Rafiq Bhatia’s new EP Standards Vol. 1 transforms cornerstone works by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and more into immersive, otherworldly realms of sound that are uniquely his own. Working with a cast of traditional jazz’s most beloved musicians including the three-time GRAMMY-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bhatia implements dreamlike and sometimes volatile electronic techniques to recast classic repertoire as a window into the darkness underlying ordinary American life.
Bhatia and Salvant’s creative partnership makes perfect sense when you consider the pair’s shared love of David Lynch — Twin Peaks, in particular. The pair’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” comes across like a chilly Black Lodge rendition of Roberta Flack, vis-à-vis Laura Palmer, emphasizing the original’s nods not just love, but loss. Alternately pastoral and surreal, Salvant’s mesmerizing delivery and Bhatia’s ice-sculptural production foreground shadowy implications latent within the song’s subconscious: “like the trembling heart of a captive bird that was there at my command.”
McLorin Salvant‘s singular talent for recontextualizing lyrical meaning will be familiar to anyone who has experienced her deadpan readings of problematic songs that were socially acceptable back in the day. "She'll just stare at the audience as she sings," explains Bhatia. "Her voice has all the agility and control in the world, yet that doesn’t stop her from going monotone, or ugly, or outright destructive. It’s an incredibly fluid conception of what the voice can and should do."
Eschewing nostalgia or emulation, Standards Vol. 1 is a deeply personal and decidedly un-standard record that will have you thinking about the possibilities of jazz in an entirely new way. Bhatia’s committedly experimental orientation may also seem at odds with his choice of collaborators for this EP: erudite, virtuosic acoustic instrumentalists who are largely venerated by the jazz orthodoxy. But there’s an unlikely depth to the history and common ground uniting them that dismantles this false dichotomy, making Standards Vol. 1 Bhatia’s most provocative, forward-looking output yet.
"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. “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.”