A Shez Raja gig is an event. Virtuoso bass playing, a tight, funky band, corny gags, backward hats, basses thrown in the air. There’s a lot going at a Shez Raja gig and audiences always come away from his shows energised and thoroughly entertained.
Bassist Shez Raja was in celebratory mood at London’s 606 Club. He has a new album out - Gurutopia on which, he’s rightly proud to say, jazz legends Mike Stern and Randy Brecker both provide contributions. A thoroughly personable chap as well as an astoundingly creative bass player, Raja provides more entertainment per pound than most and generates a warm connection with his audiences that is not altogether commonplace in the modern jazz world.
Playing a combination of established tracks from his earlier three albums and cuts from the new release, Raja is able to do his stuff well because he’s backed by an established group of musicians who’ve supported his musical development over many years. 5-string electric violinist Pascal Roggen - all Sideshow-Bob hair and pumped-up effects - provided the psychedelic pyrotechnics. Keyboardist Alex Stanford twisted every available knob on his keyboard in search of whacky synth chops. ‘Time Lord’ Chris Nicholls on drums coped admirably with every screwy time signature thrown at him, and ‘new boy’ Vasilis Xenopoulos honked away on his alto sax pumped through some very interesting effects.
This tight-as-a-drum band was joined for parts of the show by Raja’s wife Monika Lidke on voice and, for the second set, former Soft Machine guitarist John Etheridge, who on tracks like new cut Maharaja shredded mightily, drawing big rounds of applause in appreciation.
Raja’s music is on the face of it a very straightforward mix of jazz, African and Indian influences overlaid with a fusion sheen. His tracks and showmanship are designed to get feet tapping and hands clapping, as the audience did successfully on up-tempo track Shiva Mantra. Yet behind the funky rhythms and hummable melodies there lies, like a Swiss watch, lots of detailed workings to admire: astoundingly complex time signature; challenging off-the-beat playing, as seen on the main riff for track Rabbits; and mind-bindingly complex soloing on the five-string Warwick Streamer bass that is a joy to behold and simply wonder at.
As much as the music it’s the man’s personality that creates a great evening for band and audience alike, showmanship which is a rare site these days when many musicians can often forget that their first duty, as entertainers, is to leave the audience wanting much, much more. Squeezing in one extra track past the 2300h curfew was typical of Raja’s musical generosity. His audience banter has echoes of a music hall comedian, corny as his jokes are, but laughter is a great lubricant for getting an audience warmed up and into the music.
Music should be entertaining and fun. Both boxes were ticked. Unalloyed musical pleasure tonight.