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Radha Thomas
A Case Of The Bangalore Blues

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Bangalore Blues image

 

The music of India has had a significant influence on the development of jazz. It helps that there are certain similarities between jazz and Indian music: both, for example, place an emphasis on improvisation and both give a prominence to rhythm. An indo-jazz fusion really got underway in America and Europe in the 1960s following an upsurge of interest in all things Indian – its music, its philosophies, its art, indeed its whole way of life. In pop music, the Beatles, particularly George Harrison, were at the forefront in introducing Indian music, musicians and instruments into their work; and an Indian musician, Ravi Shankar, became a household name. Jazz musicians also began to absorb Indian musical influences into their work, notably John and Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, John McLaughlin and Joe Harriott.

What is less known is that the traffic has not all been one-way and that Indian musicians have, in turn, been influenced by jazz. Also not well known is that India has its own flourishing indigenous jazz scene. One of the most prominent jazz musicians currently working in India, singer Radha Thomas, has recently released a little gem of an album on Indian label, Subcontinental, called Bangalore Blues on which she teams Taj Mahal Palace Hotelup with pianist Aman Mahajan. More of that later but first, it’s worth looking in a bit more detail at how Indian jazz has developed.

Indian jazz first got going in the 1930s in the big cities, particularly Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata). One stimulus was tours by American jazz musicians, some of whom – notably, Teddy Weatherford – settled in India for a while. Indian musicians began to take up the music including Chic Chocolate and Chris Perry. The Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay / Mumbai became one of the main venues in which live jazz could be heard played by both American and Indian musicians.

 

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

 

 

 

Many of the Indian musicians came from Goa where they had learned Western musical styles from the Portuguese who ruled Goa at the time. As well as playing live in hotels, the musicians also wrote and played jazz-inflected music for the burgeoning Bollywood film industry.

Indian jazz got a shot in the arm in the 1960s with the growing interest in Indian music amongst jazz musicians in the West. In Britain in particular, the indo-jazz fusion was led by Indian born musicians. A key figure here was John Mayer. Born in Calcutta in 1929, he came to Britain in 1952 to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He worked as a classical violinist and composer but in the late 1960s, he began to develop a synthesis between Indian music and jazz. He worked with saxophonist Joe Harriott with whom he formed the group Indo-Jazz Fusions. This included both jazz and Indian musicians and, for a while at least, the music produced was very popular. One of their pieces, Acka Raga, was used as the theme tune to a popular BBC quiz show, Ask The Family.

 

Another key figure in the British indo-jazz fusion scene in the 1960s was Goan guitarist, Amancio D’Silva who moved to Britain in 1967 after establishing himself as a musician in India. In Britain, he played with both Mayer and Harriott as well as some of the other leading British jazz musicians of the day including Ian Carr, Stan Tracey and Norma Winstone. He developed his own indo-jazz fusion style. He died in 1996 but his music found a new audience when it was featured on Gilles Petersen’s Impressed compilations in the early 2000s. Listen to D’Silva playing the sublime A Street in Bombay.

 

 

 

 

As we have seen, the British indo-jazz scene was part of a broader international trend which saw many jazz musicians incorporating Indian influences into their playing. One musician who took this further than most was British guitarist John McLaughlin who built a huge international reputation in the 1970s with his Mahavishnu Orchestra. The band played a very sophisticated brand of electronic jazz-rock but which was also shot through with Indian influences.

L Subramaniam

 

 

 

Indian musical influences have become so integrated into much of contemporary jazz that it often now goes unnoticed. A thriving jazz scene has also developed in India itself. Some of this is just straight jazz without any noticeable local influences. But Indian musicians in India have also experimented with their own fusion styles. An example is violinist Dr L. Subramaniam who has developed a reputation beyond India and has played with many of the top international jazz stars.

 

Dr L Subramaniam

 

 

 

Here is Dr L Subramaniam playing his own composition, Conversations, live in India in 2003 with a band including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin and Billy Cobham on drums.

