(Ronnie Scott’s. 5 September 2021. Review by AJ Dehany
Punjab means ‘five rivers’. In early 2020 bass player and composer Shez Raja travelled with his father to the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent to explore his roots, personally and musically. He went into the studio with some of the great local musicians, combining his characteristic bass with bansuri flute, sarong, tabla, cajon and vocals. The resulting album Tales From The Punjab he describes as 80% Eastern, 20% Western. His previous album Journey to Shambhala had more of a 32:68 ratio, he says. It’s a journey, and both albums are part of an ongoing and remarkable synthesis of experience, influence and attitude.
We talk about ‘third stream’ music trickling out of jazz and classical music, so just get with those five rivers. At Ronnie Scott’s club, Shez Raja’s quintet sound was full-on fusion jazz-funk-jam-raga-raga-rock with forays into reggae, jungle and Afropop. The group leaned into the Western ratio sonically and structurally. Shez’s intricate but direct melodic themes are doubled, trebled, even quadrupled with a pleasing and impressive sprezzatura. Wild tunes like Dharma Dance and Get Cosmic express Eastern melodic sensibilities but with the punch and volume of a rock band, albeit one where the players can really play.
It’s a band where everyone plays to their strengths. Drummer Sophie Alloway reminds me of Seb Rochford’s mix of rock-solid poise and delicate decoration, managing to look casual, fluid and virtuosic in slick funk or rocking jungle workouts. Kieron Garrett’s nourishingly nasty synth sounds link in with the drums and Shez Raja’s heavily effected thick bass sound, where everything fuses into one voice. On the ballads Epiphany and Song For John there are some sweet jazz chordal confections, but for the most part that’s not totally what this music is about. As Shez has said previously in interview with Guitarworld, “The harmony in Indian music is super-simple – where it gets mind-bogglingly, face-meltingly interesting is the rhythm and the melody.“
The affable Shez Raja loves a jam session but there are only a couple of moments when it starts to feel a little jammy, and even then, nobody’s ever gonna kick guitarist John Etheridge out of a musical bed for getting widdly. Mostly the improvisations seem contained by the tunes, where the melodies, grooves, rhythms and surprise structural turns, communicate the development and feeling of the music, with a diversity of feel among the material. Chakras On The Wall is sheer short fast riot jazz. Lakshmi develops a chorus-drenched slow bass arpeggio into a silvery sound with a ruminative strain.
Encore Freedom diverges from the subcontinental template with a cheesily cheery South African feel, which blossomed into a vivid climax with fierce duelling from saxophonists Tony Kofi and Vasoulis Xenopoulis. The joyful rapid-fire exchange of short solos between all of the now six musicians was spirited, entertaining and competitive in an appealing way. By the end everyone in Ronnie’s was clapping and standing up, as if five rivers of joy had burst their banks, in a good way.
Tales From The Punjab is released on Ubuntu Music
LINKS: Album feature by John Bungey
Categories: Live review