‘Standards Vol. 1’ transforms cornerstone works by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and Ewan MacColl into immersive, otherworldly realms of sound. Working with a cast of jazz musicians that include the three-time Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, the composer/producer/ Son Lux guitarist Rafiq 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 its listeners thinking about the possibilities of jazz in an entirely new way.
Describing his cover of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’, Bhatia states that “on some level, I was thinking about the descent into the ‘sunken place’ in ‘Get Out’ [2017 US horror movie]. The melody is unfolding slowly above you, in a way. You can feel that it’s there – always there, subliminally – but you’re not quite sure exactly how what you are hearing is related to the song. Stephen Riley plays on my version and is a favourite saxophonist of mine. We are both from North Carolina and I would go hear him play all the time when I was younger. He has this sound that almost seems like it’s been manipulated electronically – there’s more breath in it than pitch. But that’s actually just what it sounds
like acoustically, right there in the room. This was the first time he’d ever improvised against layers of himself playing, and we were all in the control room just freaking out. All of the audio on the back half is derived from the saxophone in some way, using his own performance to create a foggier, flickering-lamp kind of underbelly for itself.”
Bhatia’s haunting take on Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ (featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant) has already been played on a number of BBC stations and playlisted by Jazz FM. Poignantly, he explains that: “my relationship with this song was changed forever on the day my grandmother died. I was on the subway in New York when I got the news. My grandparents lived with us throughout my childhood, and they took care of me and shaped my perspective on life about as much as anyone else. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I just walked to the Hudson River. I knew I needed to find music that would make some kind of sense in that moment, and somehow this song
came to mind – queen Roberta Flack’s version, of course. I walked up and down the west side of the city with it on a loop for at least two hours. As I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder why this love song seemed to make so much sense at a time of loss. There’s something about it that feels like it is looking back on something that’s no longer there. I started to notice how the emotional intensity wells up all at once, only to recede into a placid, almost medicated calm. And I couldn’t help but hear a darker side to certain lyrics: “like the trembling heart of a captive bird that was there at my command.”
As for working with singer McLorin Salvant, he continues: “Cécile is a heroine of mine and it was amazing to recast the song with her. Our version was built around the flexibility of her voice and her ability to re-contextualise lyrics and shade them in a way that brings out the kind of latent themes that one might not notice otherwise. A lot of what sounds like vocal manipulation actually began with the same David Lynchian technique I utilised on ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ [Duke Ellington classic covered on the EP]. I reversed her vocal performance, had her sing in a way that approximated how it sounded backward, and then reversed that, resulting in the lyrics moving forward but with a backward performance. However, Cécile is such a great singer that, after a couple of tries, she’d
nail the backward version perfectly – when it was reversed it didn’t sound any different from the original! I ended up having to use the first few takes of each layer, where she was still getting her bearings, in order to get the desired effect.”
‘Standards Vol. 1’ is Bhatia’s most provocative, forward-looking output yet, with its processes and sonics having much in common with musician/producers such as Ben Frost and Flying Lotus. This bleeds over to how his own playing is brought into the fold: credited as a sound designer, arranger and programmer, the instrument with which he is usually associated – guitar – appears for less than a minute. Yet, this is music that could only be the product of a deep relationship with jazz stemming from years of listening, study, apprenticeship and love. The prominence of Duke Ellington is no accident, with Bhatia’s version of his ‘The Single Petal Of A Rose’ also closing out the EP, presenting a version of jazz propelled by the possibilities of orchestration, where an artist’s voice has exploded
into an entire world of sound.
Part of this text has also been included in an interview published by Jazziz magazine:
and the single
THE FIRST TIME EVER
I SAW YOUR FACE
(feat. Cécile McLorin Salvant)
both included on