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  • Jonathan Widran

ARUN SHENOY & THE MAVERICK EXPRESS, The Unplugged Songwriter Sessions

Singapore based composer, producer and guitarist Arun Shenoy is one of those multi-faceted, creatively restless artists that makes me glad we don’t have many physical record stores anymore. I say this with great appreciation for his ever-evolving muse and desire to always keep his fans hopping, while no doubt gaining new ones: Where in the heck would you start looking for his albums?

His 2012 debut Rumbadoodle, which earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, found the Indian born, Bangalore bred musician exploring the journey of Flamenco from its Spanish origins to the New World. For his 2016 follow-up, he gathered a bunch of top flight world music stalwarts he dubbed The Groove Project and created A Stagey Bank Affair, which I chose as Album of the Year in my Jazziz Critics Pick list. It was an explosive, exotic, jazz-funk-rock-barn burner. Shenoy called the spirited fusion vibe of the artwork enhanced concept album “Bansuri funk” after the traditional Bansuri, an Indian woodwind historically revered as Lord Krishna’s divine instrument. That instrument was played majestically throughout the album by acclaimed flautist Ravichandra Kulur. The album (see my review of A Stagey Bank Affair here:

And now? He keeps a few of the core guys from The Groove Project (most notably, the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Duke Purisima and drummer Jerry Chua), adds a handful of other musical pals, and they all park themselves in Shenoy’s garage studio for – brace yourself, longtime Shenoy fans – a delightful, organically rendered singer-songwriter album featuring the guitarist’s lushly melodic melodies, simple yet thoughtful lyrics and, as a wonderful surprise, surprisingly graceful vocals.

As much as I would have loved another big boom like Stagey Bank Affair, I’m grateful he didn’t try to top the untoppable. Forgoing the massive production values, the artist strips way down on the aptly titled The Unplugged Songwriter Sessions. He keeps his emotions close and intimate, shares some vocals with the soulful singer Lonnie Park and makes his 180 degree turn a work of wonder and beauty. He even has a new name for the group on this 5-track introductory EP: Arun Shenoy & The Maverick Express. Thematically, lyricist Matthieu Avanthey provides a crucial emotional element on their journey.

Pleased to invite everyone to experience where this shift in creative and sonic gears came from, Shenoy offers liner notes that explain that these songs were written during an extended phase dealing with difficult personal issues. Not surprisingly, then, these tunes showcase a more fragile, vulnerable, softer side of the singer’s personality, in great contrast to the muscular intensity of his earlier work.

That back story might have us expecting some downer songs, but happily, Shenoy seems to have used the infectious material he created for the EP to lift him (and by extension, us!) out of his darkness. “The Perfect Mistake” has a crazy-cool piano motif that’s like the ultimate earworm, topped by a jangling acoustic guitar. The uplifting tune is a joyful expression of what seems to be the perfect love that makes him feel alive – yet something happens that begs the question, “Was I a mistake?” Shenoy also engages in sweet wordless vocals, and the song has a light string arrangement that underscores the dueling emotions.

Driven along by easy flowing percussion, the acoustic piano and guitar duality likewise shimmers on the deeply emotional yet sweetly innocent “Beauty in Blue,” which balances a line like “wondering why you turned my whole world inside and out” with “I love you. . .You are my cutie pie…When I saw you, lovebirds flew…” It’s lovely to see Shenoy find the bliss that remains even when doubt seeps in and a broken heart may be imminent. The third love song on the EP, the gospel and classical-influenced “Hallelujah” takes a decided spiritual turn, with Shenoy and Park expressing the sense that God led him to his love, and that’s worth praising His name. It’s an epic piece whose seven minutes include a powerful solo by guest saxophonist Nicolas Laget and the beautiful piano of Vahagn Stepanyan.

“Learning To Fly” is not a cover of the Tom Petty song but a passionate piano and vocal harmony driven anthemic tribute to Shenoy’s home country of Singapore. Its inspirational theme of overcoming challenges are directly inspired by the struggles of the island country’s founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The song’s dreamlike vibe is taken to new levels on the wings of Ravichandra Kulur’s flute and Ian Cameron’s violin. Shenoy and Park are in “Phoenix Will Rise” overcoming obstacles mode as well on the easy swaying folk-pop tune “The Purple Phoenix Tour” – a tribute to Murex, the financial software firm that Shenoy has been associated with since 2004. Talk about unique topics to sing about, these last two balance out the love songs very nicely and unexpectedly (who sings about financial software firms?).

The EP comes with a tiny peephole into the recording experience with a video of the group doing a live in the studio run-through of “The Perfect Mistake” (the perfect choice for a lead single if there ever was one!). The quick cut camera angles help us connect with Shenoy’s upbeat mood and mindset as he sings these simple, heartfelt lyrics and harmonizes joyfully with Park.

The song would probably work effectively with just piano and guitar, but the surrounding 4-piece female string section is engaging to both hear and watch, and the camera cuts often to several of them individually as they hit dramatic notes. The clips offers great insight into a completely new creative space for Shenoy, one which his longtime fans will enjoy once they realize he’s sharing more of his inner heart than ever before. Prepare to be amazed, just in a whole different way!

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