by Ian Mann
April 09, 2021
Raja has totally absorbed himself in the music and culture of the Punjab and the resultant music is a wholly organic blend of East & West. His most ambitious album to date, and his most convincing.
“Tales From The Punjab”
(Ubuntu Music – UBU0077)
Shez Raja – bass guitar, Fiza Haider – vocals, Ashan Papu – bansuri flute, Zohaib Hassan – sarangi,
Kashif Ali Dani – tabla, Qamar Abbas – cajon
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.
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.
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.
Raja’s music to date can 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 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.
In recent years Raja has begun to explore his South Asian heritage more and more, notably on the two most recent releases “Gurutopia” and Journey to Shambhala”. This is taken several stages further with “Tales From The Punjab” which was 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’.
“Tales From The Punjab” was recorded at the Digital Fidelity Studio in Lahore, a facility owned by the guitarist Mekaal Hasam, who acted as recording engineer and generally oversaw the entire project.
The material includes three compositions by Raja plus three further collective improvisations. The leader plays a five string electric bass guitar made for him by the Brooklyn company Fodera and it’s this instrument that introduces the Raja composition “Angel’s Tears”, which opens the album. Raja’s playing, though still virtuosic, is more understated than on previous recording and he helps to create a beguiling web of rhythms in conjunction with tabla master Dani and cajon specialist Abbas, in whose expert hands an instrument more closely associated with Latin and flamenco music sounds thoroughly convincing in a more obviously ‘Asian’ context. The seductive rhythmic undertow provides the base from which Haider’s vocals are able to soar. Raja himself then comes to the fore with a brilliant electric bass solo, which at times finds him mirroring the sound of a sitar. Hassan then takes over on sarangi, a bowed, short necked instrument that produces, a beautiful haunting sound. Equally distinctive is the sound of the bansuri, as Papu makes his contribution, with Haider’s vocals, now more distinctively ‘Asian’, returning for the tune’s closing section. “Angel’s Tears” is good introduction both to the individual voices of the band and the overall ensemble sound. An impressive and bewitching start.
The improvised “Adventures in the City of Wonders” emerges from the sounds of a sarangi drone and again features the sitar like timbres of Raja’s bass. Haider’s vocals also adopt the mannerisms of the drone and sound more obviously ‘devotional’ during the course of an introduction that also incorporates the wispy sounds of the bansuri. This first section seems to evoke the city awakening to the sounds of the call to prayer. In time Raja establishes a syncopated bass groove, combining with the sounds of tabla and cajon to provide a busy rhythmic backdrop for the sprightly exchanges of Papu’s bansuri and Hassan’s sarangi. The leader’s bass guitar then comes to the fore, his solo once more evoking sitar like sounds during the course of a longer second section reflecting the hustle and bustle of a large South Asian city.
Raja’s composition “Mantra” first appeared on the “Gurutopia” album as “Shiva Mantra” where it featured, among others, Polish born vocalist Monika Lidke and Greek born tenor saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos – Raja has always been keen on the concept of international collaboration.
Here the piece sounds very different, driven by an electric bass and cajon groove and featuring the alternately lilting and soaring wordless vocals of Haider, with Papu’s bansuri flute replacing the sound of the saxophone. Hassan’s brilliant sarangi solo is particularly arresting and beguiling
The introduction to the improvised “Maye Ni Main Kinu Akhan” features Haider singing a traditional melody with words by the poet Shah Hussain. Out of this beautiful, devotional intro emerges a busy tabla and bass groove, with Raja’s playing subtly hinting at the funk bass lines of old. Hassan’s sarangi floats gracefully above the rhythms, followed by Papu’s bansuri in a series of absorbing exchanges.
The Raja composition “Maharaja” is another piece that first appeared on “Gurutopia”. This new version features Raja’s bass in a series of vigorous exchanges with Dani on tabla and Abbas on cajon, the leader displaying a fleet fingered virtuosity, a sitar like quality and an underlying funkiness. Hassan’s sarangi then joins the party, this time with the sound distorted electronically - although given Raja’s predilection for manipulating the sound of his own instrument I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these thrilling but mystifying sounds were actually emanating from him.
The album concludes with the improvised “Enlightenment”, underpinned throughout by Dani’s virtuoso tabla playing and featuring Papu’s bansuri meditations and Raja’s melodic electric bass soloing.
At around thirty three minutes in length “Tales From The Punjab” is relatively brief by modern CD standards, there are probably even some who would dismiss it as an EP!
But this would be to do it a disservice. Working on the principle that ‘less is more’ there is no filler here as Raja and his highly talented colleagues make every second count. It’s the most obviously ‘South Asian’ record that Raja has made, but it sounds all the better for it. He has totally absorbed himself in the music and the culture of the Punjab and the resultant music is a wholly organic blend of East and West with nothing sounding remotely forced. Raja’s electric bass is at the heart of the proceedings, without being overly dominant, and it feels entirely natural for it to be so.
Music that features non-Western instruments isn’t always easy for European or American listeners to describe, but I hope that I’ve done Raja justice here. “Tales Of The Punjab” represents his most adventurous recording thus far and hot on the heels of the excellent “Journey to Shambhala” it’s also his most convincing. It’s also undeniably beautiful. Raja’s exploration of his roots has certainly paid musical dividends and the album appears to have been very well received by the UK critical fraternity.
I’m also hugely impressed by the Pakistani musicians on this record, all of them true virtuosos of their respective instruments, whose playing should prove well worthy of investigation in other musical contexts.
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