Bass guitarist SHEZ RAJA launches his new album “Gurutopia” with his Collective at the 606 jazz club in London on 21st April, (writes Stephen Graham).
The album features jazz-rock fusion star, the former Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern (who was on The Man With the Horn, We Want Miles, Star People) on uptempo opener Rabbits and pre-penultimate track RocknRolla; and Randy Brecker, the ex-Blood Sweat and Tears, Horace Silver and Brecker Brothers trumpeter, on Sketches of Space and the modal funk of Primetime.
The 606 appearance features a spot by Soft Machine Legacy and Zappatistas guitarist John Etheridge as a guest of the Collective’s. Raja, a British-Asian musician who grew up on the Wirral now long since London-based, first played with Etheridge in violinist Nigel Kennedy’s north London living room in front of an invited audience performing alongside Clark Tracey, Kennedy, Etheridge and singer Cleveland Watkiss.
On Gurutopia, to be released on New York label Dot Time Records, Raja’s band features Polish singer Monika Lidke’s vocals; Chris Nickolls on drums; Steve Pringle, on Fender Rhodes and keyboards on four tracks; Pascal Roggen, on violin (incidentally Raja’s first instrument as a child) making a big contribution on the scampering Maharaja; Alex Stanford, keyboards (the remaining four tracks); and Vasilis Xenopoulos, saxophone. The album was recorded at London’s Kore studios and in Mike Stern and Randy Brecker’s home studios in New York.
Raja, in the sleeve notes writes: “I believe the ultimate goal for a musician is to follow a guru-like path. A journey of personal growth to a utopia of total musical self-expression.” Elaborating on the phone he adds, referring to what might be referred to as jazz karma: “It’s a spiritual concept based around cause and effect.”
Tracks are Rabbits, Maharaja, the balladic Song For John, written for Raja’s four-year-old son, already a budding musician, Lidke’s wordless vocals initially shadowing and then harmonising with saxophone, the raucously cosmic ‘My Imaginary Friend,’ Brecker feature Sketches of Space, RocknRolla darkening the electric blues via changes in pace and attack, Primetime, and ‘Shiva Mantra.’ Raja uses a Warwick Streamer five-string bass, tenor tuning (that’s taking off the low B adding high C, eg EADGC rather than BEADG) and a Gallien-Krueger amp.
Two years since Soho Live was released on the 33 Jazz label, an album recorded live at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London, Raja’s attractive and highly accessible virtuosic Indo-jazz fusion sound is built from the ground up out of 1970s-style Mahavishnu-like fusion and much else.
Guests on the earlier Soho Live album — Raja’s fourth and first live affair following on from Mystic Radikal, the self-released Ten of Wands and 2007’s Magica — included Sons of Kemet’s Shabaka Hutchings, Soweto Kinch rapping on the drone-y ‘Karmic Flow’, “freestyling on the karma tip” as the new BBC Radio 3 Jazz Now presenter put it. Raja, incidentally, appears at Pizza Express Jazz Club on 10 May with both Kinch as well as John Etheridge guesting.
Alto saxophonist Aaron Liddard in the earlier Soho Live album was on hand to do a lot of the hard blowing alternating between alto and tenor sax. He’s not on Gurutopia, the saxophonist instead on the new album is Vasilis Xenopoulos. Returning, however, is drummer Chris Nickolls and violinist Pascal Roggen, sounding a little like Tutu violinist Michał Urbaniak in the more barbed grittier sections, Raja’s infectious accessible groove as hard-wired to instrumental flow as it adapts for vocals, the latter which he says he took inspiration for in the shaping of the sound stemming from Luciana Souza’s artistic approach on John Patitucci’s 2001 Communion album.
Singer Monika Lidke comes into her own on the closing track Shiva Mantra, and she also had featured on Raja’s much earlier 33 Records album Mystic Radikal, which, too, had some starry guests, such is Raja’s pulling power, on that occasion including Bristol scene legendary ECM star Andy Sheppard whose “distinctive voice” on the saxophone Raja greatly admires.
Into the spring Raja will also be appearing as part of his new label’s showcase at the leading industry Jazzahead expo in Bremen in Germany.