Cosmic Chant/ Rajeev Raja Combine
Genre: Indo-jazz fusion
Available on iTunes India, OKListen and other digital space
BESIDES focusing on his career in advertising, and then starting his sonic branding company BrandMusiq, Rajeev Raja has been involved with his other passion of playing the flute for three decades. He’s studied both the western concert flute and the Indian bansuri, doing numerous gigs as frontman and accompanying various Indian musicians.
Keeping that introduction in mind, it comes as a surprise that he’s just released his debut album, ‘Cosmic Chant’, along with his band Rajeev Raja Combine. However, even if you wonder what took him so long, it’s obvious from the first time you hear this set that it is a labour of love, and a stunningly brilliant one at that.
The sound is a smooth mix of jazz and Indian classical, with elements of rock, Latin sounds and world music. Each of the eight tracks bears the stamp of rich quality, pure melody and crisp instrumentation. While the album is dominated by the flute, Chandana Bala’s accompanying classical vocals are an asset, and there’s some super-tight work by guitarist Hitesh Dhutia, keyboardist and saxophonist Tala Faral, bassist JD, drummer Vaibhav Wavikar and tabla player Vinayak Netke.
The flute is, of course, not new in Indo-fusion. However, most other flautists essentially belong to the Indian classical tradition, and thus stick to the classical rudiments of bansuri or venu playing, with their accompanying keyboardists, guitarists, bassists and drummers bringing in the jazz, rock and world music flavours. As Rajeev focuses on the metal concert flute, and has himself grown up on the best of both western and Indian music, he plays a cross-section of styles effortlessly.
Thus, what we have is an album with great variety. The opening piece ‘Drone’ starts with a pleasant melody line, followed by charming vocal sargams that flow into a marvellous piece of flute improvisation, which then leads to a neat saxophone solo. Just the ideal album opener.
‘Nightingale’s Song’ is another beautiful tune, beginning with melodic guitar lines, and then making way for flute and vocals, which complement each other perfectly. Somewhere down the line, bass and tabla join the action.
‘Mulligan’s Mood’, dedicated to jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, was composed by Rajeev back in 1982, and has been one of his concert regulars. After a steady build-up, the tempo increases suddenly, with some striking guitars and keyboards. Kenneth Rebello makes an appearance on bass here, and some breathtaking flute portions seem straight from the Jethro Tull/ Ian Anderson style sheet.
On the title track, which appears next, Rajeev gets into flamenco-Indian classical fusion mode. Beginning with a Paco de Lucia-styled guitar riff by Hitesh, this one has good coordination between the vocals, flute and rhythms. Chandana’s mid-composition sargam portion is a highlight, and the flute solo and tabla playing act as the right follow-up.
As its name suggests, ‘Grunge’ gets into rocksier territory, with energetic guitar and flute passages. ‘Friday Night Funk’ is a blend of Indian melodies and funk, and one finds shades of European folk in the later flute parts. Despite a title hinting at Middle Eastern music, ‘Turkish Delight’ is actually a stylish amalgamation of Latin and Indian music, with bossa nova and samba guitars and rhythms interacting with Carnatic vocals and haunting flutes.
Finally, ‘Peace’ acts as an ideal climax. Based on raga Hamsadhwani, popular in both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, it boasts of wonderful interplay between vocals and flute, and an uplifting keyboard stretch.
What’s most impressive about ‘Cosmic Chant’ is that there’s not a single moment when you feel that the fusion is forced or artificial. There are absolutely no gimmicky show-off moments, no sudden displays of unnecessary energy outburst, no random intrusion of unwanted semi-spoken rhythm syllables — things which have become characteristic of most contemporary fusion projects.
The beauty of this album lies in its simplicity, variety and use of syncopation, and the fact that it has melody written all over it. It’s the kind of music you can play again and again, and yet it grows on you. Clearly, this is one of the best Indo-fusion albums released in the past decade or so.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding