‘Soho Live’ – Shez Raja Collective

ShezRaja

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE JAZZ/FUNK on the current scene with quite such the invigorating edge and retro passion of the Shez Raja Collective. Captured live, and drawing material from studio albums Magica (2007) and Mystic Radikal (2010), ultra-dynamic electric bassist Shez Raja and his augmented personnel serve up a decidedly high-powered performance in this new release, Soho Live.

Raja’s no-holds-barred grooving is redolent of the seminal and psychedelic jazz/rock fusion of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, the hypnotic energy of the Zawinul Syndicate and legendary bass genius of Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller – but there is bite and electricity here which demonstrates the genre’s ongoing relevance and explains Raja’s own fervent following, especially when guests Gilad Atzmon, Soweto Kinch, Shabaka Hutchings, Jay Phelps and vocalist Monika Lidke leap on board for what was evidently an unforgettably vibrant gig.

The core line-up steams through this 55-minute set with quite breathtaking verve – Aaron Liddard on alto and tenor saxes, electric violinist Pascal Roggen, Alex Stanford on keys and Chris Nickolls on drums. Adding Shabaka Hutchings into the mix, as clarinettist on opening number Adrenalize, simply revs up the excitement as his improvisations spiral unfalteringly. Electronics are a significant part of the band’s make-up and, with Stanford able to maintain the bass ‘raga’, Raja is free to solo extensively and colourfully.

Karmic Flow‘s deep bass riff against the mesmeric soundmix of tanpura, violin, saxes, drums and wordless vocals sets the tone for Soweto Kinch’s freestyling rap, much to the delight of the Pizza Express audience. And if ever there was a saxophonist whose instrument appeared to be simply an extension of their creative being, it must surely be Gilad Atzmon. In upbeat mid-groove FNUK – which finds Shez Raja soloing so fluidly, high on the fretboard, to infectious wah-wah keys and unified horn section – Atzmon grabs the the opportunity to wind up his tenor soloing from initial placidity to identifiable and outrageously rapid in-and-out-of-key brilliance – a joy to hear.

Taking on a Mahavishnu feel, thanks to the band’s unison melodies led by Pascal Roggen’s electric violin, Quiverwish bubbles to the slap’n’pop of Shez’s bass, Atzmon again in the midst; and Eastern Revolution melds violin and sitar sounds to great effect over whizzing electronics and Chris Nickolls’ high-impetus drums. Chirpy Chakras On The Wall features the lissome, scat-like vocals of Monika Lidke coupled with purposeful violin; South African in flavour, it includes, from Raja, a notable reverse-bass simulation (Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, anybody?!).

Announced as “our funkiest track”, Junk Culture summons for me the memory of Jeff Beck/Jan Hammer classic You Never Know (There and Back, 1980) – certainly an infectious dazzler from this band’s nucleus involving a frothy keyboard frenzy from Alex Stanford. Finally, Freedom offers more of that African sunshine, courtesy of gyrating brass and clav over Raja’s swirling bass, Jay Phelps’ trumpet and Soweto Kinch’s alto determined to keep this party bouncing!

Released on 7 April 2014, on 33 Jazz, this is one spectacular jazz/funk celebration!

Check out the videos at Shez Raja’s YouTube channel.


Shez Raja
electric bass
Soweto Kinch alto saxophone, rapping
Gilad Atzmon tenor saxophone
Shabaka Hutchings clarinet
Jay Phelps trumpet
Monika Lidke vocals
Aaron Liddar alto and tenor saxophones
Pascal Roggen electric violin
Alex Stanford keyboards
Chris Nickolls drums

2014 gigs announced:
16 & 17 April: Album launch at Pizza Express Jazz Club, London (album launch)
6 June: The Forge, Camden
3 August: Erie Jazz Festival, USA
August: Australia and New Zealand tour

33 Jazz – 238 (2014)

‘Anyone With A Heart’ – Iiro Rantala String Trio

Iiro

THE CLASSICAL FORM of piano trio is unfamiliar in jazz spheres – but, for Finnish pianist/composer Iiro Rantala, Polish violinist Adam Baldych and Austrian cellist Asja Valcic (all classically trained), it seems the perfect grouping to animate these jazz originals from Rantala.

The compositional approach stems from a desire to champion melodies – as Rantala says: “…in today’s jazz, most people try to get by without them… and if they don’t, they play standards.” And much of the sequence is tightly arranged in three parts, beautifully balanced with the freedom to improvise, frequently sailing close to ‘light music’. But it also has a depth of integrity which is both charming and inviting, due in part to the multifarious timbres the ‘string trio’ members achieve between them, as well as their undoubted shared discipline and musicianship. The music feels close and personal, conveying a variety of emotions – from heart-rending romanticism, through gritty chasing momentum or devotional simplicity, to unalloyed and overflowing joy.

Iiro Rantala’s pianistic style is noteable for its precision and clarity, but also for its ‘prepared/muted’ technique which complements the strings of violin and cello, used to great effect in Freedom (at times, its bounciness mimics a synthesised approach reminiscent of Vangelis). In contrast, there are echoes of Asja Valcic’s own Radio String Quartet Vienna in the pulsating Hard Score, driven by cello and violin, Rantala’s piano running with the heightened intensity and contributing muted bass, whilst the gypsy-jazz violin is phenomenal both in raciness and fluidity. A Gift is easy-going and entirely accessible, Baldych’s agile plucked melody preceding a lush, homely trio arrangement which glistens with top-end piano runs; and the delicate musical box introduction to Prayer builds into an impassioned love song, with the individual violin and cello melodies so yearningly lyrical.

Title track Anyone With A Heart expresses all the warm affection of a Sunday evening’s soft TV drama, its bright, memorable melodies evoking rolling Yorkshire Dales landscapes or stately country houses. And, just as irresistible, is A Little Jazz Tune which, as its name implies, provides a jaunty ‘life’s good’ interlude with Grappelli-style portamento fiddle improvisations over Rantala’s unashamedly cheerful piano. Alone switches to a minor key of sorrowful longing, Valcic’s cello singing so eloquently and movingly; and Rantala’s brief, gentle arrangement of Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow offers the subtlest of silver linings, before heading into the convivial, showy curtain call, er… Happy Hippo!

Those looking for hard-edged, challenging jazz are likely to find this release a touch too light. But it exudes a warmth and a sincerity which is difficult to ignore, such is the charm and openness of Iiro Rantala’s writing and the conviction of his players. It’s certainly been a popular choice in this household.

‘Anyone With A Heart’ is released in the UK on 10 March 2014, by ACT Music – audio samples and information available here.


Iiro Rantala
piano
Adam Baldych violin
Asja Valcic cello

ACT 9566-2 (2014)