guru Trilok Gurtu and legendary guitarist Wayne Krantz.”

The album booklet tells the tale of the fictional Raj, a young poet and artist, who dreams of discovering the mystical city of Shambhala. Against his mother’s wishes, but with the support of his father, he sets off to find it. On the evening before his departure a farewell party is held in his village, with singing and dancing throughout the night. This first part of the story finds musical expression in the form of the album’s opening track, itself called “Shambhala”. This is a lively piece, propelled by hard driving grooves and featuring the core Collective. Indian melodies combine with Western rock rhythms and there’s even a hint of Jamaican dub reggae in the mix. Electric and acoustic sounds combine, with Stanford’s keyboards playing a prominent role.

Raj sets forth the following day, befriending Abdul, a merchant that he meets on his travels. The pair decide to journey together but they are ambushed by a group of robbers. After fighting them off they capture one robber, but the two friends disagree about how to treat him. Eventually he is released, but a rift is formed between the Raj and Abdul
This series of adventures is chronicled in the track “Dharma Dance” with its deep bass grooves and exotic percussive rhythms, courtesy of guest Gurtu, who also adds the distinctive sounds of konnakol, or vocal percussion.

Raj and Abdul meet a young woman named Lakshmi who is also searching for Shambhala. Lakshmi’s late uncle was an astronomer and she tells Raj about the star constellations that signal the way to Shambhala. A relationship begins to blossom between Raj and Lakshmi which finds expression in the tune “Lakshmi”.
Following the all out energy of the two opening numbers this piece offers something of a pause for breath with its drifting melodies featuring the soaring wordless vocals of Lidke. There’s a delightfully melodic and liquid electric bass solo from the leader before a second episode of konnakol from Gurtu, who also features on tabla.

Abdul takes Raj and Lakshmi to the home of one of his friends. Their hosts drug Raj and Lakshmi, who experience intense visions and hallucinations. When they wake they find that they have been imprisoned by Abdul, who is jealous of their burgeoning relationship.
The track “Get Cosmic” illustrates this episode and is an appropriately intense piece of music with Stanford’s synths providing some suitably psychedelic noises. Elsewhere there are some powerful rock influenced grooves, with drummer Nickolls in particularly impressive form. His dynamic playing helps to fuel a feverishly inventive guitar solo from guest Wayne Krantz while the leader also features strongly on heavily distorted, guitar like, electric bass.

The couple escape from their captors by jumping from the window of their prison tower into the river below, swimming to safety before collapsing unconscious on the river bank. They awake the following day in a hidden cave on the far side of the river, but with no knowledge of how they got there.
The composition “Epiphany” chronicles this section of the story with Lidke again supplying wordless vocals and with Roggen adding an airy violin solo. Both Gurtu and Krantz make guest appearances, with the guitarist giving the piece a considerable boost with his high octane, turbo charged soloing.

On leaving the cave Raj and Lakshmi encounter an old guru in a hooded cloak who gifts them the white elephant that he was riding. The couple ride the elephant, named Airavata, across the desert towards Shambhala, eventually stopping at an oasis.
The bass and drum rhythms of “Guru’s Gift” initially suggest the gait of the elephant. Melodies float above the rhythmic undertow with Lidke’s soaring vocal complemented by the sounds of sax, violin and organ.

The couple press on into a forested region where they set up camp. Raj wakes to find that Lakshmi is missing and finds that she has been abducted by a group of sun worshippers and taken to their temple. Raj and Airavata storm the temple and battle with the sun worshippers, helped by a mysterious masked warrior whose involvement gives Raj and Lakshmi time to escape, although the elephant, Airavata, is killed.
“Battle of the Sun Temple” is a suitably frenetic piece of music with some typically robust bass and drum grooves topped off by some slippery, darting instrumental melody lines courtesy of Roggen, Xenopoulos and Stanford, with the latter adding a surging synthesiser solo .Raja himself solos on heavily treated electric bass, his use of extreme electronic effects being a characteristic of his playing throughout the album, sometimes to the bemusement of the listener!

