FEATURE: Shez Raja (Journey to Shambhala album launch, Jazz Cafe 18 May)

Shez Raja
Photo credit:Krystian Data
Bassist Shez Raja will launch a new album Journey to Shambhala at London’s Jazz Cafe on Saturday 18 May. John Fordham writes:

Shez Raja, the lean, theatrical, and thunderously skilful electric bassist, likes nothing more than turning the sometimes restrained traditions of Indo-jazz crossovers way up to eleven. The Wirral-born British-Asian player/composer’s latest world-jazz album, Journey to Shambhala, pulsates with the proof of that, even if its story is intended to invoke a young man’s quest for meaning through a search for the mystical city of the title, encountering ambushes, hallucinations, white elephants, murderous sun-worshippers, and eventually all-conquering love along the way.

If the backstory sounds a shade on the fey side for the more pragmatic of jazz and improv fans, Raja reveals himself to be a very long way from a seraphic daydreamer once he straps on his custom-made Fodera bass and cranks up the jazz-fusion vibe with a band of like-mindedly risk-embracing partners. Journey to Shambhala features jubilant funk and dance tracks driven by catchy sax hooks, headlong Indo-scat vocals, dizzying electric guitar improv, lyrical violin lines and banshee synths, and gently lilting episodes as warm yet sinewy as the most traditional jazz ballad. The enterprising Raja has regularly enlisted big-time jazz stars for his projects (trumpeter Randy Brecker and former Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern have recorded with him), and the new session is often similarly brought to the boil by illustrious guests, in this case New York guitarist and sometime Steely Dan sideman Wayne Krantz, and Indian percussion giant Trilok Gurtu. Stirring the mix still further, Shez Raja has also invited the input of the producer/DJ Happy Cat Jay, for dancefloor remixes of three of the album’s eight originals.

"Normally when I’m thinking about a new album, I’ll just sit down with the bass and write a few tunes," Raja muses, pondering the process that made this venture so different. "But I guess I’d come to a point in life where I’d started giving a lot more thought to the meaning of life and happiness, and to my own story as the British-raised child of an Asian father and an English mother. Maybe I was getting past that stage in life where you think fulfilment might come through achievements or possessions – realising instead that following the heart and our dreams makes a lot more sense than feeling anxious about a future that doesn’t exist yet, or regretful about a past which doesn’t exist any more. I’ve become more interested in the here and now, which is right where you have to be as a performing musician, particularly an improviser."

Shez Raja confirms that he wrote the story for Journey to Shambhala first, and then composed the pieces to fit its jump-cut sequence of vivid thrills and spills, each scene bringing its own thoughts and emotions to his compositional ideas. But there were crucial background factors involved, most significantly the direct experiences of Asian life that had begun for him at the age of two.

"That was when I first began my travels to the Punjab with my father, which have periodically continued ever since," Raja says. "We would visit his ancestral village, and the street life and the bazaars of the region made a big impression on me. I play the tabla as well as the bass, and I guess I’ve been trying to replicate some of the sounds I heard there for a long time. But alongside all that, of course, there are all the influences on my musical development, from studying classical violin as a child, to discovering John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, or amazing bassists like Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, and John Patitucci."

Raja makes it plain that while he’s on a mission to nurture his own unique creative voice, the hothouse of collective music-making with gifted improvisers is for him a much more promising place to find it than a traditional composer’s solitary confinement.

"I’ve realised that everybody brings their own playing experiences and their life journey with them, and the mix of so much different input broadens your own experience and sense of what’s possible," Raja fervently observes. "That happened on this album with Trilok and Wayne. Trilok’s a virtuoso of the tabla of course, and of the Carnatic konnakol technique of vocal percussion too – so he brought so much joy and passion to the music, and helped to make it so much fun for me. And Wayne is an utterly uncompromising guitarist, completely true to himself, and as creative with a rock vibe as with jazz. So their ideas influenced my own playing, and affected the written arrangements too."

Shez Raja looks forward to gigging with the Journey to Shambhala repertoire for most of 2019, and to the various offshoots it spawns – including a Japanese-influenced video animation of the album’s lilting vocal/instrumental song Epiphany (on which Krantz and Gurtu subtly converse), and a seven-inch direct-to-vinyl single, recorded in real time on three 1950s microphones and a raft of vintage analogue valve equipment. "I have to admit I’m a bit of a gear geek," Shez Raja chuckles. "But those old-school techniques are fantastic for capturing the nuances of an improvising band playing in the moment." Visitors to the band’s live shows will also catch the full force of this engaging artist's enthusiasm for setting a live audience jumping. "Back to the Punjab via Soho!" Raja delightedly declared to his fans at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club on a gig I heard there in 2016. The gig reference may change, but the guiding spirit will stay the same when Journey to Shambhala rocks on to the road again in the coming months. (pp)

Shez Raja launches Journey to Shambala at the Jazz Cafe on Saturday 18 May 2019.

LINKS: Jazz Cafe Bookings
Shez Raja website

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