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Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

Rafiq Bhatia Bio (2020)

To be released on January 31, Standards Vol. 1 transforms cornerstone works by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and more into immersive, otherworldly realms of sound that are uniquely Rafiq Bhatia. Working with a cast of traditional jazz’s most beloved musicians including the three-time GRAMMY-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bhatia implements dreamlike and sometimes volatile electronic techniques to recast classic repertoire as a window into the darkness underlying ordinary American life. Eschewing nostalgia or emulation, Standards Vol. 1 is a deeply personal and decidedly un-standard record that will have you thinking about the possibilities of jazz in an entirely new way.

This EP’s focus on songs a half-century old may surprise anyone already familiar with Bhatia, a musician whose embrace of sculpted noise and sound design is a far cry from the traditions of the American Songbook. His fearless 2018 LP Breaking English unveiled “a vibrant instrumental sound world where crushing beats, nimble guitar licks, and shifting electronic textures coalesce with a visceral bite” (Chicago Reader). When jazz-aligned artists like Dave Douglas, Marcus Gilmore, and David Virelles call on Bhatia for their own projects, it’s usually with his vanguard sonics in mind.

Bhatia’s committedly experimental orientation may also seem at odds with his choice of collaborators for this EP: erudite, virtuosic acoustic instrumentalists who are largely venerated by the jazz orthodoxy. But there’s an unlikely depth to the history and common ground uniting them that dismantles this false dichotomy, making Standards Vol. 1 Bhatia’s most provocative, forward-looking output yet.

Consider Bhatia’s relationship with the EP’s pianist and primary accomplice, Chris Pattishall, which stretches back to their high school years in North Carolina. Their working lives diverged over time: while Bhatia’s path took him progressively further from the epicenter of jazz, Pattishall studied with titans of the tradition and went on to become one of Wynton Marsalis’ favorite young pianists. Yet the pair’s enduring friendship, including overlapping interests in sound and surrealism, afforded each the chance to see music from the other’s perspective.

“Chris’ taste in most things — film, fiction, visual art, electronic music — is about as avant-garde as it gets,” says Bhatia. “For the longest time, I couldn’t quite tell how that related to his fascination with early jazz. But eventually, I started to see that a big part of it has to do with just how strange jazz was in its nascence. His love of that music now stems from being able to imagine what it felt like back then.”

Bhatia and Pattishall’s creative partnership makes perfect sense when you consider the pair’s shared love of David Lynch — Twin Peaks, in particular. Its subversive depiction of "the darkness lying beneath ordinary life" closely resembles the curtain Bhatia pulls back on his Standards EP, a record that reveals the socio-political subtext of jazz as a genre. Or as Bhatia puts it, "I don't think it's a coincidence that what began as radical, defiant music — music that was conceived of in a situation where people's very humanity was questioned — continues to be smoothed over for genteel consumption. It’s an indication that the systemic power dynamics from which the music emerged continue to shape its trajectory."

Cecile McLorin Salvant has also hinted at how jazz can reflect our complicated history in her own performances, which often include deadpan readings of problematic songs that were socially acceptable back in the day. "She'll just stare at the audience as she sings," explains Bhatia. "Her voice has all the agility and control in the world, yet that doesn’t stop her from going monotone, or ugly, or outright destructive. It’s an incredibly fluid conception of what the voice can and should do."

She's also a Twin Peaks fan, a fact that creeps into Bhatia's vapor-trailed version of "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face." Coming across like a chilly Black Lodge rendition of Roberta Flack, vis-à-vis Laura Palmer, Bhatia and Salvant put an emphasis on the original's nods to not just love, but loss, and contrasting waves of calm and pain.

Elsewhere, Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" is rendered nearly unrecognizable on several levels. For one thing, Bhatia wrote the first 50 seconds out backwards and told Pattishall, saxophonist Stephen Riley, and trumpeter Riley Mulherkar to play its abbreviated parts "really delicately and quietly." After a few attempts, Bhatia reversed the trio's rough takes and slowed them down to quarter speed, resulting in Ellington’s original melody crawling forward at a tectonic pace while the ensemble’s manipulated performances ooze out backwards. It’s a shimmering, haunting composition that bears more resemblance to the cloudy ambient cuts of William Basinski than Blue Note’s back catalogue.

It could therefore be argued that Standards Vol. 1 is actually an electronic album — its processes and sonics may have more in common with producer-led efforts like Ben Frost’s By The Throat or Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma than with jazz from any era. That fact bleeds over to how Bhatia's own playing is brought into the fold: he's credited as a sound designer, arranger, and programmer throughout the record, while his guitar appears for less than a minute. Yet this is music that could only be the product of a deep relationship to jazz, stemming from years of love, listening, study, and apprenticeship. Duke Ellington’s prominence on the album is no accident: Standards presents a version of jazz once again propelled by the possibilities of orchestration, where an artist’s voice has gradually exploded into an entire world of sound.

"When you put on a record by Ellington, Monk, Ornette, Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda — these artists have such a distinctive approach that you can immediately tell who it is,” Bhatia explains. “Sensing the human story behind the notes is what got me into jazz in the first place. I feel the same way after hearing two seconds of Madlib, Tim Hecker, or Jlin. All of these artists have a sound that's iconic because it’s personal. For me, that's the unifying factor in all of this.”

Rafiq Bhatia's artist page

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