Justin Gray & Synthesis: New Horizons
Justin Gray

And a synthesis is truly is, one that erases boundaries between East and West in fluid and convincing manner. The project's the brainchild of Toronto-based Justin Gray, who composed all nine of the album's pieces and leads his world jazz ensemble using a bass veena, a Gray-designed instrument that combines the fretless bass with elements inspired by various Indian stringed instruments. It's the perfect fit for an outfit geared towards fusing elements of Western jazz and Indian classical into a seamlessly integrated whole (don't be surprised if you're also reminded of Arabic, Persian, and Sufi musics as the recording plays out).

It's not the first time such a synthesis has been attempted, of course: on those tracks where members of The Venuti String Quartet perform, for example, Gray's album begs comparison to Jonas Hellborg's 1991 release The Word, on which his Wechter Acoustic Bass is joined by Tony Williams's drumming and the Soldier String Quartet. Talvin Singh and, with Shakti, John McLaughlin are two who have explored similar fusions, even if Singh's OK and Ha releases include an electronic dimension that's absent in Gray's conception.

As critical as his bass veena is to the album's character, so too are the contributions of the Synthesis musicians partnered with him. The Venuti String Quartet, drummer Derek Gray, and guitarists Ted Quinlan, Joel Schwartz, and Joy Anandasivam contribute, as do a host of others, with Ed Hanley's tabla, Dhruba Ghosh's sarangi, and a battery of percussion instruments (daf, tombak, mrdangam, etc.) prominently featured. The aggressive title track plays like a manifesto of sorts for the kind of fusion Gray's pitching, with Eastern melodies voiced in unison by the bassist, violinist Drew Jurecka, and Ghosh and punchy rhythmning from Gray and Hanley doing much to make a powerful argument in its favour.

Gray demonstrates his virtuosic command throughout the album (see “Break of Dawn” and “Rise” for two particularly strong examples), but New Horizons is hardly a showcase for one player as different sounds and players are featured in different songs. “Reflections,” for example, receives much of its punch from passionate sarode soloing by Alam Khan, whereas the vocal-like cry of Ghosh's sarangi elevates many a piece, “Migration” and “Unity” among them. Elsewhere, Steve Gorn's bansuri and Demetrios Petsalakis's oud contributions to “Eventide” and “Serenity” enhance their entrancing allure, respectively.

The album material largely tips the balance in the East's favour, though “Rise” takes a particularly noticeable Western turn when a rock-styled electric guitar solo and funk-rock groove dominate the track's second half. Whether voiced by multiple instruments in unison or by single players, melismatic melodies are plentiful on the release, which in turn deepens the music's hypnotic character, while sinuously swinging rhythms prove equally engaging. Melancholy and joy are in equal supply in these East-meets-West settings, and the collective's playing is consistently distinguished by exuberance.

December 2017