Interview: Justin Gray & Synthesis, “New Horizons”

Justin Gray & Synthesis - New Horizons

One of the advantages of having eclectic musical tastes is that it keeps me open to new artists and projects that I might not otherwise try.  “New Horizons,” the new project from Toronto-based bassist and composer Justin Gray with his new ensemble Synthesis, is just that sort of album – a fascinating blend of jazz and Indian music that is captivating to say the least.

The ensemble features Justin Gray on bass veena and electric bass, Ted Quinlan on guitar, Drew Jurecka on violin, Ed Hanley on tabla, and Derek Gray on drums, percussion, and Tibetan singing bowls.  What is a bass veena, you ask?  It’s a multi-stringed fretless bass, influenced by a combination of eastern and western instruments. Justin co-created it and is the first artist to perform on this instrument worldwide.  Here is Justin with his bass veena (and he describes it in more detail in the interview that follows):

Justin Gray with bass veena

As for the album itself, I’ve found it difficult to stop playing it in the last week or so.  The project opens with the title track, which immediately clues the listener in to what type of experience they can expect: up-tempo, a delightful mix of jazz grooves with plenty of tabla and Indian melodies.  “Reflections,” the next track, is one of my favorites on the album with its syncopated beat and sinuous melody. Listen for the Tibetan singing bowls in “Break of Dawn” – they make a great tune even more fascinating here.

Even if you’re not as eclectic a listener as I am, I would strongly recommend that you give this album a try.  If you’re not familiar either with jazz or with Eastern music, this project provides an accessible and really enjoyable way to ease yourself into a new genre of music.  Highly recommended.

We’re thrilled that Justin was kind enough to answer some questions about the album.

Your music is a mix of, among many other influences, jazz and Indian music.  How did you come to your love for each of these musical styles?

My love for jazz music started at a young age and has continued to grow ever since. For me, jazz music goes beyond being a style that I play, and rather, it has become a way of life. The spirit of the music for me lies in exploring creativity, improvisation and collaboration. It is these elements that I cherish most in music, and therefore, my love for creating and listening to jazz stems from the constant discovery that exists in the art form.

My mom is from India, so when I was young I was exposed to Indian music through recordings, concerts and visiting family in India. However, my real love for Indian music was sparked when I was studying music at Humber College in Toronto. I was first introduced to the music formally through South Indian master percussionist, Professor Trichy Sankaran, who is featured on track #5. It was his playing and teaching that initially inspired me to go deeper into learning Indian classical music. The way that he discussed the world of rhythm in the lessons I took with him fundamentally changed my relationship with music. Following this introduction to the music, I have had the fortune and honour to find myself learning Indian classical music for the past 12 years with North Indian classical master vocalist, Shantanu Bhattacharyya, along with two close friends, Jonathan and Andrew Kay. It has been through years of studying in Kolkata, India, that my true love and understanding of the music has been fostered. Beyond that, it has been through listening to countless recordings, performing the music around the world, and hearing the music live that my passion for this music continues to grow.

Listening to the album, jazz and Indian music seem like a very natural pairing – do you feel like the project is a natural progression of both styles, or is this a somewhat radical departure?

I do feel that this music represents a natural progression of both styles, and of the Indo-Jazz tradition as well. The concept of synthesis, for me, is the merging of two or more entities, in order to form something new. In this case, this music could not exist without the distinct elements drawn from both styles, but ultimately it aims to forge a cohesive sound, that lies beyond the stylistic barriers.

This music represents years of discovering and learning the nuances of each genre, while simultaneously exploring ways of creatively combining them. Although I did compose all of the music for this album, this creative process has not been mine alone. It is important to note that the combination of jazz and Indian music that exists in this album is inspired by so much music that has come before it, especially music from my time co-leading and playing in Toronto based Indo-Jazz ensemble “Monsoon”.

The exploration of combining these two musical styles has always remained as equally important to me as the individual study of each tradition. Both musical traditions share so much in common, and the more that I explore this musical path, the more I understand that both of these musical forms draw inspiration from a similar creative space. I believe it is this relationship that allows these two styles to merge so seamlessly.

On the album you play a bass veena (which you invented)… can you describe it for folks?  Why did you decide to create it?

The bass veena is a hybrid multi-stringed fretless bass that draws inspiration from Indian instruments like sitar and sarode. I designed the bass veena in 2010, and my close friend, Canadian Luthier, Les Godfrey, built the instrument. The instrument features four main playing strings, which are tuned to the root and fifth of the home key. There are also two “drone” strings above the playing strings, which are tuned to the upper tonic. On the body of the instrument, there is a 10-string harp. These strings are tuned to any desired pitch set and can be strummed, plucked or left to ring sympathetically.

I designed the instrument over the course of a number of trips to India, where I was studying the music with my teacher. The inspiration to create a new instrument came from my urge to continue playing bass, but to have an instrument that could produce the technical nuances and acoustic sonic qualities required to bring the Indian classical music to life.

Justin Gray & Synthesis

You’ve assembled a terrific roster of players on this album – how challenging was it to put this project together?

The simple answer is that in order to involve each of these musicians, it required a great deal of organization, patience and planning. This album represents years of musical friendships, and as I was producing the music over the course of two years, I tried to remain open to the inspiration to involve different colleagues, as the music asked for it. So although there were challenges involved, this process never felt daunting, as each individual was an integral part of bringing this studio recording to life.

This album was just as much an exploration of production as it was a vessel for the compositions and performances. I have been producing music for artists and film for years now, and I wanted to merge that aspect of my career with my composition and band leading on this album. The recording and production process allowed for people from across the globe to collaborate, and really the album was just as much about the journey as it was about the destination.

Is there a particular theme to the album?  Titles such as “Eventide,” “Rise,” and “Serenity” would seem to suggest one but perhaps that’s just coincidence…

Creating song titles has always been a challenge for me. I write a lot of instrumental music, and although specific aspects of life and our world often inspire me during the creation of a composition, I often do not name them until much later on. The titles of each song are therefore often created as a reflection on the final creation, rather than as an initial inspiration.

Although the titles do imply various themes drawn from nature, the real theme of the music for me is contained in the album title “New Horizons”. This recording represents a shift for me as an artist in many ways, and so I see this album, and the process of creating it, as the opening of new pathways. It is an exploration of new musical possibilities, the fostering of new musical relationships, and an attempt to help to show the world what can happen when people collaborate with open minds, ears and hearts. I think that now, more than ever, it is the responsibility of musicians to demonstrate how our cultures can merge in positive and seamless ways, and I hope that this album can be a part of that.

~ L

Visit Justin Gray & Synthesis’ website.

Preview and buy “New Horizons” on Bandcamp.

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