Shri: beyond the groove

The bassist escaped the whip of Pastorian virtuosity by dipping into multi-culturalism

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Shrikanth Sriram. Photo by Glenn Foster

One of the most enjoyable and inspiring gigs I’ve caught in some while came courtesy of the award-winning Shrikanth Sriram, better known as Shri. The Bengaluru-born, Mumbai-raised and Croydon-domiciled electric bassist and multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer appeared at Ronnie Scott’s in early March. Long known for his genre-bridging work in Britain with, a.o., Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh and DJ Badmarsh, Shri featured in two memorable – often mesmerising – sets at Ronnie’s music from his latest album The Letter. Recorded in Oslo and London, it was released recently on Jazzland, the innovative label run by Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft.

Rich in spacious pizzicato melody and sustained harmonics, bowed legato lines and textures, and many a nudging and kicking, slapped and funky groove, Shri’s latest project was met with full-on enthusiasm by the sold-out house. The evening opened with Shri solo on his striking, hand-fashioned four-string fretless bass. Tabla-like power underpinned his full and sonorous projection on Drum The Bass (reprising the title and recalling the impact of Shri’s 1997 recording debut, produced by Nitin Sawhney) while The Letter (dedicated to Eberhard Weber) featured both mellow Carnatic-tinged figures and adroit touches of harmony.

A dynamically diverse yet organically related range of duo, trio, quartet and quintet performances then followed, featuring Arild Andersen (b), Bugge Wesseltoft (kyb), Ben Castle (ts, bcl) – all of whom, together with Tore Brunborg (ts) appear on The Letter – and Asaf Sirkis (d, pc), who was superb, taking on the parts played on The Letter by (sadly, now the late) Paolo Vinaccia. The quality of Shri’s compositions drew top-drawer performances all round. Wesseltoft explored a vibrant diversity of tone and attack (check out Boiling Point and Nasikabhushani on the new album) and if Castle’s patiently projected tenor was outstanding on the gently flowing and yearning, Garbarek-like New Day, Shri’s Indian bansuri flute was equally entrancing on the jaunty riffs of the concluding Uvdal.

“This was a dream gig for me, a big step forward. We only premiered these pieces a few weeks before at Victoria, the Nasjonal Jazz Scene in Oslo, and it was great that the idea of presenting different ensembles seemed to work maybe even better at Ronnie’s. As on the recording, I didn’t want the music to come across as a series of unconnected events, not at all. Helping keep it all together, making the occasional announcement to help set and sustain the atmosphere, was a bit like the challenge of balancing composition and improvisation in a piece. So I’m really happy the music seemed to be so well received”.

One only has to instance John and Alice Coltrane, Joe Harriott and John Mayer, Barney Wilen, Charlie Mariano and John McLaughlin to recall the impact of Indian music on jazz. Shri is a fascinating example of things seen from the other side. He trained as a classical tabla player for a decade and a half in Mumbai at the school of the revered master Pandit Nikhil Ghosh. But eventually he tired of what he came to experience as the predictability of classical Indian music and taught himself bass, guitar and Indian flute.

Shri’s journey from such initial “crossover” steps to his move to London in the early 1990s, and subsequent recognition and success on the British Asian music scene (and beyond) have been well documented. But the love of, and literacy in, jazz which attains such compelling levels throughout The Letter repays closer inspection.

“Well, I came to jazz through rock! I may have been distantly aware of the achievements of the Joe Harriott-John Mayer groups, but really, it was the rock element in the Mahavishnu Orchestra which helped me hear the jazz that was in that music. Shakti got through to me strongly but so too at that time did Weather Report. Before all that, I was a real rock head, into Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, for example. But it was colleagues in those rock circles who first turned me on to Jaco Pastorius! I spent years trying to play like Jaco … and then, one day, the penny finally dropped. Jaco was Jaco. But me? Who – or what – did I really want to be?

“The jazz-rock band Azure Hades I formed in India with friend and drummer Dennis Coelho was an important step, where I first developed as a composer/bass player through trial and error. We played at what was India’s biggest jazz festival at the time, Jazz Yatra 1990. Getting deeper into jazz, I was instantly drawn to bebop, its special energy and musicality. At that time I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great Ron Carter – but I soon came to realise that, just as he had jazz in his blood, I had to follow what I had in mine, reaffirming and developing my own path.

“I was always, at root, a hard groove player, but eventually something had to give, to change. And this is why I dedicated my album The Letter to Eberhard Weber. Hearing him, and also Jan Garbarek, helped develop my sense of what music might be. I met Eberhard at the Royal Festival Hall and gave him a demo tape I had made just for him. After a while I got a letter from him, which I found really encouraging. What Eberhard said confirmed my own belief that I had to keep on trying to go deeper into myself, to find my own way – using my roots. Bugge rekindled this energy once again and produced the new album, to bring out the essential me.

“So while I still love to groove, melody and space – and some harmony where needed – have become crucial. Overall, the key words for me are openness, absorption and development. I also love functioning, as I do, as a mentor with the Croydon Composers project which my wife Shirin set up, and where the emphasis is very much on cross-cultural and cross-genre collaboration.

“I’ve long worked across various fields, including theatre projects, music for dance and the occasional film score. Some of my projects have blended electronica and drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop and traditional aspects of Indian ragas and rhythms. A few years ago I put together a project which was released as Shri – Just A Vibration where Indian classical and street music came together with Northern brass band traditions. I don’t play a brass instrument or read or write music; Ben Castle arranged and scored the pieces. I was very shocked that I won a British Composers Award in 2016, in the brass/wind band category! The project got some great exposure, including the London Jazz Festival, Shambala, Manchester Jazz, Sage Gateshead, Freedom Festival Hull, etc. And all these gigs were with the full line-up of 28-piece brass, sitar, bass and drums.

“So for me, it’s been a long, roundabout and particular path to jazz – and maybe that’s for the best. What was jazz when it started all those years ago, if not a coming together of different cultures, different worlds? It’s this that means most to me – not questions of distinct styles or periods in the history of the music. Of course those questions, those aspects of jazz’s past, will always be valid. But when you try to look forward, when you try to develop your music, you have to come to a point where you have faith in your own voice, your own vision”.

As the surpassing Arild Andersen – who interacted beautifully with Shri at Ronnie’s, in both duo and group formats – advised me a while ago: if you haven’t heard Shri, do yourself a favour and check him out as soon as you can. The jazz police can relax: the music can but flourish in the hands of such a distinctive and intelligent, questing and soulful contributor to its contemporary evolution.