Shri – The Letter(Jazzland Recordings 3779254. CD review by Adrian Pallant)
It’s not uncommon to be impressed by bass-player albums which aren’t dominated by the leader. But new release The Letter by Shri (Shri Sriram) is unashamedly… about the bass. Both the sound world and the story are fascinating.
In a career stemming from his musical upbringing in Bombay, the award-winning bassist, composer, arranger and producer has been involved in Indian classical music, electronica, trip hop, jazz, rock, musical theatre and film scores; he has appeared at festivals including Glastonbury, Montreux and London Jazz Festival and has worked alongside artists such as Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney. So it’s no surprise to find such eclecticism in this solo album.
I first encountered Shri at the 2017 Manchester Jazz Festival, witnessing his thunderous Just A Vibration project with the Hammonds Saltaire Brass Band, sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun and drummer Asaf Sirkis. The extent of his own performance was soon evident, playing a fretless electric bass with an open body shape which offered both traditional and arco capabilities, combined with looped electronic effects.
Back in 1993, he sent a demo to renowned German electric upright bassist Eberhard Weber (backbone of so many great ECM recordings), who replied. As Shri relates, “Eberhard’s letter was so inspiring; it helped me focus on my musical approach in very specific ways and gave me reason and strength to continue on the path I was developing”. Hence The Letter, on which he has collaborated with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, the late Italian drummer Paolo Vinaccia, Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg, British saxophonist/clarinettist Ben Castle and Norwegian pianist/keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft (also the album’s producer).
Two opening bass solos – heavily-percussive Drum the Bass and the coruscating, sitar-like title track – lay the foundations of this journey. But Boiling Point begins to lift the lid on Shri’s wider creativity in a post-industrial, early-Pink Floyd, free-jazz maelstrom which eventually throbs to fast-flowing bass riffs and Bugge Wesseltoft’s crazed Fender Rhodes. Floating on a sea of synths and Shri’s tabla, the mesmeric, unison lines of bowed bass and Tore Brunborg’s sax in New Day seemingly pay homage to Eberhard Weber, as does the serene yet grooving panorama of Bass Monk.
Entwined finds Ben Castle’s sinewy bass clarinet in shadowy, improvisational conversation with arco bass; and Bow presents an intriguing, extended bass duet with another ECM master, Arild Andersen – it gathers a soft momentum that is beautifully understated. Intense raga, Nasikabhhushani, develops an electronic fusion feel as Vinaccia’s hard, dry drumming supports the major/minor funk; Uvdal is a fleet, almost bluesy duologue between Shri’s bansuri flute and Brunborg’s sax; and restful Night’s fretless basses (again with Andersen) seem to pick out flickering lights from a mountain top.
I’ve read that, after arriving in the UK, the younger Shri fashioned his own electric bass from an abandoned scrap of teak found close to his home. His perseverance meant it was eventually good enough to serve him, in the early days, through a number of professional gigs – a great symbol of the determination which has led to this imaginative exploration of his instrument. Played through a deeply responsive speaker system, it’s mindblowing!
The Letter is released on Friday 13 March.