Shez Raja Collective Go Mystic at Pizza

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The charismatic bandleader is an abiding jazz archetype. They’ve propelled the genre forward with sharp-witted horsepower since the early days, and today continue to ignite grins on the faces of even those with a mere passing interest in the music. From Louis Armstrong to Robert Glasper, from Duke Ellington to Arun Ghosh, jazz’s magnetic personalities, old and new, have helped to popularise an often frowned upon genre with their warmth and wit.

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British-Asian bassist and composer Shez Raja is one of the latest additions to this esteemed lineage of musician-cum-entertainer frontmen. His wisecracking demeanour perfectly complemented the playful, energetic vibe of his Brecker Brothers-inspired, indo jazz-funk. If music ever ceased to be a viable income-generating trade for Raja, he’d be likely to hit pay dirt on the stand-up circuit instead. For instance, when explaining his band’s eastern credentials, the bassist, who dressed head to toe in white looked like one of the venue’s pizza chefs, quipped: “I’m half Asian, Gilad (Atzmon) has middle east connections, and Pascal (Roggen) had a curry last night”. The gags flowed as freely as his lithesome bass lines.

This gig was a launch party for Raja’s newly released Soho Live LP, taken from a three-night snapshot of some of his 2010 Mystic Radikal repertoire. The bassist’s all-star collective, which consists of Chris Nickolls (drums), Alex Stanford (keyboards), Pascal Roggen (five-string electric violin), Monika Lidke (vocals) and Aaron Liddard (alto sax), got underway with the do-what-it-says-on-the-tin groover ‘Adrenalize’, a steady onrush of double-stop bass chords, fluid beats and distorted wah-wah violin.

“We thought we’d ease you in with a ballad,” Raja cracked afterwards, before asking a man in the front “how are your chakras?” “Balanced” the man replied cannily. “Well, they’re about to become very unbalanced,” Raja retorted. And while the call-and-response jig of ‘Chakras On The Wall’ (which marked the introduction of master reedsman Shabaka Hutchings, pictured below) didn’t throw us entirely out of whack, it certainly made our heads swim a bit, thanks to Hutchings’ bantering sax and Roggen’s sly rejoinders.
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The collective’s firepower was at full tilt with the arrival of Israeli tenor saxist and activist Gilad Atzmon. While the other soloists were all brilliant in their own right, Atzmon’s steely, microtonal flourishes took Raja’s verse-chorus-based compositions to another level entirely, especially on the two-note rock raga ‘Karmic Flow’. Atzmon’s slurred-note frenzies didn’t let up on ‘RocknRolla’ either, a high-octane, squelchy-funk ode to Guy Ritchie’s much-maligned gangster flick.

Though the show wasn’t all speed and swagger. The ethereal ballad ‘Angels Tears’ brought Monika Lidke’s feathery soft voice to the fore, which gently wreathed itself around Raja’s high-up-the-neck, soft-focus octave chords. This gut-busting performance, along with Raja’s latest live cut, are yet more welcome additions to the jam band menu.

– Jamie Skey