Track By Track: Rafiq Bhatia, “Standards, Vol. 1”

Innovative experimental musician Rafiq Bhatia implements dreamlike and sometimes volatile electronic techniques to transform cornerstone works by such greats as Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman on Standards, Vol. 1. This provocative, forward-looking 4-song EP was released on January 31 via Anti-, and also finds him collaborating with a cast of artists venerated by the jazz orthodoxy, including acclaimed vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

When you put on a record by Ellington, Monk, Ornette, Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda – these artists have such a distinctive approach that you can immediately tell who it is,” Bhatia explains via a press release. “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.”

We asked Bhatia to take us through each of the tracks of Standards, Vol. 1, to understand the inspiration behind each song and some of the work that went into the making of this new EP.

“In A Sentimental Mood”

It’s hard to think about music that centers on improvisation without considering the importance of liveness: there’s something magical about the sound of being musically present in a given moment. But as a person prone to nostalgia, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that the energy of that fleeting instant, once recorded, can exist forever. Then, as a filmmaker might, you can re-contextualize it, exaggerating it’s inherent qualities or imagining what else might be lurking beneath.

For this track, I wrote out the first A section of Ellington’s original version out backward. We then recorded Chris Pattishall (piano), Riley Mulherkar (trumpet), and Stephen Riley (saxophone) playing that excerpt, super quietly. Then, I took the result, reversed it, and slowed it down to about a quarter of their original speed. Because it was written out backward and then reversed, you get Ellington’s original melody moving forwards, but the performance is now backward. At that point, I had the ingredients I needed to build the piece, and I sculpted, manipulated, and sound-designed it into what you hear on the record.

At quarter speed, everything is under a magnifying glass—the struggle of the horn players’ lungs to sustain each note, the way that sound reflects within the cavity of the piano, the subtle communication in every gesture. What were passing moments of tension become long enough to induce hallucinations, while the moments of release stretch into something glimmering and transcendent.

 

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

My relationship with this song was changed forever on the day my grandmother died. I was on the subway here in New York when I got the news. My grandparents lived with us throughout my childhood, and they took care of me and shaped my perspective on life about as much as anyone else. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I just walked to the Hudson River. I knew I needed to find music that would make some kind of sense in that moment, and somehow this song came to mind—queen Roberta Flack’s version, of course. I walked up and down the west side of the city with it on loop for two hours, at least. 

As I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder why this love song seemed to make so much sense at a time of loss. There’s something about it that feels like it is looking back on something that’s no longer there. I started to notice how the emotional intensity in the song wells up all at once, only to recede into a placid, almost medicated calm. And I couldn’t help but hear a darker side to certain lyrics: “like the trembling heart of a captive bird that was there at my command.” 

Cécile McLorin Salvant is a hero of mine and it was amazing to get the chance to work together to recast this piece. Our version was built around the flexibility of her voice and her ability to re-contextualize lyrics and shade them in a way that brings out the kind of latent themes that one might not notice otherwise. A lot of what sounds like vocal manipulation actually began with the same Lynchian technique I utilized on “In A Sentimental Mood”—I reversed her vocal performance, had her sing in a way that approximated how it sounded backward, and then reversed that, resulting in the lyrics moving forward but with a backward performance. But Cécile is such a great singer that, after a couple of tries, she’d nail the backward version perfectly—when it was reversed it didn’t sound any different from the original! I ended up having to use the first few takes of each layer (where she was still getting her bearings) in order to get the desired effect.

 

Lonely Woman”

The philosopher Jacques Derrida once interviewed Ornette, which yielded the backstory behind this piece: 

Before becoming known as a musician, when I worked in a big department store, one day, during my lunch break, I came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world. I had never been confronted with such solitude, and when I got back home, I wrote a piece that I called “Lonely Woman.”

On some level, I think I was thinking about the descent into the “sunken place” in Get Out. The melody is unfolding slowly above you, in a way. You can feel that it’s there — always there, subliminally — but you’re not quite sure exactly how what you are hearing is related to the song. 

Stephen Riley is one of my favorite saxophonists—he’s from North Carolina (as Chris and I are), and I would go hear him play all the time when I was younger. He has this sound that almost seems like it’s been manipulated electronically—there’s more breath in it than pitch. But that’s actually just what it sounds like acoustically, right there in the room. This was the first time he’d ever improvised against layers of himself playing, and we were all in the control room just freaking out. All of the audio on the back half is derived from the saxophone in some way, using his own performance to create a foggier, flickering-lamp kind of underbelly for itself.

 

The Single Petal of a Rose”

When we were in college, Chris sent me a shitty practice room recording of himself playing this piece and it was so beautiful that it made me cry. My version is a love letter to Chris’ playing—and by extension, to Ellington’s original recording—trying to capture that still majesty (as well as the dark intensity of the bridge) in a hyper-realistic sort of way. 

The piano we used to record this is a Yamaha upright, with the felt practice layer between the hammers and the strings. If you’d been in the room with Chris, you wouldn’t have been able to hear any notes at all—just the mechanics of the piano and the hammers against the felt. The signal-to-noise ratio within the instrument is essentially minimized; arguably the opposite of what most people are looking for. You hear Chris struggling to keep the notes as quiet as possible, the action it takes to produce the sound. But beyond that, there are also dozens of layers of subliminal extra processing that are constantly floating in and out subliminally, which support the breathing, living quality of the performance. On the other hand, there’s nothing subliminal about the bridge—we pull the curtain back and enter the black lodge.

To find out more about Rafiq Bhatia and Standards, Vol. 1, visit him online.

Photo of Rafiq Bhatia by John Klukas.

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