17 October, 2012, Talkmag.in, Prashanth G.N.
Diva Radha Thomas, who has just launched her album I Only Have Eyes For You, sees quite a bit of New York in Bangalore, but the road jams are a dampener
To be an ‘outsider’ and still be appreciated in the home of jazz is no mean achievement. But then, Bangalorean jazz diva Radha Thomas thinks of herself as a New Yorker.
Her band UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble launched its first album, I Only Have Eyes For You, to a warm and intimate reception at Indiranagar’s bFlat recently.
“New York was my home for 20 years. And New Yorkers don’t really care who you are or where you come from as long as your jazz is good. To them, you’re good or not. It’s not for me to say, but if I did receive appreciation of New York’s jazz clubs, it must have meant I struck a chord, that there was something in my singing,” she says.
She is an Indian, and jazz isn’t Indian, so how could she succeed among people who had grown up on the legendary Harlem black greats?
After winning a jazz competition hosted by Jazz Yatra two decades ago, Radha went to Poland to perform. From there, she travelled to New York, which she made her home. Given her love for jazz, stepping into New York’s jazz clubs was the most natural thing to do.
“Thing is, they never worried about the skin. It wasn’t about black, white or brown. Was your music good? Were your jazz notes right? If they were, you could have been Mongolian and yet sing into their hearts,” she explains.
Radha has performed with big names like John Scofield, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, John Faddis, Alex Blake, David Liebman, John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki, Joe Farr and others in some of Manhattan’s most famous jazz clubs like Sweet Basil, The Bottom Line and Alice Tully Hall.
She ran her own business in New York to be able to sing. “Jazz doesn’t pay. It didn’t then. So I ran a boutique for six years from Long Island. I had something coming for me so I could do the music with no worries over money,” she recalls.
She loved the ambience: “The clubs would be crowded. There was nothing like us and them. Everybody’s at home with everybody else. They were there for the music. It was one world for all of us.”
Radha is aware she was not the first Indian to reach American shores. L Shankar and L Subramaniam had already made it there. But who’d done jazz vocals? That, she concedes, is something she could be proud of: “Perhaps being a woman doing jazz vocals makes me one among the few who made it in the New York clubs.”
After 20 years in New York, does she miss that city’s jazz passion in Bangalore? “For me the journey from New York only continues in Bangalore. The music’s the same. Years ago, you wouldn’t have seen clubs hosting jazz, but now you have more than one club doing that in Bangalore. And people are nice, appreciative and friendly,” she says.
What about the quality of music? She feels there’s no need to feel defensive: “We don’t have to feel inferior in any way to the home of jazz. We’ve built a pretty good culture in the last few years in our metros. Delhi is very responsive, with plenty of venues. Goa is just great, but I’d like Mumbai to do better. Bangalore is doing well for itself. We are also well trained in classical music and that can bring new idioms to jazz.”
A little known fact is that Radha has trained under the legendary Hindustani vocalist Kumar Gandharva and can bring the Indian classical touch to jazz.
But Bangalore is lacking in one critical department. “It’s mundane, but bad traffic won’t get you an audience. In New York, you can reach a club easy, but in Bangalore, the commute is stressful, and it could dampen enthusiasm for a lively evening of jazz. That’s why I have the greatest regard for people who beat traffic to meet jazz,” she says.
Radha’s latest album features a mix of jazz, bebop, hip hop, and blues with Indian classical overtones. It has been a year in its making. Much of the material is original, featuring compositions by Radha and her collaborator, pianist Aman Mahajan. Apart from Radha, there’s Aman, Matt Littlewood (saxophone), Mishko M’Ba (bass), Ramjee Chandran (guitar) and Suresh Bascara (drums), who have come together for the first time to record an album. They had been working on their own and sometimes together, but hadn’t done an album as a band.
What expectations does she have from the album? In her words: “There’s a little desire everybody has. Will I see the day somebody sings and performs our compositions?”
An album, she feels, must connect with the audience, however small the audience. “I place a premium on listening. No matter how many listen, are they listening? It’s a beautiful feeling when you know they are and when they know what you’re doing. That’s why I love audiences of any kind, any type, any number,” she says.
Jazz singing, for Radha, is “a fleeting moment.” “We have to make that moment count—the bond with the music and audience. Some days it may happen, some days it won’t. When it doesn’t, that’s an off day. The greatest quality of jazz is freedom: it enables a free movement of the heart, unhindered. After a good show you’re liberated,” she says.