by Ian Mann
December 13, 2021
"Raja’s blend of energy, showmanship and superb musicianship is irresistible and he & his band are always a great hit with audiences". Ian Mann relives this live show from August 2021.
Shez Raja Sextet, “Tales from the Punjab”, Livestream for Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival, Abergavenny.
First streamed 09/12/2021
Shez Raja – electric bass, Tony Kofi – alto saxophone, Sophie Alloway – drum kit,
Lewis Moody – keyboard, Gurdain Rayatt – tabla, Unnati Dasgupta – vocals
The final stream of the 2021 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival featured footage of an actual live performance by the Shez Raja Sextet in front of a socially distanced live audience at the Melville Theatre on 10th August 2021.
Due to Covid restrictions the Raja group actually played two back to back shows to limited capacity crowds, one at 5.00 pm, the other at 8.00 pm. I saw the second of these, a hugely exciting and dynamic performance that featured some terrific playing and singing. For me it represented the highlight of the live programme at the 2021 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, a truly hybrid event that lifted our mood in the summer with its live programme and which now returns online to warm us in the depths of what is becoming an increasingly difficult winter.
I have enjoyed watching the Raja Sextet again online but as much of the footage comes from the show that I actually attended I don’t intend to review it in full again. Instead this article will be one of my shameless ‘Jazz Will Eat Itself’ (‘Bop Will Eat Itself’ would make a better pun but the Raja group don’t really play bebop) cut and paste jobs that cannibalises my previous writings. It does at least serve the function of putting this performance back in the public eye and I’d urge you all to tune in to the Black Mountain Jazz website and enjoy this terrific show online, either for the first time or, if you were there, as a reminder of a memorable live experience.
I’ll start with the Prologue that has set the scene for all of Wall2Wall’s previous online events at the 2021 Festival and then cut to the actual show from the Melville Theatre.
Since 2006 Black Mountain Jazz, headed by Mike Skilton, has been presenting regular jazz events in Abergavenny, utilising a variety of different venues over the years.
In 2013 the monthly club programme was supplemented for the first time by the weekend long Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. Usually taking place in early September Wall2Wall has since become an established annual event with a growing national reputation.
Needless to say 2020 was, of course, very different. During the early stages of the pandemic it quickly became obvious that Wall2Wall in its traditional format was never going to be a viable option for 2020. Instead Mike and his fellow BMJ organisers opted for a ‘Virtual’ Festival, establishing a partnership with Mark Viveash of the locally based 47 Studios and Productions.
Artists who had been scheduled to appear at the 2020 Festival, or who had had club engagements cancelled, were filmed to the highest audio and visual standards in Covid safe conditions during the summer of 2020 by Viveash and his crew and the performances were subsequently transmitted during the autumn to a global, ticketed audience. The artists were paid the same fee as for a live gig and the performances were augmented by informative interview footage.
It all made for an excellent package, one that was enthusiastically received by jazz lovers far and wide and overall the 2020 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival could be considered an outstanding success. All of the 2020 performances have been comprehensively reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
They are also still available to view via the Black Mountain Jazz website. Some of the music was also immortalised on the limited edition CD “Covid Jazz 2020”, which features a track from all of the artists that took part and which can be purchased via the BMJ website.
With Covid uncertainty still raging during the early months of 2021 it was decided that Wall2Wall would be a Virtual event for the second year running. However the gradual easing of restrictions during the summer ensured that it could eventually become a ‘Hybrid’ event, part live and part on line.
Five very different acts were booked, all travelling to Abergavenny during August to be filmed in performance during the day at BMJ’s regular HQ, the Melville Centre, by Mark Viveash and the 47 Studios team.
In the evening the artists then performed in front of a live, paying audience in the Barn at White House Farm in the nearby village of Llanvetherine. For many of the musicians involved this was their first performance in front of a live audience for over a year and they relished the opportunity to play to a real live crowd, especially in such a delightful, and highly scenic, rural location.
The Barn performances were scheduled on consecutive nights and I was unable to attend all of them. I reviewed the show by the duo of vocalist Ella Hohnen-Ford and pianist Joe Webb and also “The Journey of Trad”, presented by The BMJ Collective, a band led by the Cardiff based drummer and educator Alex Goodyear.
I’m grateful to guest contributor Nigel Jarrett for covering the performances by New Orleans inspired pianist Dom Pipkin and by pianist / vocalist Wendy Kirkland with her “Celebrating the Divas” show.
One live event was actually held at the Melville. Electric bass specialist Shez Raja’s “Tales from The Punjab” project was more reliant on musical technology and wasn’t really suitable to the Barn. After a day’s filming he then played two storming sets to live audiences, the ‘two shows’ format designed to allow for a degree of ‘social distancing’. I covered the second of these, for me the highlight of the Festival’s live programme.
It was originally intended that the ‘Virtual’ element of the 2021 Wall2Wall would be streamed in October but the decision to transmit during November and December, with the footage remaining available until the end of February 2022, makes sense, the long winter nights allowing greater opportunities for viewing.
SHEZ RAJA SEXTET, TALES FROM THE PUNJAB
The final events of Wall2Wall’s live programme at the 2021 Festival saw electric bass specialist Shez Raja playing two shows in the theatre space at the Melville Centre, the regular home of the Festival organisers Black Mountain Jazz.
The shows were scheduled at 5.00 pm and 8.00 pm and I was lucky enough to catch the second of these. Both were filmed and recorded by Mark Viveash and his team from the locally based 47 Studios & Productions and, once edited, will be streamed as part of the ‘Virtual’ half of this year’s ‘hybrid’ Festival.
Raja is an old friend of BMJ and Wall2Wall and brought a version of his band, The Collective, to Wall2Wall in 2017, a line up that included tonight’s drummer, Sophie Alloway, plus guest soloist trombonist Dennis Rollins.
Meanwhile saxophonist Tony Kofi had visited the Festival in 2018 with his band The Organisation, with the leader specialising on baritone on that occasion.
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 he 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.
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 saxophonists 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.
In 2019 Raja released the conceptual “Journey to Shambhala”, the first album to be issued on his own Raja Records imprint. This proved to be the latest in a series of excellent recordings and featured guest appearances by two other contemporary music giants, the Indian percussionist / vocalist Trilok Gurtu and the American guitarist Wayne Krantz.
Up to this point Raja’s music could loosely be placed in the ‘fusion’ bag, energetic and often funky, and fuelled by Raja’s virtuoso, Jaco Pastorius / Marcus Miller / Stanley Clarke influenced electric bass playing.
It’s a style that has made Raja’s Collective an exciting live attraction. The man himself is an energetic, enthusiastic and flamboyant stage performer and something of a ‘showman’. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy highly exciting and hugely enjoyable live shows from the Collective at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival and, of course, the 2017 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny.
Both those Festival appearances, plus the recordings “Soho Live”, “Gurutopia” and “Journey to Shambhala” have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann web pages.
With these last two albums Raja began to explore his Asian heritage, a process that he took a stage further with his most recent recording, “Tales From The Punjab”, released earlier in 2021 but recorded in early 2020 when Raja made a pilgrimage to the land of his ancestors to explore his cultural and musical roots. The story behind the recording of the album is perhaps best explained by Raja’s own album liner notes;
“In early 2020 I went on an adventure, travelling around the Punjab to explore my South Asian identity and immerse myself in the musical culture of my roots. Little did I know the world was about to change and I feel very lucky to have had what was to be a magical and truly enlightening experience.
Whilst in the vibrant city of Lahore I was honoured to collaborate with some of the most accomplished musicians of the subcontinent, from young virtuosos to veteran classical musicians.
For several days we shared a musical and spiritual journey together through ancient raga, traditional melodies and free improvisations, creating a bridge between cultures with beautiful, exotic and timeless sounds.
And from deep within the music something else emerged, - a passionate expression of the musicians’ own lives, stories, struggles and hopes.
We invite you to sit back, relax and let your imagination run free as you listen to these Tales From The Punjab.”
The musicians that Raja collaborated with during a week long retreat included bansuri flute player Ashan Papu who once played with the great Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-97), one of the first true stars of so called ‘World Music’. The album line up also included Fiza Haider (vocals), Zohaib Hassan (sarangi), Kashif Ali Dani (tabla) and Qamar Abbas (cajon). The material included three compositions by Raja plus three further collective improvisations.
Even before the pandemic it was unlikely that Raja would be able to bring these musicians to Britain to promote the album, but since the easing of restrictions he has been able to perform with UK based musicians, delivering music that represents a bridge between the Asian music of “Tales From The Punjab” and the funk and fusion of earlier albums.
The line up that Raja brought to Abergavenny included the Indian classical music singer Unnati Dasgupta and tabla specialist Gurdain Rayatt in addition to the jazz musicians Tony Kofi, Sophie Alloway and Australian born keyboard player Lewis Moody. The material played in a typically dynamic performance was largely sourced from the “Tales From The Punjab” and “Journey to Shambhala” albums.
