“It really is a miracle that I managed to record this album,” says Shez Raja. The highly rated bassist and bandleader travelled 4,000 miles to create Tales From The Punjab, his new fusion of east and west – just before the world shut down. Feature by John Bungey:
Plenty of jazz musicians have hard luck stories from the time of Covid; only a few have lucky escape stories – and bass player Shez Raja is one of them. The London-based band leader whose melodic brand of Indo-jazz funk has attracted the talents of Mike Stern, Trilok Gurtu and Randy Brecker, was on a musical journey through the Punjab when the lockdown crisis erupted.
“It was March last year and I was in the Punjab on a bit of an adventure, exploring the music and my heritage – my dad is from the region, my mother is English,” he says. “I met some wonderful musicians and I arranged to meet them in a studio in Lahore. We hit record and started playing. Then word came through from the UK government advising against non-essential travel. So I got a flight back in the nick of time – the following day flights were suspended. It really is a miracle that I managed to record this album.”
Tales from the Punjab, out on Ubuntu Music on 19 March, is a captivating record full of sinuous melody and subtle rhythmic energy. It’s the seventh album from a gifted electric bassist whose previous music has combined the infectious funk grooves of the Brecker Brothers with the whizz-bang virtuosity of early Mahavishnu Orchestra (complete with violinist). Tales from the Punjab inevitably leans towards the Indo end of the Indo-jazz funk spectrum, taking ragas, themes and ideas from Indian music and presenting them in a modern world-music context that will chime with western audiences.
His collaborators ranged from a precociously talented 18-year-old singer, Fiza Haider, starting her recording career, to master musicians including Ahsan Papu, who played bansuri flute with the late, great singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This was clearly a different meeting of minds to Raja’s usual partners in western jazz.
“They were world-class Indian classical musicians but I guess I saw them as jazz musicians as well because in Indian classical music at least 90 per cent is improvised.
“I came with three very specific compositions and we also improvised over ragas – ancient traditional Indian scales – and created new music in the here and now. I had an amazing time. There was a bit of a language barrier but that was completely broken through quite magically.”
If the roots of the album goes back to Raja’s earliest days – visiting the Punjab with his father from their home in the Wirral, there’s been a twisty musical journey in between. After learning violin, Raja swapped to bass aged 12 after trying one at a friend’s house. “It just felt right,” he says. “I have big hands and the violin had become a bit claustrophobic. With the bass I knew immediately that this was an instrument I could express myself on.
As a teenager he loved heavy metal (“There’s a lot more head-bangers in the jazz world than you would expect,” he says with a laugh) before his tastes moved through funk rock and funk before reaching jazz and world music. Influences have included the classic pioneers of lead electric bass – Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorious, Marcus Miller – mixed with echoes of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
An extrovert and natural band leader – who presents creativity masterclasses on the side – Raja has used a simple method for attracting big-name talent to albums such as Gurutopia. “I’d go to Ronnie Scott’s and I’d have a chat with Randy Brecker or Wayne Krantz after they’d played and I’d relate to them as wonderful musicians and human beings. I’d then send some music and was delighted when they said yes … It’s been an invaluable opportunity to grow as an artist, learning from these immensely experienced musicians.”
And now Raja is looking forward to his own debut headlining show at Ronnie’s. The slot, pushed backwards by the pandemic, has been in the diary since October and is now set for the summer. “It’s been a great motivation to keep practising,” he says.
PP features are part of marketing packages. Shez Raja’s album Tales from the Punjab is released by Ubuntu Music on 19 March.Shez Raja plays the 606 Club on 4 June, and Ronnie Scott’s on 5 September, with John Etheridge, guitar; Tony Kofi, alto sax; Vasilis Xenopoulos, tenor saxophone; Lewis Moody keyboards; Sophie Alloway, drums..Shez Raja’s website