Raj and Lakshmi continue their journey and eventually arrive at the mystical city of Shambhala, only to find it in ruins. Nevertheless Raj realises that he has found what he was looking for, his soul-mate Lakshmi. The couple declare their love for each other and decide to marry. They are joined at Shambhala by Raj’s father, who has followed them throughout their journey. It was he who took them to the cave and was both the guru and the masked warrior. All three return to Raj’s home village for the wedding, turning the village into their own Shambhala.
The final piece, “Devotion”, gathers together the loose ends of the story and the mood of the piece is one of thankfulness and acceptance. Commencing with the sound of acoustic piano the piece has a calming, gently lilting and lyrical quality with Lidke’s pure, wordless vocals taking the lead as Stanford, Roggen and Xenopoulos add delightful melodic flourishes, the last named also adding a full length saxophone solo.

But even now the story isn’t quite over as the album comes with no fewer than three bonus tracks.  The British DJ and re-mixer Happy Cat Jay, something of a rising star in his field, contributes three re-workings of tracks from the album, “Shambhala”, Lakshmi” and “Epiphany”. 

All are shorter than the originals but each sounds radically different as Jay puts his own stamp on the proceedings. These re-mixes are clearly rooted in contemporary dance culture, an area normally outside my usual listening zone. However it’s interesting to listen to these re-mixes and to observe how the source material has been shaped and treated and turned into something new.  It’s hearing these mutations immediately after the originals that helps older listeners like me to appreciate that re-mixing is a genuinely creative process, an art form in itself, if you will.

As diverting as the remixes are the success of the album rests on the eight movements of the “Journey to Shambhala” suite. It may be a concept album of sorts but each piece can be enjoyed in its own right as a stand alone item, regardless of its position within the story. With no narrative or no lyrics the music succeeds on its own terms without being bogged down by the story, Rick Wakeman please note. Reading the story, which some listeners may regard as rather twee, offers some insight as to the inspiration behind the music, but it’s certainly not essential.  Raja’s compositions succeed in purely musical terms.

As befits a bassist inspired by Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten and others the album is rhythmically buoyant throughout with Raja and Nickolls laying down some memorable grooves. These are well served by the regular members of the Collective who add colour, melody and texture in a well balanced group performance where the ensemble playing is key, there are few conventional jazz solos as such. Indeed the most striking individual features come from the guest performers, Gurtu with his distinctive konnakol vocal percussion and Krantz with his searing guitar solos. A word too for Lidke’s vocals with the Polish born singer achieving an authentic and convincing Asian sound.

Raja’s bass is at the heart of the music and his writing exhibits a growing compositional maturity, with greater textural richness and a greater sense of light and shade than previously.

He and his band are probably still best appreciated in the excitement of the live environment and they can be seen at the following dates;


2019 Live dates (updates at http://www.shezraja.com/gigs):

14 June – 606 Club, London
13 July – Petrojazz Festival, St Petersburg, Russia
8 September – Pizza Express Dean Street, London
20 September – Bear Club, Luton
10 October – 606 Club, London

 

Journey to Shambhala

Shez Raja

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Journey to Shambhala

A well balanced group performance where the ensemble playing is key. Raja's bass is at the heart of the music and his writing exhibits a growing compositional maturity,

Shez Raja

“Journey to Shambhala”

Raja Records RR001)

Shez Raja (electric bass),Monika Lidke (vocals), Pascal Roggen (violin), Alex Stanford (piano, keyboards), Vasilis Xenopoulos (saxophones) and Chris Nickolls (drums) with guests Trilok Gurtu (tabla, konnakol, djembe, cajon), Wayne Krantz (electric guitar).


Shez Raja is a British-Asian bass player and composer, originally from the Wirral but now based in London. He began playing classical violin at the age of nine before switching to electric bass at thirteen. After studying at Leeds College of Music Raja became an in demand session musician, his credits covering genres ranging from folk to hip-hop. Among those he has played with are the bands Elephant Talk and Loka plus the hip-hop artist MC Lyte.

Raja formed his regular working band, or Collective, in 2007 and subsequently released three studio albums, “Magica” (2007) “Ten Of Wands” (2008) and Mystic Radikal” (2010). The line-up has included some of the best UK based jazz musicians, among them saxophonist Andy Sheppard and trumpeter Claude Deppa.

Raja is something of a showman and has established an excellent reputation for the exciting qualities of his live appearances. In 2017 I was fortunate enough to enjoy an electrifying performance by him and the Collective at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny.

In 2014 Raja released the album “Soho Live” recorded over the course of several appearances at London’s famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. Besides Raja’s regular Collective the album also included contributions from illustrious guests such as saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and Soweto Kinch, clarinettist Shabaka Hutchings and trumpeter Jay Phelps.

