by Ian Mann
November 26, 2023
A highly impressive debut from de Saram. Her writing is intelligent, multi-faceted and admirably diverse, drawing on a broad range of influences.
Radhika de Saram
“From The Crow’s Nest”
(Rainy Day Records RAINY019CD)
Radhika de Saram – bass guitar, composer, Zhenya Strigalev – saxophone, Garry Bagdasaryan – drums,
with guests Elliot Galvin, Evgeny Ponomarev – keyboards, Rodion Grischenko – guitar
“From The Crow’s Nest” is the debut album from the London based bassist and composer Radhika de Saram.
Born into a musical family in Sri Lanka de Saram moved to London at the age of five. She studied violin and piano with Igor Petrushevski at the Royal Academy of Music and was later awarded scholarships to study music at Mill Hill School and at Wells Cathedral School.
De Saram later played violin with the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Chineke! Orchestra. She has also played on film music soundtracks and as part of a string section with an eclectic mix of pop and rock performers, among them Grace Jones, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton and Little Simz and the bands The National and The Smile.
It was during her time at Mill Hill and Wells that de Saram began to develop a fascination for jazz with pianists Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny representing particularly significant sources of inspiration.
In 2017 de Saram attended a performance by a trio featuring bassist Tim Lefebvre, saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev and drummer Eric Harland. She says of the experience;
“It was eye opening to see how three musicians who barely ever have the chance to play together or even to get to know each other, click immediately and communicate in the most conversational way through music.”
It was this event that inspired de Saram to buy a bass guitar and she quickly began to appreciate the instrument’s versatility. The lockdown period offered the opportunity for her to develop her bass guitar technique. She also began to compose her own material with several of the pieces written at that time subsequently appearing on this debut.
De Saram says of her first album as a leader;
“The majority of these tunes were written during lockdown and were my first time composing. ‘From The Crow’s Nest’ depicts my feelings at that time – at a standstill. I had plenty of time to reflect on past experiences and to gather ideas, plans and energy for the journey and challenges ahead. Musical influences include folk music from my native country, Sri Lanka, as well as jazz and other styles I’ve encountered while travelling and while living and working in London. A lot of these tunes have also been shaped by memories of my childhood.”
The album features a core trio of de Saram on bass guitar, drummer Garry Bagdasaryan and saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev, the latter one of the reasons that de Saram picked up a bass guitar in the first place. The recording features guest appearances from Elliot Galvin and Evgeny Ponomarev, who share keyboard duties, and from guitarist Rodion Grischenko. The album appears on the Rainy Days imprint, a Tel Aviv based label that is also the home of Strigalev’s most recent solo projects.
The album commences with the uplifting “Adalar”, with de Saram setting the pace with a propulsive electric bass groove as she combines with Bagdasaryan’s crisp drumming. Strigalev plays folk inspired sax melodies before the music briefly shades off into something more loosely structured. The ensemble reel things back in before guest musician Grischenko takes over with an inventive guitar solo, skilfully supported by the flexible rhythm team of de Saram and Bagdasaryan. The bass and drum axis then go it alone with an absorbing dialogue of their own, before Strigalev returns for a brief restatement of the main melodic theme. An enjoyable and invigorating start.
As a composer de Saram clearly has a gift for melody as both the opener and the following “Little Sloth Bear” demonstrate. But these are melodies that transcend mere prettiness and form the basis for exciting contemporary jazz performances and act as vehicles for some pretty vigorous improvisations from the Russian born Strigalev. The Russian connection is a strong one, the album was recorded in 2021 in St. Petersburg and later mixed in London. As a rhythm team de Saram and Bagdasaryan have the intelligence and flexibility to respond to the restlessly creative Strigalev’s inventive soloing.
“Little Sloth Bear” also introduces another musical component with the distinctive sounds of Galvin’s electric keyboards, which provide extra colour and texture in addition to being deployed as a solo instrument. Both Galvin and Strigalev will be part of the quartet that de Saram will lead at the official album launch concert at London’s Ladbroke Hall on Friday 1st December 2023. The line up will be completed by the highly versatile drummer Ben Brown.
“Carolin’s Red Scarf” features the core trio, with the sinuous sound of Strigalev’s sax accompanied by the supple bass and drum grooves of de Saram and Bagdasaryan. There’s an almost Middle Eastern quality about the music as Strigalev probes deeply but playfully, aided by the flexible rhythm pairing. Bagdasaryan is also featured with an engaging drum feature that toys with martial rhythms.
It’s the core trio again for “Promise”, a piece that is very different in feel with its long, brooding sax melody lines augmented by the sensitive rhythmic colourations of de Saram and Bagdasaryan, the latter deploying both brushes and sticks. Sensuous and mysterious it’s reminiscent of something Polar Bear might have attempted during one of their more reflective moments. The piece also includes de Saram’s first full solo feature thus far, a passage of unaccompanied bass guitar that reveals how quickly she has progressed on her ‘second (or possibly even third) instrument’.
“Do It Now” increases the energy levels once more and introduces another guest, with Evgeny Ponomarev appealing on keyboards. Initially the mood is mischievous, with the music exhibiting a kind of post Loose Tubes type whimsicality. The introduction of Ponomarev’s electric keyboards and his ensuing dialogue with Bagdasaryan’s drums introduces a darker feel and provide the jumping off point for Strigalev’s rigorous sax explorations. Another passage of unaccompanied bass guitar then leads to something of a reprise of the opening section, but with Ponomarev’s keys now playing a more prominent role.
Guitarist Grischenko returns for “Old Cane Chair”, an elegant ballad featuring the guest’s fluent and understated guitar soloing and the gentle rustle of Bagdasaryan’s brushed drums. Strigalev, at his most most tender and lyrical follows, but even here there’s an agreeable edge to his playing.
“Straight” sees Galvin returning to the fold for a groove based piece that verges on the funky at times. Galvin adopts a dirty, clangorous sound on electric keyboard that combines effectively with Strigalev’s saxophone. Both solo at length as de Saram and Bagdasaryan provide flexible but highly propulsive grooves. The drummer also enjoys his own feature, his peregrinations around the kit underpinned by Galvin’s keyboard vamp.
Galvin also features on the closing “Arrack And Lion”, a more whimsical piece featuring folk like melodies and the twinkling sounds of celeste like electric keyboards alongside sax, bass and drums. A gently undulating bass and drum groove underpins Strigalev’s gentle but exploratory sax musings, these followed by more concise features for deSaram and Galvin. There’s a relaxed, bucolic feel about the music that makes this a very attractive way to close an excellent album.
“From The Crow’s Nest” represents a highly impressive debut from de Saram. Her bass playing is at the heart of the music and she and Bagdasaryan make an intelligent and highly flexible rhythm team. But this isn’t an album that places the emphasis on Jaco style ‘chops’, instead this is a record that is very much about de Saram the composer. Her writing is intelligent, multi-faceted and admirably diverse, drawing on a broad range of influences. Each tune represents a musical adventure as it progresses through a series of distinct phases.
The presence of Strigalev, a fluent and restlessly inventive soloist and a bandleader in his own right, is a huge plus and his playing is superb throughout the album. The three guest performers all make substantial contributions to the tracks on which they appear, and particularly Galvin, who like Strigalev is something of a musical maverick.
But ultimately the triumph is de Saram’s. I’d love to see this music performed live by whatever line up she is able to put together, but those of you lucky enough to live near enough get yourselves down to Ladbroke Hall on December 1st 2023 for the official launch gig. Here’s that ticket link again.
“From The Crow’s Nest” is available from the Rainy Days Records Bandcamp page here;