Mike Smith by Seb Scotney

Shez Raja by Seb Scotney

Interview: Mike Smith

Mike SmithTwenty-six year old saxophonist Mike Smith clearly has performing in the blood. But when I interviewed him about his new CD "Ginger Tunes," the first in his own name, what kept coming through was the attitude: "being bold, scouse and cheeky." He tells me it's something he's known for.
Mike Smith grew up in Southport in Merseyside, and first signed up for lessons on the saxophone- in order to avoid maths classes- at the age of 12. He participated in the school's big band, the Sefton Youth Jazz Orchestra, which he remembers with great fondness. But his musical development was also progressing outside school. Smith's mother was the guitarist in gigging band called Switchback. The band played covers of Beatles and AC/DC songs, and so, before long, Smith the teenager was featuring on gigs, starting by taking a sax solo on Lady Madonna, and developing from there, gradually building the respect of the others onstage. For this youngster, music was not so much a rebellion as catching the family bug.

He went on to the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA). LIPA was co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney, is based in the building where the Beatle went to school. It is known for attracting able and keen students from a wide range of backgrounds. "It opens arms to the local community, it widens participation, and has proved an excellent springboard into the creative professions," says Ben Turner, education correspondent at the Liverpool Echo. It was at the Institute that Smith formed many of his close working relationships. Smith wanted to reflect his day-to-day work with these collaborators- notably bassist and producer JJ Rio, and drummer Jay Irving on the CD. Smith graduated from LIPA with first-class honours in 2005. He still keeps an association with the college- he now goes back there to teach.

Another important development in Smith's journey was performing and touring extensively with the Muffin Men, a Liverpool-based band formed in 1990 which mainly performs the music of Frank Zappa. It was through the Muffin Men that Smith met and got to know Zappa's drummer Jimmy Carl Black, a regular guest with the band. Smith was 19. "I'd never met any one like him before, and I doubt I ever will. He was a rock star in the proper sense. He spent his whole life on the road, but had a real thing about Liverpool." Smith got to know him well, stayed at his home, appreciated his jokes and sayings, every one of them totally unprintable. Black died in 2008.

Smith has a full, strong saxophone sound on both soprano and tenor. Grover Washington an influence, I asked him? No, Smith's sax hero is definitely Joshua Redman , whom he heard live at the Village Vanguard in New York.

In addition to the Muffin Men, Smith has worked with Stevie Winwood, Craig David, and is currently a regular- on keyboards- with Kid Creole. Smith put together the CD "Ginger Tunes" to be "an honest account of where I am," and the album's inspirations have indeed come from many places. There are some clues in the CD booklet, which contains no fewer than fifty photos. There's one of Smith on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, another looking up at the canopy outside the Village Vanguard. But there's also a wooden toilet seat (I didn't ask) and a portrait of the artist in front of some waste containers.

This eclectic approach colours the album. One track has the glorious fresh sound of the voices of African children. They were recorded on a trip to Malawi with the educational organization Beat Life. Another, Faith in Him, is a feature for gutsy Wakefield-born soul singer Hannah Rei. Liquid is a dialogue for Smith with himself on overdubbed tenor and soprano saxes. And on the final track, Ascendency (sic), TV presenter and Liverpool football pundit Keith Wilson, is featured declaiming a poem. It's straight out of the sixties Liverpool beat poet tradition of Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. This is a cheerful album, full of variety.

Shez Raja by Seb Scotney

Shez Raja Collective - Mystic Radikal (33 Records) -
Album launch Thursday 8th July at Pizza Express Dean Street with Andy Sheppard

"Dha ti Dha....! Ge ge...NA!" All of a sudden bassist Shez Raja is getting very excited indeed. He's tapping tabla rhythms with his large hands on our quiet waterside table at Kings Place."Yeah, I learnt Indian classical drumming with Sharda Sahai at Leeds College of Music. And I transcribed loads of those rhythms onto the bass guitar." Shez Raja likes springing surprises, it's just something he does.