The band took to the stage in quintet format, with vocalist Dasgupta being added later. The opening number, “Quiverwish” was introduced by a virtuoso passage of solo electric bass from Raja that incorporated slapping and thumbing techniques, plus the effective use of a wah wah pedal. As drums, sax, tabla and keys entered the equation the music quickly gathered momentum with the leader continuing to solo on his five string bass, playing with the agility of a lead guitarist. The other featured soloist was Lewis Moody, not to be confused with the former England rugby union international, who adopted an electric piano sound on his Nord Stage 3 keyboard. Moody proved to be an intelligent and highly adaptable musician who produced a broad array of colours and textures from the keyboard and played an important role in holding the diverse elements of the ensemble together.
“Chakras On The Wall” featured the sound of Kofi’s incisive alto above a percolating electric bass groove and saw the members of the band trading ideas with each other in a series of concise, four bar solos with Moody, Kofi, Raja, Rayatt and Alloway all featuring. This was all hugely exciting stuff.
Sourced from the “Journey to Shambhala” album “Lakshmi” marked the entrance of vocalist Unnati Dasgupta, whose wordless vocals combined effectively with the leader’s liquidly lyrical electric bass and Alloway’s delicate cymbal work. Dasgupta’s voice also dovetailed with Kofi’s alto on a series of unison melody lines, before Raja took over for a melodic electric bass solo that explored the higher registers of the instrument.
Introduced by the leader’s bass “Infatuation” proved to be a beguiling combination of Indian classical vocal melodies and funk grooves. One suspects that appearing with the Raja group probably represents something of a musical adventure for Dasgupta, but it was one that she appeared to be relishing. The instrumental solos here came from the leader on bass and Kofi on alto, the latter looking and sounding a little like Kenny Garrett, incisive, powerful and fluent.
“Song for John” was a new composition, a tender piece written for Raja’s ten year old son. Featuring Das Gupta’s wordless melody lines, often sung in conjunction with Kofi’s alto, this represented another bridge between Indian and Western musical styles.
The title track from “Journey to Shambhala” upped the energy levels once more with its complex unison riffing, a towering alto solo from Kofi and a further bass feature from the leader.
From the “Journey to Shambhala” album “Epiphany” was recorded in the company of Wayne Krantz and Trilok Gurtu and was actually released as a single. Tonight is represented a feature for Moody, who conjured an astonishing range of weird and wonderful sounds from his keyboard.
“Angel’s Tears”, the opening track from “Tales From The Punjab” saw the return of
Dasgupta, whose beguiling wordless vocal melodies were underpinned by a backdrop of bass, drums, tabla and shimmering keyboards. We also enjoyed a subtly probing alto solo from Kofi, the man dubbed by Raja as “The Professor”.
From the same recording came “Mantra”, which again featured Dasgupta’s vocals and also included an extended feature for tabla master Rayatt, his subtly accelerating polyrhythmic explorations receiving sympathetic and economical support from Alloway.
The final number to appear on the Stream is different to the one that I saw. Raja concluded his second show with “Dharma Dance” but the Stream features “Get Cosmic”. Presumably this had rounded off the first show. Both tunes appear on the “Journey to Shambhala” album.
“Get Cosmic” featured powerful rhythms and a mix of ethereal synth sounds and dirty, funky grooves from Moody’s keyboards as he delivered the first solo. The piece also proved to be a feature for Alloway, the woman dubbed “The Goddess of Groove” by Jazzwise magazine. A powerful and precise presence throughout she enjoyed a series of rhythmic exchanges with the leader’s bass before Raja embarked on a feature of his own, deploying a range of electronic effects to manipulate the sound of his instrument.
These shows from Raja were the first jazz gigs at the Melville since the brilliant performance by pianist Fergus McCreadie and his trio in February 2020. Tonight’s music may have been very different, but it achieved the same levels of excellence as Black Mountain Jazz returned to its spiritual home with a bang. The audience may have been split into two due to Covid concerns but the reception was still ecstatic. Raja’s blend of energy, showmanship and superb musicianship is irresistible and he and his band are always a great hit with audiences.
Shez is a genuinely nice guy and it was good to speak with him afterwards, and with Sophie too. I also know her playing from the trio Wild Card, led by guitarist and composer Clement Regert, whose albums have also featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages. They would also represent a good fit for BMJ / Wall2Wall.
It was also good to meet with Mark Viveash of 47 Studio and to get a sneak preview of the audio and video from the gig, the quality of which is truly excellent. Mark is doing a superb job in collaboration with Wall2Wall.
This was a thrilling way to round off a week of excellent live performances, both at the Melville and at the Barn at White House Farm in the nearby village of Llanvetherine. Well done to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and the rest of the Wall2Wall team for an excellent Festival, both in its Live and Virtual incarnations.
