CD: Where I Belong
It is rare that an artist releases a debut album that garners such critical acclaim that it not only receives a Best New Artist award and nominations for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album and Best World Music Album but is also compared to veteran super stars like Yanni and John Tesh. However, these honors are a reality for SAJJAD, whose Where I Belong CD debuted on the charts at #4 and reached #3 on the Top 100 ZMR chart before being chosen for the nominations and award. The ZMR or Zone Music Reporter chart is compiled from close to 200 radio stations around the globe. All in all, quite an auspicious beginning for this gifted artist.
It’s not surprising that his music was nominated in the category for World music, since international influences are not only present in SAJJAD’s music but in his own life story as well. Born in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, he soon moved with his family to Europe, where he lived in Germany for 11 years and was exposed to and inspired by rock and pop music at an early age. He eventually came to the US to study and received a degree in Computer Science from the University of Maryland, after which he went on to work as an Information Technology professional for a number of major companies. However, his globe trotting adventures were not over, and he migrated to Canada in 2004 where he became a naturalized citizen, now living in Toronto.
Although he was off to a good start with an education and solid background in technology, his deepest passion has always been for music. From a very young age, he began composing music in his head, even before he owned or could play an instrument. He got his first keyboard at the age of 11, and even though he didn’t have formal lessons, he taught himself to play and has an interesting philosophy about his unorthodox approach – as he sees it: “Not knowing the laws of music, I compose fearlessly, never minding what rules I’m breaking. Thus I hope to bring change.” Hearing his sophisticated and intricate compositions, its’ hard to believe they were not created by someone who had spent years at a conservatory studying music.
Which brings us to a glimpse inside the incredible music on Where I Belong. While many musicians today take advantage of technology to digitally paste together an album seemingly overnight, amazingly, SAJJAD spent five years in the production of this masterpiece. In addition to being the driving force creatively and musically, he also funded the project himself, which as we’ll see was a huge undertaking. However, he is quick to give much-deserved credit to fellow Canadian John Jamieson at Soundhouse Studios who not only co-produced the album, but also became an invaluable collaborator on many levels. SAJJAD creates much of his music on piano and synthesizers, which can easily produce the sound of just about any instrument. Yet, he felt it important to augment his creations with real instruments played by the best musicians he could find, including Ron Allen, Johannes Linstead, and Kevin Fox to name but a few. More than fifteen top players and highly respected industry professionals lent their talents to the project, giving it a “buoyant collaborative energy and lending an impressive credibility.”
Since instrumental music has no lyrics, its meaning or the mental pictures it conjures are subjective. For me, the first track, “Where I Belong” which opens with a wistful solo cello, evoked an image of a lonely soul searching. However, the search is soon over as it is joined by a host of other instruments in a swirling joyous dance celebrating the finding of home. The music charts a course through various passages – a bit of Celtic influence via Uillean pipes and Irish whistle, a soaring soprano sax melody, and sections of richly orchestrated string section and keyboards, all anchored by a solid 4/4 drum beat providing momentum. This blending of diverse instruments and motifs turns out to be a trademark of SAJJAD’s music and highlights his seriously impressive skills as a composer and arranger. While track two has vocals, both male and female, not being in English, once again the interpretation is up to the listener. This irrepressibly upbeat percussive tune sounds like it could have come directly from the soundtrack of Disney’s “The Lion King.” In fact, a lot of SAJJAD’s compositions have a cinematic quality to them.
The beat slows down just enough for you to catch your breath on “Eternity Falls.” I liked the way the song starts off with a bass drum that sounds like a heartbeat and synchronizes you with its more subtle ambience. The introduction of some sweet acoustic guitar adds a taste of a smooth jazz flavor. “End Of Eternity,” which is actually part two of the preceding song, kicks it up a notch as the groove takes flight with powerhouse drumming and congas propelling it forward. There’s a nice breakdown midway through, allowing space for violin and sax to interact with alternating melody lines. On “Moment Of Chance” a thumping dance floor beat keeps the motor running as various ethnic instruments blend with lush orchestration on this high velocity cruiser.
SAJJAD’s expressive grand piano playing shines on a lovely mid-tempo ballad entitled “Stay With Me.” I found it interesting that as accomplished of an instrumentalist as SAJJAD is, he is very generous with how much of the spotlight he shines on his accompanists. Maintaining the mellow mood, “Unseen Sacrifices” exhibits a sonorous sensuality that compares favorably with some of Yanni’s finest. One of the album’s most unique songs, “No Walls Between Us” exudes a decidedly Asian vibe and features the Erhu, or “Chinese Fiddle” – a two stringed-bowed instrument with a distinctive sound. On “Far Away,“ the only song with actual lyrics, soulful female vocals grace this powerful and touching ode to lost love. SAJJAD brings the album to a grand finale with “Something Amazing” where he manages to include just about every influence you could imagine, including jazz, rock, funk, ethnic, orchestral, and more. This sense of inclusiveness is a hallmark of the music in general which creates a rich mélange of flavors and exotic spices. This is music that will invite repeated listening and I found that every time I would go back and listen to a track again, I would hear something I hadn’t heard before. I also wanted to point out the extensive collection of videos available for viewing at his website, including songs from this CD, spectacular live concert footage, and even a three part series on the making of the album – all worth seeing.
I have to give a lot of credit to SAJJAD and his collaborator John Jamieson for the remarkable job they have done in weaving all these diverse elements and musical talents into a sonic tapestry of epic proportion. As SAJJAD reflects: “ I believe in using music as a bridge between different cultures. That is why my music is focused on global themes and uses instruments from around the world to express universal emotions.” Where I Belong is an extremely ambitious undertaking that signals the arrival of a talented musician, composer, arranger, and performer that I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more of.