Born Shehzad Raja, he is now in his mid-30s. His father is from Pakistan, his mother is English, and he grew up in Parkgate in the Wirral. He started a classical training on the violin at the age of 8, but he found before long that his big hands were making him feel cramped. He first picked up a bass guitar at 12, and knew straight away that this was the instrument he wanted to play. Using the money from his paper round, plus help from highly supportive parents, the first instrument and amp were bought, and Raja has felt completely, musically at home on the instrument ever since.

He is essentially self-taught. He spent countless hours in his early years playing along to records. He describes it as "jamming with the masters. You transcribe. You try to get into a conversation. It gets you deep into the music and the musicians' emotions."

Bebop, and especially Charlie Parker was the first music which really hit home. Then 70's fusion. And reggae. And Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. And African music. But he has always been very open to the sounds from the Indian sub-continent. Raja attributes a strong melodic sense to his father's habit of singing. In the house, in the car, any time and virtually anywhere.

At 15 he started playing in rock and funk bands, mostly in Liverpool. He moved to Leeds and studied at Leeds College of Music. In Leeds he played in a variety of bands, of which the most memorable was folk festival and Glastonbury favourite Elephant Talk, with its other-world instrumentation of Irish hammer dulcimer, drum kit, congas, tabla, 3 sellotaped-together digeridoos, Zimbabwean mbira, flute, tenor sax - plus Raja on bass.

He then relocated to London in the late 90's, played hundreds of sessions and in all kinds of bands, notably the rock-based Amphibic, and the backing band for New York hiphopper MC Lyte, both of which toured extensively in Europe

But recent years have found Raja dveloping a strong feeling "needed to satisfy diverse musical urges," that he had things to say that were not coming out in the work as a sideman. And the first thing which is noticeable on listening is that the CD is taking the listener on a journey. The base camp may be in jazz, but world music, dub, reggae, dance and jazz fusion are only ever a short hike.

Among the many surprises which I had when listening to the record, is that Raja tends to play melodies on a four string bass quite so high up on the instrument. It's as if his melodic voice consistently tends to be that of a higher instrument. Raja's bass idols include Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten, but Raja's palate of sounds, and the breadth of his influences, from Merseyside to tabla, are his own.

He is very careful with the use of the word fusion. "I don't use it to describe my music. But it's definitely a fusing together of different styles. "Jazz is at the core , but there's some thundering funk as well. And also some lyrical ballads, a variety of grooves, Eastern sounds, Latin rhythms, hip hop beats, it's a real kaleidoscope."

Raja surrounds himself with musicians who can set up strong grooves, notably the flawless Chris Nickolls on drums. "He's got it all down, it's perfect." But also with some strong melodic voices, notably players who play much higher, and the Polish-born singer Monika Lidke, whose wordless ethereal voice Raja likes to work into the texture. A regular collaborator, who appears on all three of Raja's CDs is the lively New Zealand/Swiss electric violin player Pascal Roggen. On track 11, Mandala Girl, they work convincingly togeher as one melodic voice in octaves. In live gigs they have a tendency to rack up the energy together. Says Raja: "Pascal and I have the same approach, we buzz off each other, we get banter going, we really fire each other up."

One guest on the record, who will also be playing at the launch, is Andy Sheppard. "I was really pleased that he wanted to get involved. We had some good laughs in the studio. He's been fabulous to work with." Sheppard plays a particularly fine, lyrical solo on "Angel's Tears." Another guest is Claude Deppa,whose joyous and searing trumpet sound is on three tracks. "We used to play in an Afro-Cuban project a few years back, he's great."

Raja describes the whole enterprise thus: "I like to listen to and to produce music which takes you on a journey . Where you're not sure what's going to happen next." One senses there will be many more surprises.


8 July - Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho
Album launch featuring Andy Sheppard

9 July - Marlborough Jazz Festival

18 July - Petro Jazz Festival, St Petersburg

31 July - Ealing Jazz Festival

26 Aug - Vortex Jazz Club

Oct tbc - Junction Bar, Berlin



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