I very much enjoyed reliving this performance by the Shez Raja Sextet online, although inevitably it couldn’t match the thrill of actually being there back in August.
That said there were benefits to be derived from the editing process, notably the cleaning up of the sound, which allowed the detail of Rayatt’s tabla playing to come through more clearly and which also allowed the online audience to more fully appreciate the rhythmic interplay between the tablas and Alloway’s kit drums.
Visually there were details that it wasn’t always easy to pick up at a gig, such as close ups of Rayatt’s fingers on the tabla skins and of Alloway’s sticks on the drum kit, Moody’s manipulation of the keyboard to achieve different sounds, and, of course Raja’s fingers on the bass.
The Black Mountain Jazz Facebook page also includes footage of an interview conducted by jazz vocalist and BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock with Raja and Kofi, which was filmed at the Melville between sets.
Here Raja discusses his recent award from Guitarist magazine and his custom made five string electric bass, made for him by the Fodera company of Brooklyn, New York City, USA. It’s a magnificent instrument, finished in “Quilted Maple”, giving an effect of ripples in sand or on water or of “a tiger’s coat”. Raja is clearly very happy with it and describes it as a delight to play.
He also tells the story behind the “Tales of the Punjab” album before going on to discuss tabla techniques and also the way in which Indian classical singing with its distinctive scales and micro-tones differs from the Western Classical tradition.
Overall Raja views music as a unifying cultural force, bringing different traditions together. He speaks of the importance for musicians of listening, adaptation and interaction, qualities that he brings to his work with the Pakistani musicians who appear on the “Tales from the Punjab” album, as well as to his collaborations with British musicians such as Kofi, trombonist Dennis Rollins and clarinettist Arun Ghosh.
Tonight was only Kofi’s second outing with the sextet and as a long time admirer of Raja’s work he was clearly delighted to be performing with them. 2021 has been an eventful year for him and has seen him become a grandfather and also take up an appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham, his native city, hence Raja’s nickname for him. He also holds teaching posts with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Hancock and Kofi discussed the positives to come out of the Covid crisis, such as the rise of the Virtual or Hybrid Festival, the online collaborations between musicians who might otherwise never have got together, etc. It’s very much the nature of jazz that musicians will adapt, evolve and collaborate.
It’ was then back to Raja for Shez to give a plug for the album and some forthcoming gigs, among these a show at Ronnie Scott’s in September 2021 that Hancock was lucky enough to attend.
There will also be an outing for the sextet, featuring Kofi, at the 606 Jazz Club in London on Friday, 21st January 2022. Details here;
I’ve summarised the interview as best I can but it’s best that you watch it for yourself. Hancock asks pertinent and perceptive questions, “we both think she should have her own TV show!” declares Raja. Footage of the interview can be found on the Black Mountain Jazz Facebook page;
Personally I think it’s a shame that this interview footage wasn’t included as part of the main streamed footage, preferably before the actual performance. It would have helped to set the background for the music, fully explaining the concept behind the “Tales from the Punjab” album. The discussions about Raja’s instrument and also the tabla and vocal techniques would have given the online audience something to both listen and look out for. The 2020 online Festival included substantial interview footage and it’s a shame that this insightful and informative discussion between musicians wasn’t used.
This represents my only real quibble about the otherwise excellent online coverage of Wall2Wall 2021.
Details of the full line up for the 2021 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival appear below;
The wall2wall Jazz videos will stream at staggered dates between 27th November and 9th December. All videos will remain accessible until 28th February 2022. Full Festival line up attached.
Welcome to our 2021 Festival
Filmed in Abergavenny
Streamed to the World
Ella Hohnen-Ford & Joe Webb
A Tribute to the Great American Songbook
Streaming from Saturday 27th November 2021
The Dom Pipkin Trio
New Orleans Comes to wall2wall
Streaming from Tuesday 30th November 2021
The Wendy Kirkland Trio
With special Guest Annette Gregory
Celebrating the Divas
Streaming from Friday 3rd December 2021
The BMJ Collective
The Journey of Trad
Streaming from Monday 6th December 2021
The Shez Raja Sextet
With special guest Tony Kofi
Tales From the Punjab
Streaming from Thursday 9th December 2021
Each individual video is £8 and there is a Super ticket that gives access to all five for £30.
Tickets are classified ‘Single, Family & Friends’, which encourages watching with others and re-watching. However, we do ask ticket purchasers that passwords are not shared.
Tickets plus full biographies of all performers at http://blackmountainjazz.co.uk/wall2wall-virtual-jazz-festival-2021/
You will see when you visit our website that we have included a Catch Up ticket for access to last year’s festival videos.
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