Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia Presents a Stunningly Focused New Sound on Breaking English
By Peter Margasak
Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia has always been something of a polymath. After graduating from Oberlin—with a degree not in music but in economics and neuroscience—he moved to New York in 2010 and his interests gravitated toward modern jazz. Within two years he dropped Yes It Will (Rest Assured), a record built around a limber fusion of sound featuring extended improvisation—his impressive cast of collaborators includes excellent players from both jazz and classical music such as trumpeter Peter Evans, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Billy Hart, and flutist Claire Chase. The recording was well done, but Bhatia didn’t display much of his own musical identity. In 2014 he became a member of Son Lux, a New York trio that moves fluidly between contemporary classical (Eighth Blackbird has commissioned work from the group), pop, and electronic music—he performed with that group at Lincoln Hall last month. Based on his stunning new solo album, Breaking English (Anti-), Bhatia’s participation in Son Lux seems to have focused his vision. He improvises here and there, but his biggest accomplishment is building a vibrant instrumental sound world where crushing beats, nimble guitar licks, and shifting electronic textures coalesce with a visceral bite. From track to track Bhatia finesses a kind of modern prog rock informed by styles as disparate as contemporary soul and Indian classical music (violinist Anjna Swaminathan plays granular lines that swerve with the emotional heft of a L. Subramaniam performance). There’s more than a touch of Radiohead’s cinematic grandeur on “Before Our Eyes,” while the title track is a sensual, contemporary slow jam a la recent Dirty Projectors, with the wordless cooing of Nina Moffitt reinforcing the guitarist’s seductive, clear-toned lines. Bhatia leads a trio featuring bassist Jackson Hill and Son Lux drummer Ian Chang—both of whom play on the new album.