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  • Jonathan Widran

THE GROOVE PROJECT, Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy

“Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible – Eddie Rickenbacker, WWI Fighter Ace and Medal of Honor recipient

As Arun Shenoy gears up to release Vol. 1: Flights of Fantasy, the infectious, ultra-melodic, sonically inventive and wildly grooving contemporary urban jazz flavored debut collection by his newly revamped internationally collective The Groove Project, it seems an apropos moment for the Grammy nominated composer, producer and guitarist to draw parallels between the thematic thread of colorful flying-related song titles and his own lifelong fascination for aviation.

The 42-year-old Indian born, Singapore based musician traces it back to around age seven, when he saw on TV “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” (whose full title includes “Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes”), a 1965 British period comedy film presenting a fictional account of a time when English press magnate Lord Rawnsley, offered £10,000 to the winner of the Daily Post air race from London to Paris – all to prove that Britain is “number one in the air.” In 1910, just seven years after the first heavier than air flight, aircraft were regarded as fragile and unreliable contraptions piloted by “intrepid birdmen.”

Arun’s passions were further cultivated by his familiarity with Leonardo da Vinci’s interest in flight centuries before mankind got off the ground. Driven by the soulful, punchy sax of Marcus Mitchell and featuring the dreamy, soaring vocals of keyboardist Lonnie Park, “First Flight” was the second in a series of singles The Groove Project released over the course of 11 months leading to the drop of the full collection. The song is inspired by da Vinci’s quote: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” The recently released video for “First Flight” is the first music video is the first visual companion piece released by the band. Featuring endearing vintage footage of man’s early attempts to fly, it is dedicated to the brave individuals who risked their lives with these pioneering endeavors.

“Even though aviation is a relatively recent phenomenon in terms of human evolution,” Arun says, “the dream of human flight was already in the minds of engineers and inventors in the 15th century. Leonardo was the first to look at the science of flight. His ideas, sketched in many notebooks, foreshadowed the gliders, airplanes, helicopters, and parachutes of today. The result of such tireless studies was a compilation of 36 pages of notes and pictures on bird flight, written in the passionate that “man-flight” was possible, perhaps even within his lifetime.”

With all those concepts literally flying in his musical mind, longtime fans of Arun’s ever-evolving artistry might be inclined to think that Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy - set for release June 26, 2020 - launched from a concept he had perhaps been developing over the years since he earned his Grammy nod in the Best Instrumental Pop category for his 2012 solo debut album Rumbadoodle.

He has been on a unique, multi-faceted creative trajectory since then, following that Spanish flamenco themed set with the popular 2014 single “Genesis” (his first collaboration with producer Matthew Shell) and 2016’s A Stagey Bank Affair, a critically acclaimed world fusion collection attributed to Arun Shenoy & The Groove Project which was chosen as a Critic’s Pick for Best Album of the year by Jazziz Magazine. Between that Groove Project and the current one, Arun pulled an unexpected 180-degree shift, tapping into his heartfelt acoustic singer/songwriter side in 2018 with The Unplugged Songwriter Sessions, billing the group as Arun Shenoy & The Maverick Express.

Yet throughout all these literal flights of musical fancy, a concept album centered on aviation never entered his mind. Moving forward, his immediate aims were to ease away from world music to focus more on groove-oriented smooth/contemporary jazz and streamline The Groove Project from its original 14-man lineup down to the current six-man ensemble. We owe the year-long writing and recording process that resulted in thirteen singles, four explosive dance-oriented remixes by UK born, Valencia, Spain based engineer Domscott, two videos and now Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy to an unintended double entendre.

“When we started off, I wasn’t sure where the project would go or even if this new direction would work out,” says Arun. “The idea was to produce one song in this revamped style to see how well it would be received by the fans and music community. We titled the first song we worked on ‘Pilot’ because it was meant to a be a trial run, or pilot, for the project, much like a sample pilot episode of a TV series produced to convince a TV network to carry it. When we began working with our new artist Alexandra Harris, she took the title literally and came up with an illustration of a pilot wearing a mask and helmet as two military planes circled around.

“I started thinking about all the things that helped cultivate my love of flying,” he adds. “Then I started researching famous quotes about it and this sparked the idea of developing a concept album about aviation. Matthew Shell was doing a lot of songwriting at the time and kept sharing new demos with me. As I listened to them, I began looking for inspiration – anything that would lead me deeper into an imaginative world based on aviation.”

One of the unique advantages that artists have in the digital/streaming age is the opportunity to release songs or projects on a regular basis rather than the old school model of a single album every few years. As Arun studied the evolution of the music industry and consumer behavior, his findings led him to the consensus that listeners were more interested in a constant stream of music than larger single drops months apart. When he decided on releasing a track an average of every three weeks, he and The Groove Project did not have a complete repertoire completed. Rather they were writing, recording and producing music as they went along – so sometimes they were ready to put out a song in two weeks, other times five.

Not surprisingly considering the talent involved, from the release of “Pilot” on July 31, 2019 on through the recent “Bird on a Wire (Song for Mo)” on May 25, 2020, the band created a dynamic, multi-faceted repertoire – with each song corresponding to an inspirational aviation-themed quote that collectively makes Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy not only the most compelling urban jazz collections of the year, but possibly in the genre’s recent history. Arun draws quotes from Socrates and Harun Yu to Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart and Douglas Adams.