The studio album “Gurutopia” was released in 2016 on the New York based Dot Time label and featured guest appearances from two leading American jazz musicians, trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist Mike Stern. The involvement of these two big name guests represented quite a coup for Raja and helped to ensure that his reputation continued to grow, both in the UK and internationally.

Raja’s latest album, the first to be released on his own record label, features two more famous international guests, the Indian percussionist and vocalist Trilok Gurtu and the American guitarist Wayne Krantz. These two join Raja’s regular Collective members comprising of Monika Lidke (vocals), Pascal Roggen (violin), Alex Stanford (piano, keyboards), Vasilis Xenopoulos (saxophones) and Chris Nickolls (drums).

“Journey to Shambhala” is a semi conceptual affair with Raja’s liner notes describing the inspirations behind the music thus;
“The music on this album is inspired by a short story that I wrote called ‘Journey to Shambhala’. It tells the tale of a young man who embarks on a journey to discover the mystical city of Shambhala. He has a wild experience of excitement, danger, friendships, love and deceit but ultimately this tale about the pursuit of happiness holds the message that, as in life, the journey often holds as much wonder as the destination.
The story was partly inspired by travels with my family to the Punjab region of the Indian sub-continent as a young boy, where I immersed myself in the musical culture of my South Asian roots.
My vision for this record was to merge my rich musical heritage with my diverse playing experiences to create exciting and passionate music that blends East with West. I wanted to create an authentic and distinctive sound and was delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with the Indian percussion guru Trilok Gurtu and legendary guitarist Wayne Krantz.”

The album booklet tells the tale of the fictional Raj, a young poet and artist, who dreams of discovering the mystical city of Shambhala. Against his mother’s wishes, but with the support of his father, he sets off to find it. On the evening before his departure a farewell party is held in his village, with singing and dancing throughout the night. This first part of the story finds musical expression in the form of the album’s opening track, itself called “Shambhala”. This is a lively piece, propelled by hard driving grooves and featuring the core Collective. Indian melodies combine with Western rock rhythms and there’s even a hint of Jamaican dub reggae in the mix. Electric and acoustic sounds combine, with Stanford’s keyboards playing a prominent role.

Raj sets forth the following day, befriending Abdul, a merchant that he meets on his travels. The pair decide to journey together but they are ambushed by a group of robbers. After fighting them off they capture one robber, but the two friends disagree about how to treat him. Eventually he is released, but a rift is formed between the Raj and Abdul
This series of adventures is chronicled in the track “Dharma Dance” with its deep bass grooves and exotic percussive rhythms, courtesy of guest Gurtu, who also adds the distinctive sounds of konnakol, or vocal percussion.

Raj and Abdul meet a young woman named Lakshmi who is also searching for Shambhala. Lakshmi’s late uncle was an astronomer and she tells Raj about the star constellations that signal the way to Shambhala. A relationship begins to blossom between Raj and Lakshmi which finds expression in the tune “Lakshmi”.
Following the all out energy of the two opening numbers this piece offers something of a pause for breath with its drifting melodies featuring the soaring wordless vocals of Lidke. There’s a delightfully melodic and liquid electric bass solo from the leader before a second episode of konnakol from Gurtu, who also features on tabla.

Abdul takes Raj and Lakshmi to the home of one of his friends. Their hosts drug Raj and Lakshmi, who experience intense visions and hallucinations. When they wake they find that they have been imprisoned by Abdul, who is jealous of their burgeoning relationship.
The track “Get Cosmic” illustrates this episode and is an appropriately intense piece of music with Stanford’s synths providing some suitably psychedelic noises. Elsewhere there are some powerful rock influenced grooves, with drummer Nickolls in particularly impressive form. His dynamic playing helps to fuel a feverishly inventive guitar solo from guest Wayne Krantz while the leader also features strongly on heavily distorted, guitar like, electric bass.

The couple escape from their captors by jumping from the window of their prison tower into the river below, swimming to safety before collapsing unconscious on the river bank. They awake the following day in a hidden cave on the far side of the river, but with no knowledge of how they got there.
The composition “Epiphany” chronicles this section of the story with Lidke again supplying wordless vocals and with Roggen adding an airy violin solo. Both Gurtu and Krantz make guest appearances, with the guitarist giving the piece a considerable boost with his high octane, turbo charged soloing.

