Rafiq Bhatia. Image supplied by Melbourne International Jazz Festival.
Rafiq Bhatia looks like a metal-head but speaks like a jazz man. In the low red light, with Ian Chang manning the centrally-placed drums and Jack Hill half-in-shadows stage left on bass, the band gives the same impression. It’s an intriguing contrast as, at first thought, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of crossover between the two musical genres. But when thinking of bands like Porcupine Tree or even Tool, known for the intricacy of their composition and technical brilliance, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
The thick, tactile opening of ear-filling tones was more reminiscent of Sunn O))) but Bhatia has incredible ability to weave in intricate guitar riffs and vibe with Chang and Hill in the back-and-forth style that is unmistakably jazz. It’s the kind of true fusion that many attempt but few achieve. The result delivers the big body-filling sounds of drone metal that you can feel in your bones with more subtle emotive passages of jazz that transport the mind … well, anywhere.
Bhatia’s sound adds some beautiful rough edges to a jazz sound that is often mostly smooth and round. That’s not to criticise more conventional sounds but there really is something surprising, novel and exciting about what Bhatia and band can do. It’s not the rough edges of blunt force breakages. It’s more the edges carved out by intense heat and pressure, an elemental imprint that is very hard to create without the craftsman’s marks looking blatant and contrived. And yet Bhatia and band can.
They seem to make art out of firestorm as easily as the slow sculpting of water and sand. Their creations certainly don’t come with the same kind of threat but there is an enlivening sense of precarity that makes each passage carry a sense of ephemerality and irreplaceable time.
The only criticism that can be made is of the venue itself. The Jazzlab, for all its many wonderful attributes, is simply not capable of handling sound at this scale and when pulsating bass lines cause the shelves and bottles to rattle loudly, it does take away from atmosphere. But Bhatia can hardly be blamed for this.
Bhatia and band are doing something brilliant. Bhatia himself talks about his music as expression of his own desire not to be constrained. It’s because of artists like him that new ways of making music are discovered and for audiences fortunate enough to hear and see it live, the elemental imprint of change remains, long after your ears reacclimatise to the hum of ambient normality.
4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆
presented as part of Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Rafiq Bhatia – guitar
Jack Hill – bass
Ian Chang – drums
9 June 2019