Jazz has often ‘looked East’ for inspiration and new colours, from the pioneering days of the Mahavishnu Orchestra right through to modern British asian artists like clarinettist Arun Ghosh. Bassist Shez Raja has on his previous albums periodically explored his own mixed heritage, but on this new concept album, he’s done so to the full. A kind of musical epic adventure, the theme running through Journey to Shambhala is discovery, as a young man’s travels to find the mystical city of Shambhala (drawing inspiration from family trips to the region when Raja was a kid) is told through a whole different set of bass-led musical themes.
This story is brought to life by his regulator collaborators - wife Monika Lidke on vocals, Chris Nickolls on drums, Pascal Roggen on electric violin, Alex Stanford on keyboards and Vasilis Xenopoulos on saxes - plus two international collaborators on a number of tracks: US guitar legend Wayne Krantz and Indian percussion guru Trilok Gurtu, whose addition does imbue this album with the subtle musical colours of the Hindu Kush.
The album is colourful, positive in tone and mystical around the edges. This isn’t about spiky-edged experimental jazz, but it does offer elements of ska, funk and rock as well as an asian temperament running just beneath the surface. There are a number of strong tunes that help the imagination wonder through the journey of the unnamed boy at the centre of the story (however, the three remixes at the end of the CD do give the impression of filler tracks, and could easily be dispensed with).
On every track, Raja’s exemplary technical playing is evident - funk elements and phat chords exist alongside complex turnarounds and trills - and serves to provide a solid superstructure on every track on which his band, in turn, can pour foot-tappingly hot musical sauce of various intensity.
It’s jump up and move around fun right from the get-go on title track Shambhala, which could be a TV-theme tune for some British-Asian seventies detective drama! Second track Dharma Dance, feature Trilok Gurtu brings things firmly to the sub-continent, and on this track Stanford’s exotic choice of keyboards sounds gives it a definite mystical twist. It’s not all bass-led sturm und drang on this album, however. Third track Lakshmi, with Lidke providing authentic-sounding Asian-style, soft vocalise over a simply ballad, shows Raja can offer a softer edge to this his playing and composition now a tune that has a lovely progression in the main theme which is sweetly compelling.
Across eight tracks, a story of sorts unfolds - the pace rises and falls, the sounds wax and wane and sometimes go into bracingly odd territory, such as on track four Get Cosmic, featuring Krantz’s sonic weirdness matched against Xenopoulos’ smart sax and Roggen’s trippy violin scratches in a rumbustious, at time seventies-tinged real weird headspace of a track that, even if it doesn’t reach the cosmos, certainly extends to the upper atmosphere. At its heart, there’s some cracking beats and moods: Krantz’s very angular style does give the two tracks he’s on a spikiness that is missing on some of the other tracks.
Concept albums are tricky in rock, and perhaps more so in jazz. Raja pulls it off in the most part with this album, because the overlying concept isn’t constrictive and doesn’t cloy, meaning that while there is a theme running through, it doesn’t hide the fact that this is an album of eight different tunes that are catchy, well-crafted, with a clear mix and offering the sound of a band having fun making music.
You can listen to this album without reading the ‘chapters’ of the story featured in the liner notes perfectly well; but doing so does gives you a sense of the pictures Raja aims to put across in his playing.