The easy grooving, sax, electric guitar and old school synth driven “Pilot” and the sensual, silky and whimsical “Shadows” picked up significant traction on mainstream terrestrial and digital radio in major U.S. markets, and the latter has over 105,000 Spotify streams. Two other gems, the high octane, funked-out “Leap of Faith” (which showcases the dynamic soloing of keyboardist Lonnie Park and guitarist Samituru) and the lighthearted thumping jazz-rocker “Beyond the Atmosphere” have been added to the Spotify Editorial Playlists.

“Dreams,” which was inspired by one of Arun’s favorite songs, Dream Theater’s “Waiting for Sleep,” and “Gravity” feature the elegant solo and harmony work of Armenian pianist Vahagn Stepanyan. Capping the set of radio ready singles is “Imagine,” a nearly nine minute “out there” fusion jam whose intense grooving, spacey sonics and sense of synth adventure may remind listeners of classic George Duke.

The dreamy, lyrical “Bird on a Wire (Song For Mo),” is, for all intents and purposes, the true emotional core of the project. The song, and in Arun’s eyes the idea of a concept album in general, is a posthumous tribute to Roshni Mohapatra (1980-2018), Arun’s beloved ex-wife who, as his former art director, had envisioned concept albums as a multi-sensory experience blending music, art, animation and exciting physical packaging. During her career, Roshni cited David Bowie and Pink Floyd as early influences on her own art direction of musical projects. Longtime Arun fans only need to re-experience the stunning visuals on the packaging for A Stagey Bank Affair to feel Roshni’s enduring brilliance.

Thinking metaphorically, we can apply a few quotes to The Groove Projects unique, international, digital file sharing approach to compiling and recording tracks – which has now of course become even more prevalent in the social distancing era. Harun Yahyu: “I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth. Then I ask myself the same question.” And Wolfgang Lnagwiesche: “Flying is done largely with the imagination.” Though one of Arun’s goals post-COVID-19 is to assemble a live touring band for the first time, each current member of The Groove Project created their parts separately in what is truly an international collaboration. While Arun anchors everything at his home studio in Singapore, files were shared by Matthew Shell, saxophonist Marcus Mitchell, vocalist and keyboardist Lonnie Park and keyboardist David Joubert in the U.S., drummer Glenn Wellman in the UK, bassist Hector Ruano in Venezuela and Samituru in Norway.

We best let Arun describe the process in his own words: “The most positive aspect of remote recording as we have done it is that it allows a lot of room for creative freedom and expression. I happen to be at my most creative while completely isolated in my own space. It’s hard for me to write when there are people and other distractions around. Reclusiveness helps my songwriting process. The reason we work so well together is that we all come from rock, jazz and blues backgrounds, learned to play by ear and write and arrange music based on what we hear in our minds without using sheet music. For each song, I set the direction for the production. I usually start with a bassline demo, creating a drum and bass groove as a songwriting bed. In the past, I might start with a melody and seek out an earworm, but lately I’ve been studying Quincy Jones and been influenced by his strong emphasis on the groove. Irrespective of the musical content, the groove is crucial to the success of a track.

“The reason that there are five people credited as songwriters on most of the new tracks is that for us, melody is a collective process,” he adds “Based on the raw concept, we send ideas to each other and everyone starts contributing their parts and rhythmic and melodic ideas. I let everyone exercise their personal creative freedom. Some producers prefer to dictate how they want their vision executed, but I belong to that other school, where you build sounds organically and just go with the flow. Eighty percent of my time is spent sifting through the digital files they send me, listening to bass drums and progressions, looking for that earworm and parts that will enhance it. Most of the melodic content on the Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy tunes start with Matthew, who intuitively knows what I am always looking for."

As these individual singles gave rise to the full album concept, Arun started thinking about a quote he could pair with the title Flights of Fancy. That one that captured his thoughts was by Eddie Rickenbacker, WWI Fighter Ace and Medal of Honor recipient: “Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.” Drawing metaphorically on that wisdom, one of the intangible ways music achieves this is in healing us and soothing our fears, anxiety and restlessness whether we’re facing great personal crises or collective challenges like we are all experiencing in 2020. Since Roshni’s sudden passing in December 2018, music has been a cathartic and therapeutic tool helping Arun deal with the emotional upheaval and natural waves of depression. The music he and The Groove Project have created for Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy have, in turn, helped many of us cope with our own personal losses, fears and anxieties – especially during this uniquely troubled time.

“If I had to sum up in one word what music is for me it’s ‘panacea,’ the solution for anything and everything,” says Arun. “If I ever feel depressed, and even if I’m feeling a moment of joy or any emotion in between, the idea of creating music, just sitting down and playing guitar helps ease things over and give me clarity. A lot of people I know believe in meditation, yoga and new age philosophies, but none of these have worked for me. If I have to calm down, it’s not about doing some activity or even taking a walk – all I need is music. If I’m feeling down, it makes me feel better. If I’m happy, it inspires me to write an uplifting, hopeful song. It’s a common trait among artists that we sometimes find it hard to express our feelings through words. I envy writers and poets who can do that.

“Roshni was very fond of Matthew and Lonnie, and Volume 1: Flights of Fantasy is the first time I am working with both of them on the same project – so the song ‘Bird on a Wire’ is not just a tribute from me but from the three of us," he adds. It’s the only song we’ve done that has a political element to us, and we are basically saying to her that we believe her spirit is looking down on us like a bird on a wire. One of the joys of music that’s largely instrumental is that people can find their own special ways to connect with it. Whether it’s recorded or live music, theatre, movies or paintings, I’ve always seen art as an important form of escape from the reality we live in. It offers a temporary reprieve that helps us balance out the troubles all around us. I’ve always said, change is the only constant and we need to keep reinventing ourselves not only to always create something fresh and interesting, but to survive.”

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