by Ian Mann
August 11, 2021
A thrilling way to round off a week of excellent live performances. Raja’s blend of energy, showmanship and superb musicianship is irresistible and he & his band are always a great hit with audiences.
Shez Raja Sextet, ‘Tales from the Punjab’ Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 10/08/2021
Part of Wall2Wall Jazz Festival 2021
Shez Raja – electric bass, Tony Kofi – alto saxophone, Sophie Alloway – drum kit,
Lewis Moody – keyboard, Gurdain Rayatt – tabla, Unnati Das Gupta – vocals
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 during October 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 Das Gupta and tabla specialist Gurdian 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 Das Gupta 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 Das Gupta, whose wordless vocals combined effectively with the leader’s liquidly lyrical electric bass and Alloway’s delicate cymbal work. Das Gupta’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 Das Gupta, 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 Das Gupta, 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 Das Gupta’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 woman dubbed “The Goddess of Groove” by Jazzwise magazine finally got her chance to cut loose on the high energy closer “Dharma Dance”, another scintillating blend of Asian melody and funk grooves. Raja and Alloway’s vigorous rhythmic exchanges mutated into a marathon drum feature with Raja comparing Alloway’s dynamic playing with that of the great American fusion drummer Dave Weckl. She bangs the drums, indeed. Alloway’s percussive pyrotechnics were followed by a searing alto solo from Kofi as Raja and his colleagues rounded off a terrific evening of music making in dramatic fashion.
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 and the footage from these shows, plus the other events filmed at the Melville during the course of the last week or so, should be well worth seeing when they are eventually streamed in October. I’ll be tuning in then and publishing further coverage. Save the date.
In the meantime 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 thus far.
Meanwhile Shez Raja’s next gig will be at Ronnie Scott’s in London on September 5th 2021, with a band featuring Kofi, tenor saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos and guitarist John Etheridge, alongside the members of tonight’s line up.blog comments powered by Disqus