Zeshan B

Minty Fresh, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes the headline on a one-sheet feels like the tip of the iceberg, and sometimes it feels like it might be the entire story. The headline here would be “son of South Asian immigrants delivers passionate covers of soul classics”—but let’s dig in and see what more we can find.

Zeshan Bagewadi grew up in Chicago as the child of Indian American Muslim parents, listening to Indian and Pakistani music as well as his father’s collection of classic blues, soul, and r&b records. Inspired by the likes of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, and James Brown, he first served as a cantor in his mosque before joining a gospel choir in high school.

On his debut album Vetted, Zeshan applies his talents and unique musical sensibilities to a set of nine soul and r&b classics and two originals (more on that fascinating pair later). The arrangements and sound are time-warp vintage and faithful to the originals, not surprising given that producer Lester Snell has been playing on records by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Shirley Brown and the Staples Singers since the early ’70s. The core band assembled by keyboardist Snell and Zeshan (who mostly plays harmonium) also features scene veterans Steve Potts (Al Green, Shirley Brown, Luther Allison) on drums and Michael Toles (Hayes, King, Green, Willie Mitchell) on guitar, ensuring an authentic sound.

The faithfulness of the covers that make up the bulk of this album ends up being the biggest challenge the listener faces here. On the one hand, you couldn’t really improve on the originals musically, so why try? On the other hand, this choice inevitably means that the main potential value added rests squarely on Zeshan’s shoulders: either his lead vocals are exceptional, or you’re left with an album’s worth of Classic Soul Karaoke. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And there’s your punchline: Zeshan B’s lead vocals are indeed exceptional—heartfelt and passionate in a way that confirms that he’s gotten deep inside these songs and they’ve gotten deep inside of him.

In interviews, Zeshan has talked about how he feels the position of Muslims in modern-day America is in many ways comparable to the position of African Americans at the beginning of the 1960s, and he sees the music of Vetted as an expression of that common experience. The tunes he chooses to cover are mostly in that distinctive protest/lament vein of soul, in particular the album-opening trio of “Lonely Man” and “I’m At The Breaking Point” (both popularized by Spencer Wiggins) and “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” (Bobby "Blue" Bland).

Zeshan and company also put their unique finish—classic soul with a dash of South Asian flair and the occasional verse sung in Urdu, as Zeshan does on “Ain’t No Love”—on other classics including swaying, horn-heavy takes on “What Now” (Curtis Mayfield) and “Hard Road To Travel” (Jimmy Cliff), a pulsing, emphatic “Prove It To Me” (Garnet Mimms), and luminous piano-ballad closer “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (William Bell).

Still, of my favorite moments on this album, half were sung in English, and half weren’t. In the former category are Zeshan’s devastating rendition of the George Perkins classic “Cryin’ In The Streets” (don’t miss this remarkable performance from The Late Show) and a superb take on early soul hit “I Keep Wanting You”—another song popularized by Garnet Mimms—wherein at the song’s climax Z unleashes a falsetto for the ages.  

The two originals here are both sensational. First “Meri Jaan” offers proof that a sweet soul boogie works in any language—in this case, Bagewadi’s parents’ native Urdu. Then “Ki Jana?” with lyrics based on a poem by Punjabi writer Bulleh Shah, finds Zeshan code-switching effortlessly between classic soul exhortations and traditional qawwali-style ululations, exposing the links between them while also reminding you how much can be expressed in a song even when you don’t understand the words.

In the hands of a talent like Zeshan’s, the familiar can become the transcendent, allowing you to hear old songs in a whole new way. It will be interesting to see if Zeshan B continues focusing on covers, or continues in the direction of forging his own unique meld of South Asian and classic soul stylings. Either way, my guess is the results will be nothing less than compelling.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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