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London Jazz Bassist Shez Raja Digs Into Roots on ‘Tales From The Punjab’

Recorded in Lahore by ace fusion guitarist-producer Mekaal Hasan, the album features flautist Ahsan Papu, sarangi artist Zohaib Hassan and more

Anurag Tagat Apr 04, 2021

London-based Indo-jazz artist and bassist Shez Raja. Photo: Tatiana Gorilovsky

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In early 2020, when travel was still very much a possibility, so were collaborations of the most intimate and direct kind; Shez Raja would know. The Londoner (born to an Asian father and English mother) traveled to Lahore in a bid to explore his heritage as well as the classical music of the region. He says over a video call, “There’s no substitute for being with musicians and working with musicians. We press the record button, we started playing and it happened… which can’t happen online, which can only happen in person.”

Tales from the Punjab, which released in March, was recorded by seasoned producer and guitarist Mekaal Hasan and makes for a mellifluous conversation between a jazz fusion artist like Raja and Pakistani artists of varying musical experience and lineage. Across pre-written compositions brought to the rehearsal space by Raja and completely improvised tracks, the album props up a meditative, dexterous bridge between Indian classical and jazz.

Through researching and networking online, Raja went in to collaborate with flautist/bansuri artist Ahsan Papu (who’s performed with singing legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), sarangi player Zohaib Hassan, tabla artist Kashif Ali Dani, 18-year-old singer Fiza Haider and Qamar Abbas on cajon. The bassist says there was only an initial language barrier. “I just broke it down. And I thought, ‘What is the fundamental thing that’s happening here?’ And basically, these incredible musicians are expressing their emotions and creating vibrations. And with my instrument, I’m going to create my own vibrations, which hopefully sounds really cool and complements what these guys are doing,” Raja adds.

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Originally trained in violin as a child, Raja went on to pick up the bass (“I’ve got quite big hands and it just felt really comfortable,” he says) and performed with artists such as Elephant Walk, MC Lyte and Loka before going solo about a decade ago. It led to albums such as Gurutopia in 2016 (featuring jazz veterans like guitarist Mike Stern and trumpeter Randy Brecker) and Journey To Shambhala in 2019, featuring Indian pathbreaking percussionist Trilok Gurtu and jazz-rock heavyweight Wayne Krantz. “I guess my concept with that album was to very simply just invite two of my very favorite musicians in the whole world, both of whom have a very authentic voice,” Raja says of Journey to Shambhala.

With all his material as well as Tales from the Punjab, Raja believes he’s on a “lifelong quest to seek out creativity and inspiration.” He adds, “What I’m specifically trying to do there is excite the mind and fuel the imagination and find approaches to becoming more creatively alive.”

While the album was recorded in the nick of time – Raja cut his trip short and rushed back home to London just a day before most parts of the world went into lockdown – the musician is still hoping that once restrictions ease, the album lineup can tour the record in the U.K. and Europe. In the meantime, Raja has teamed up with London-based musicians to perform part of Tales from the Punjab on June 4th and September 5th. “We’re trying to recreate those soundscapes and hopefully that magical meditative state that we were all in when we were recording in Lahore,” Raja says.

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He’s also eyeing when he can come back to the region. “Next time I want to head over to Amritsar and Mumbai and spend a lot longer,” the bassist says.

Listen to ‘Tales from the Punjab’ below and buy the album here.

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