Album launch Thursday 8th July at Pizza Express Dean Street with Andy Sheppard
"Dha ti Dha....! Ge ge...NA!" All of a sudden bassist Shez Raja is getting very excited indeed. He's tapping tabla rhythms with his large hands on our quiet waterside table at Kings Place."Yeah, I learnt Indian classical drumming with Sharda Sahai at Leeds College of Music. And I transcribed loads of those rhythms onto the bass guitar." Shez Raja likes springing surprises, it's just something he does.
Born Shehzad Raja, he is now in his mid-30s. His father is from Pakistan, his mother is English, and he grew up in Parkgate in the Wirral. He started a classical training on the violin at the age of 8, but he found before long that his big hands were making him feel cramped. He first picked up a bass guitar at 12, and knew straight away that this was the instrument he wanted to play. Using the money from his paper round, plus help from highly supportive parents, the first instrument and amp were bought, and Raja has felt completely, musically at home on the instrument ever since.
He is essentially self-taught. He spent countless hours in his early years playing along to records. He describes it as "jamming with the masters. You transcribe. You try to get into a conversation. It gets you deep into the music and the musicians' emotions."
Bebop, and especially Charlie Parker was the first music which really hit home. Then 70's fusion. And reggae. And Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. And African music. But he has always been very open to the sounds from the Indian sub-continent. Raja attributes a strong melodic sense to his father's habit of singing. In the house, in the car, any time and virtually anywhere.
At 15 he started playing in rock and funk bands, mostly in Liverpool. He moved to Leeds and studied at Leeds College of Music. In Leeds he played in a variety of bands, of which the most memorable was folk festival and Glastonbury favourite Elephant Talk, with its other-world instrumentation of Irish hammer dulcimer, drum kit, congas, tabla, 3 sellotaped-together digeridoos, Zimbabwean mbira, flute, tenor sax - plus Raja on bass.
He then relocated to London in the late 90's, played hundreds of sessions and in all kinds of bands, notably the rock-based Amphibic, and the backing band for New York hiphopper MC Lyte, both of which toured extensively in Europe
But recent years have found Raja dveloping a strong feeling "needed to satisfy diverse musical urges," that he had things to say that were not coming out in the work as a sideman. And the first thing which is noticeable on listening is that the CD is taking the listener on a journey. The base camp may be in jazz, but world music, dub, reggae, dance and jazz fusion are only ever a short hike.
Among the many surprises which I had when listening to the record, is that Raja tends to play melodies on a four string bass quite so high up on the instrument. It's as if his melodic voice consistently tends to be that of a higher instrument. Raja's bass idols include Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten, but Raja's palate of sounds, and the breadth of his influences, from Merseyside to tabla, are his own.
He is very careful with the use of the word fusion. "I don't use it to describe my music. But it's definitely a fusing together of different styles. "Jazz is at the core , but there's some thundering funk as well. And also some lyrical ballads, a variety of grooves, Eastern sounds, Latin rhythms, hip hop beats, it's a real kaleidoscope."
Raja surrounds himself with musicians who can set up strong grooves, notably the flawless Chris Nickolls on drums. "He's got it all down, it's perfect." But also with some strong melodic voices, notably players who play much higher, and the Polish-born singer Monika Lidke, whose wordless ethereal voice Raja likes to work into the texture. A regular collaborator, who appears on all three of Raja's CDs is the lively New Zealand/Swiss electric violin player Pascal Roggen. On track 11, Mandala Girl, they work convincingly togeher as one melodic voice in octaves. In live gigs they have a tendency to rack up the energy together. Says Raja: "Pascal and I have the same approach, we buzz off each other, we get banter going, we really fire each other up."
One guest on the record, who will also be playing at the launch, is Andy Sheppard. "I was really pleased that he wanted to get involved. We had some good laughs in the studio. He's been fabulous to work with." Sheppard plays a particularly fine, lyrical solo on "Angel's Tears." Another guest is Claude Deppa,whose joyous and searing trumpet sound is on three tracks. "We used to play in an Afro-Cuban project a few years back, he's great."
Raja describes the whole enterprise thus: "I like to listen to and to produce music which takes you on a journey . Where you're not sure what's going to happen next." One senses there will be many more surprises.
8 July - Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho
Album launch featuring Andy Sheppard
9 July - Marlborough Jazz Festival
18 July - Petro Jazz Festival, St Petersburg
31 July - Ealing Jazz Festival
26 Aug - Vortex Jazz Club
Oct tbc - Junction Bar, Berlin