Radha sings the blues

21 September, 2012, LiveMint.com

Pavitra Jayaraman

The Ensemble in concert.
We haven’t decided what genre we belong to, why don’t you suggest a name,” laughs Radha Thomas as she takes a break from a day-long rehearsal with her band, UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble.
The Bangalore band, which is touring different cities right now, gets together only about once in two months. Most recently, they met in Bangalore, set off to tour Delhi and Goa, and returned to Bangalore to release their first album, I Only Have Eyes for You—an eclectic mix of original scores and some interpretations of old jazz numbers.
Barely two years old, the band started when Thomas heard pianist Aman Mahajan play on YouTube. “I loved what I heard and called various friends to find out who he was,” says Thomas. Through a friend in Kolkata, she found that he lived down the road from her home in Cooke Town in Bangalore. The chemistry was instant.
“We both play jazz and lean towards very similar sounds. She has a leaning towards Indian music. We seem to be looking for the same thing,” says Mahajan. “Aman and I form the core and write the music and words,” says Thomas. While Thomas is on vocals and Mahajan on the keyboard, the album has Suresh Bascara on drums, Matt Littlewood on the saxophone and Ramjee Chandran on the guitar. Mishko M’ba, who played for the recording of the album, is substituted by Keith Peters on the guitar for this tour because M’ba is out of town.

The album, which was recorded in July, is a combination of original scores and some jazz numbers that have been turned around. Chandran explains that they are a “jazz format” band that sometimes plays jazz tunes but otherwise plays a mix of jazz, bebop, hip hop and Blues, with Indian classical overtones. They lend Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man a twist with Indian classical vocals and revisit Luiz Antonio’s Menina Moca with Thomas’ lyrics. Mahajan has two originals, Connections and Refuge, in the new album.

Thomas began as a singer with the rock ‘n’ roll band Human Bondage, popular in the late 1970s. She trained in Indian classical vocals with Kumar Gandharva in New Delhi in 1973 and performed with several artistes on the jazz circuit in New York City for around 20 years. “Jazz to me is an ever-evolving concept that borrows from the geography in which it is being played,” says Thomas, who experiments with Indian classical music in almost all her songs. “I started performing professionally when I was 16 because I could play the guitar,” says Thomas, “but these are the best days of my musical career. It is well thought out.”
The band is set to record their second album, which has more original scores. While Thomas prefers the perfection of a recorded album, Mahajan prefers the flexibility of changing his act when on stage. But they have a common philosophy about experimenting with classics. “Legally, you cannot take a song and do what you want with it, so we paid Hancock a royalty for it (Watermelon Man),” Thomas explains, adding that she would be happy if someone lifted one of her songs and played around with it. “I absolutely believe in the Creative Commons and will be delighted if people just rip our songs off the Internet,” she says. Mahajan adds that if people choose to listen to them, he considers it a compliment. “I’d say please pirate our CDs, just come to our gigs after,” he laughs.
“We’ll send you a patch for the eye,” adds Thomas.
I Only Have Eyes for You is available in music stores across the country and on Flipkart.com for ` 250. You can listen to the album on http://unktheradhathomasensemble. bandcamp.com/ and download for $0.25 (around `13) per song. The band will play live in Bangalore at 8.30pm today at B Flat and Highnote Bar and Dining, Indiranagar.

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