BIG EARS
Rafiq Bhatia

Rafiq Bhatia

On his 2021 release Standards Vol. 1 guitarist, producer, and musical polymath Rafiq Bhatia tackles two Duke Ellington staples and the Ornette Coleman classic “Lonely Woman.” The dynamic jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant pitches in on the other track, an ambient-flavored reading of Roberta Flack’s devastating “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Despite setting up the EP as a jazz release—and, indeed, the personnel is drawn from that world, with contributions from saxophonist Stephen Riley, and trumpeter Riley Mulherkar—it instead reveals Bhatia’s auteur-like aesthetic, where he thrives as a producer.

For most of the four-minute version of “Lonely Woman” we hear drifting ambient tones, spare rumbling beats, a grinding churn of distorted bass tones, and a splash of noise that suggests the clatter of a train clacking away on the tracks—but then the din subsides suddenly, leaving Riley and Mulherkar to tease out the indelible melody in a delicate duet. On the other hand, pianist Chris Patishal plays a version of Ellington’s “A Single Petal of a Rose” with clarity and fragility, submerged in a layer of reverb and limned by the subtlest of electronic textures. As Bhatia has said of his approach, “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.”

Bhatia, who’s been a key member of Ryan Lott’s Son Lux since 2014, delivered a harder-hitting attack on his superb 2018 album Breaking English, summoning the spirit of Ben Frost’s most far-flung productions. As the Chicago Reader wrote, “He improvises here and there, but his biggest accomplishment is building a vibrant instrumental sound world where crushing beats, nimble guitar licks, and shifting electronic textures coalesce with a visceral bite. From track to track Bhatia finesses a kind of modern prog rock informed by styles as disparate as contemporary soul and Indian classical music (violinist Anjna Swaminathan plays granular lines that swerve with the emotional heft of a L. Subramaniam performance).”

BIG EARS
Knoxville, TN · USA

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