Shez Raja – Gurutopia
(Dot Time Records DT9050. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
Quoting ‘bass’, ‘groove’ and ‘fusion’ in the same conversation is likely to summon thoughts of Stateside heavyweights Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke or Marcus Miller – so it feels something of a privilege to flag up and recommend the progressive, impassioned contribution to UK jazz/funk being made by five-string electric bassist Shez Raja.
Originally hailing from North West England (twixt rivers Dee and Mersey), Raja’s profile was significantly raised by the Shez Raja Collective’s Soho Live (2014) – an attention-grabbing, high-energy performance captured at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club featuring distinguished guests Gilad Atzmon, Soweto Kinch, Shabaka Hutchings and Jay Phelps.
New studio album Gurutopia continues the journey; and along with a core line-up of Steve Pringle / Alex Stanford (keys), Pascal Roggen (violin), Chris Nickolls (drums), Vasilis Xenopoulos (sax) and Monika Lidke (vocals), the charismatic, frequently white-clad bassist also invites renowned personalities Mike Stern (guitar) and Randy Brecker (trumpet) to feature amongst this feel-good blast of eight self-penned compositions. Retro glints abound in this sizzling music, not least the gritty violin signature of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Fender Rhodes echoes of Soft Machine or Isotope – but Raja’s penchant for original heady riffs, grooves and improvisation clearly marks out his own sound world for the here and now.
Mike Stern instantly lifts the lid on the leader’s box of tricksy rhythms in opener Rabbits, a perfect whirl of bass and electric guitar fluency (Raja himself employing a wide palette of tones to enable him to match any guitar improv) sustained by fizzing drums and electric piano. Inspired by visits with his father to ancestral haunts in the Punjab, Maharaja possesses the bassist’s characteristic raga-like impetus, Alex Stanford’s feverish portamento synth and Pascal Roggen’s violin flamboyance holding the key to its enchantment; and My Imaginary Friend‘s solid funk drive, coloured by skyward Mahvishnuesque violin/sax motifs and wah-wah bass extemporisations, becomes irresistible.
Carefree, lilting Song for John – dedicated to Raja’s young son – breezes along to Monika Lidke’s liquescent wordless vocal, halting the album’s general hypnotic gusto with childlike simplicity; and Sketches of Space (perhaps, with Randy Brecker’s trumpet feature, the oblique Miles Davis reference is intentional) swirls mysteriously, its sparkly synth atmospheres redolent of live Santana.
Taking a lead from the 2008 Guy Ritchie movie of the same name, RocknRolla serves up perhaps the most trancelike six minutes of the album as Stern’s rapid, wailing lead fretwork sparks off syncopated, chromatic bass figures. Bubbling, ska-tinged Primetime (inspired by Raja’s interest in mathematical theorems) trips to mesmerising prime-number time signatures 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11; and rolling back the years to ’70s mysticism/psychedelia, final track Shiva Mantra‘s phased bass riffs, adorned so effectively by Monika Lidke’s alluringly hypnotic chants, cry out for an old-school-vinyl perpetual exit groove!
Shez Raja and colleagues never fail to brew up a storm at their London gigs – but crank up Gurutopia (loud), and you can be there, too.
Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, musician and jazz writer who also reviews at his own site ap-reviews.com
Central London album launch, featuring Soweto Kinch and John Etheridge, is on Tuesday 10th May at Pizza Express Jazz Club.