Justin Gray and Synthesis ‘New Horizons’ CD/DIG (Synthesis Productions) 5/5

Justin Gray is a bassist, composer, producer, and educator based in Toronto, Canada. His main influences are jazz, classical, folk, Indian classical and world music.

Listening to his ‘Gray Matter’ jazz combo, you would be forgiven for thinking that here we have a great Jazz bassist with his six string electric bass playing with drums, trumpet, tenor sax and hammond organ. But that’s not the half of it!

Justin’s new ensemble called Synthesis has turned out an amazing debut album – New Horizons. This is not a jazz album but an extraordinary amalgamation of sounds that take in a diverse group of instruments and players from around the world. The list is impressive:

Dhruba Ghosh (Sarangi), Trichy Sankaran (Mridangam), Alam Khan (Sarod), Steve Gorn (Bansuri), Joy Anandasivam (Guitar), The Venuti String Quartet, Naghmeh Farahmand (Persian Percussion), Demetrios Petsalakis (Oud), Gurpreet Chana (Hang Drum), Todd Pentney (Piano), Joel Schwartz (Resonator Guitar) and Jonathan Kay (Esraj)…co produced by Ed Hanley (Tabla).….and that’s not all.

Justin is playing an instrument which he co designed called the Bass Veena. This is a six string acoustic bass, which sounds like a fretless bass, in addition to the higher pitch ten strings which he plucks and strums. The Bass Veena looks and sounds right at home with the other instruments on this album, many of which hail from the Middle East and the Subcontinent.

1. New Horizons – Up beat and positive, simple but strong melody doubled up with unlikely but brilliant combinations of instruments with Tabla supporting. Bass Veena centre stage. Sounds from the Subcontinent all over it.

2. Reflections – Nice staccato rhythm to start then a segue into dreamy tangents with individual solos over a consistent bass and tabla.

3. Migration – Dark and mysterious.. evocative of India and then a superimposed western folk guitar melody using western scales over an Indian raga.

4. Eventide – Smooth, like a jazz fusion but with a Bansuri playing a compelling melody which we absorbed rather than hear, finishing with strings.

5. Unity – Entrancing use of varied time signatures, with freestyle guitar solos…. slightly disconcerting but in a good way.

6. Break of Dawn – Overtones of rock melody from the Bass Veena with unusual blends of piano and stringed instruments almost but not quite clashing, producing a tension between the instruments which resolves finally as the waves subside.

7. Rise – Lovely folk melody and harmonies. Breaks into electric guitar solo straight from the west coast and we find ourselves in California in the 70’s… and then back to the folk melody – quite a journey.

8. Serenity – Wailing string melody against an upbeat rhythm, then from nowhere, a lovely Spanish guitar.

9. Ebb and Flow – Meandering jazz guitar against the backdrop of strings and tabla, mixing of raga with western, Spanish guitar again adding to the mix.

This album is a combination of the Hindustani Raga music tradition Justin studied during his travels in India, and his background in Jazz, World and western contemporary styles. The music is a gift, sincere and heartfelt, like an offering to the Buddha….. you have to work at it but once immersed there’s no going back.

David Izen