On leaving the cave Raj and Lakshmi encounter an old guru in a hooded cloak who gifts them the white elephant that he was riding. The couple ride the elephant, named Airavata, across the desert towards Shambhala, eventually stopping at an oasis.
The bass and drum rhythms of “Guru’s Gift” initially suggest the gait of the elephant. Melodies float above the rhythmic undertow with Lidke’s soaring vocal complemented by the sounds of sax, violin and organ.

The couple press on into a forested region where they set up camp. Raj wakes to find that Lakshmi is missing and finds that she has been abducted by a group of sun worshippers and taken to their temple. Raj and Airavata storm the temple and battle with the sun worshippers, helped by a mysterious masked warrior whose involvement gives Raj and Lakshmi time to escape, although the elephant, Airavata, is killed.
“Battle of the Sun Temple” is a suitably frenetic piece of music with some typically robust bass and drum grooves topped off by some slippery, darting instrumental melody lines courtesy of Roggen, Xenopoulos and Stanford, with the latter adding a surging synthesiser solo .Raja himself solos on heavily treated electric bass, his use of extreme electronic effects being a characteristic of his playing throughout the album, sometimes to the bemusement of the listener!

Raj and Lakshmi continue their journey and eventually arrive at the mystical city of Shambhala, only to find it in ruins. Nevertheless Raj realises that he has found what he was looking for, his soul-mate Lakshmi. The couple declare their love for each other and decide to marry. They are joined at Shambhala by Raj’s father, who has followed them throughout their journey. It was he who took them to the cave and was both the guru and the masked warrior. All three return to Raj’s home village for the wedding, turning the village into their own Shambhala.
The final piece, “Devotion”, gathers together the loose ends of the story and the mood of the piece is one of thankfulness and acceptance. Commencing with the sound of acoustic piano the piece has a calming, gently lilting and lyrical quality with Lidke’s pure, wordless vocals taking the lead as Stanford, Roggen and Xenopoulos add delightful melodic flourishes, the last named also adding a full length saxophone solo.

But even now the story isn’t quite over as the album comes with no fewer than three bonus tracks.  The British DJ and re-mixer Happy Cat Jay, something of a rising star in his field, contributes three re-workings of tracks from the album, “Shambhala”, Lakshmi” and “Epiphany”. 

All are shorter than the originals but each sounds radically different as Jay puts his own stamp on the proceedings. These re-mixes are clearly rooted in contemporary dance culture, an area normally outside my usual listening zone. However it’s interesting to listen to these re-mixes and to observe how the source material has been shaped and treated and turned into something new.  It’s hearing these mutations immediately after the originals that helps older listeners like me to appreciate that re-mixing is a genuinely creative process, an art form in itself, if you will.

As diverting as the remixes are the success of the album rests on the eight movements of the “Journey to Shambhala” suite. It may be a concept album of sorts but each piece can be enjoyed in its own right as a stand alone item, regardless of its position within the story. With no narrative or no lyrics the music succeeds on its own terms without being bogged down by the story, Rick Wakeman please note. Reading the story, which some listeners may regard as rather twee, offers some insight as to the inspiration behind the music, but it’s certainly not essential.  Raja’s compositions succeed in purely musical terms.

As befits a bassist inspired by Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten and others the album is rhythmically buoyant throughout with Raja and Nickolls laying down some memorable grooves. These are well served by the regular members of the Collective who add colour, melody and texture in a well balanced group performance where the ensemble playing is key, there are few conventional jazz solos as such. Indeed the most striking individual features come from the guest performers, Gurtu with his distinctive konnakol vocal percussion and Krantz with his searing guitar solos. A word too for Lidke’s vocals with the Polish born singer achieving an authentic and convincing Asian sound.

Raja’s bass is at the heart of the music and his writing exhibits a growing compositional maturity, with greater textural richness and a greater sense of light and shade than previously.

He and his band are probably still best appreciated in the excitement of the live environment and they can be seen at the following dates;


2019 Live dates (updates at http://www.shezraja.com/gigs):

14 June – 606 Club, London
13 July – Petrojazz Festival, St Petersburg, Russia
8 September – Pizza Express Dean Street, London
20 September – Bear Club, Luton
10 October – 606 Club, London

 


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