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Justin Gray and Synthesis: New Horizons
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/10/2018)
Ever since the Beatles, and George Harrison’s interest in Indian music, the Indian Subcontinent has been periodically showing up as a source of influence in various Western music, from pop to world music fusion. Sitars and tablas became something of a cliché in the psychedelic days, but over the years, there have been some interesting mixtures involving Indian and Pakistani sounds. John McLaughlin and his group Shakti were prominent the jazz-rock fusion scene in the 1970s and 1980s, combining traditional Indian instrumentation with the energy of the jazz-rock fusion scene, often in an acoustic context. In the last year or so on this review series, we have featured recordings by the Sultans of String, Arian Saleh, Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, and Shubh Saran that draw on Middle Eastern and Indian influence. And we featured the group Melodic Intersect with sitar and tabla on our Homegrown Music series here at WVIA.
This time, we have an interesting group from Canada which like McLaughlin’s Shaki, combines jazz-rock fusion with Indian influence and instrumentation from the region. It’s Justin Gray and his band Synthesis, and their debut recording is called New Horizons.
Justin Gray is from Toronto and created the hybrid instrument he plays, a bass veena, which is a combination of a fretless electric bass that has about 10 sympathetic strings, but to the side of the main strings, rather like a harp guitar. And like his instrument, his group is also a hybrid, with conventional drums added to a prominent Indian tabla, a conventional string trio with violin, viola and cello, electric guitar and more exotic instruments like the bansuri, which is a wood flute with a distinctly Eastern sound; a sarangi, a bowed violin-like instrument; a sarod, kind of sitar-like string instrument; and kind of talking drum called a mrdangam.
Gray himself shows some influence by the late bassist Jaco Pastorius in his approach, but there is the ever-present Middle Eastern influence which gives his jazz-rock fusion its distinctive texture. The group can go back and forth musically, with some parts showing a rather exotic Eastern flavor, while others have a more conventional jazz-rock fusion sound. Like a lot of fusion from back in the day, the music is not very strong on tunes you could hum, but relies on the texture of the music and the instrumental solos for its distinctive quality. The compositions tend to highlight some aspect of the Indian/Western blend, but some of the pieces change direction in sound as they go along. Most of the music has a distinctly electric quality, but there are usually acoustic ingredients in the sonic pastiche.
Leading off the album is its title track New Horizons, which sums up the recording’s sonic fusion, with Justin Gray’s electric bass veena being prominent in an arrangement that also features the string trio. The performance combines the Indian tabla with more conventional rock drums. The result is an energetic hybrid. <<>>
The following track, Reflections has a somewhat more exotic sound with its odd meter and the distinctly Indian sounding string arrangement. <<>> It features a solo on the sitar-like Sarod instrument played by Adam Khan. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is a piece called Migration, which recalls John McLaughlin’s Shakti group, but with some more electric textures including Gray’s bass instrument. <<>>
Unity is a track featuring the sarangi bowed string instrument, as played by Dhruba Gosh, also providing a distinctly Eastern sound to the mix with its more rhythmically upbeat sound. <<>>
Gray and his group combine an almost march-like rhythm on the drums with distinctly Eastern tonalities on a piece called Rise. <<>> It eventually gets into a very rock-oriented electric guitar solo played by Joel Schwartz. <<>>
A track that for me evokes a movie chase scene in some exotic Eastern locale is ironically called Serenity. <<>>
Drummer Derek Gray plays what is listed as “singing bowls” which provides the intro to the album’s closing, longest and perhaps most eclectic track Ebb and Flow. It’s a well-arranged piece that takes the listener through a kind of journey from rock guitar to exotic, with another appearance by the sarangi string instrument. <<>>
Justin Gray and Synthesis, on their new release called New Horizons provides an engaging and eclectic blend of Indian Subcontinent with Western rock and fusion sound. There are a lot of exotic instruments that make their appearance, and perhaps the album’s main fault is that it is something of a pastiche, with what seems to like an effort to bring in as many sounds as possible. Gray himself, on his electric bass veena hybrid personifies that. But it’s all well done and the sonic mixtures come off well. The musicianship is first rate and the compositions provide a good vehicle to highlight players’ sonic contributions.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The recording has good clarity with an undistorted sound and good use of sonic ambiance, but it has some volume compression, so it’s not quite at audiophile level, and hence the points deducted. But overall, it makes for satisfying listening an a good stereo or quality headphones.
World music influence continues to be the source of some of the most interesting recordings appearing these days. In an era when so many pop records are nothing but a series of cliches, mixing diverse influences can make for stimulating and engaging listening. Justin Gray and his group Synthesis have definitely done that on their new release.
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