 

 

 

But many of the big names in Indian jazz are little known outside their native country – bands like Syncopation, for example, or the Rajeev Raja Combine; and individual musicians such as Amyl Dutta, Ashwin Batish and Trilok Gurtu. As an example of what indigenous Indian jazz can do, here is the Rajeev Combine playing a piece called Cosmic Chant live.

 

 

 

These are just a selection of musicians from and in India who have contributed to the story of jazz, but one musician who constantly reminds us of India's influence is the charismatic clarinettist Arun Ghosh. Arun grew up in India as a child of Indian parents. He started out playing the recorder but by twelve, influenced by Courtney Pine, he was playing clarinet. He went to Cambridge University and then the Royal Northern College of Music studying musicology, and then developed his reputation as a jazz musician playing at the London Jazz Festival in 2007 with his Indo-Jazz Sextet which interpreted Bengali melodies with the means of jazz and urban beats. His debut album Northern Namaste included a variety of Indian instruments while his third album, A South Asian Suite, reflected the music of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. In 2018 he received the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year. There are several videos to watch on YouTube (try Dagger Dance) but the one chosen here - the beautiful, poignant, Where Shall I Live Now? is from some time ago:

 

 

 

 

Radha Thomas

 

Which brings us back to Radha Thomas and her latest album Bangalore Blues. Radah Thomas is well known in Indian jazz circles. She began her singing career in the seventies in a popular Indian rock band called Human Bondage. She moved to New York, spending 20 years there developing a career as a jazz singer. On returning to India in 1993, she continued her jazz career combining that with some success as an author and publishing executive. She has formed her own group, the Radha Thomas Jazz Ensemble (also known as UNK) which is one of the most popular jazz acts in India. On Bangalore Blues, however, she plays with only one other musician – Aman Mahajan, the pianist with UNK. Mahajan studied at Berklee but is now, like Aman RahajanThomas, based in Bangalore.

All seven tracks on Bangalore Blues have lyrics written by Thomas with the music composed by both Mahajan and herself. She has a distinctive voice – crystal clear and intimate. All her lyrics are in English and her years living in New York are reflected in an American accent on many of the numbers. The music is not particularly Indian – it is often just straight-ahead, American-tinged, sophisticated (and high quality) jazz and no worse for that.

Occasionally, a specific Indian style comes through – on the first track, for example, The Morning After, Thomas begins with a type of Indian scat and there is a slight Indian vibe to the music. The song lyrics are anything but Indian, though. This is the way Thomas describes the song’s genesis: “After a night of drinking multiple gin and tonics in Lower Manhattan, I took a cab home controlling the urge to upchuck because I was wearing someone else’s outfit. The song is about the morning after the night before”. The style is New York /Frank Sinatra / One For My Baby (and one more for the road).

 

Here is a sophisticated video made of the song.

 

 

 

The Indian scat appears again on Would I Lie which also showcases Mahajan’s superlative piano playing. He plays both piano and Fender Rhodes keyboards on the track and takes a longer solo than on many of the other pieces.

 

Listen to Would I Lie.

 

 

 

The vibe of the music on the album may not be particularly Indian but the subject matter of the lyrics often is. Load Shedding, for example, is about the frequent power cuts in Bangalore. The contrast between the sophisticated lifestyle of the protagonist (and sung about in a sophisticated way) and the fact that the city cannot provide a continuous power supply is extremely well done.

 

Watch this atmospheric video of Load Shedding.

 

 

 

The lyrics of the title track, Bangalore Blues, also have an Indian theme with the singer living in snowy, rainy New York and imagining life back in warm and green Bangalore. Again, Mahajan excels himself with some soulful bluesy playing of both piano and Fender Rhodes.

 

Here are Radha and Aman (and dog!) playing Bangalore Blues live.

 

 

 

The whole album is only just over half an hour long but each track is a little jewel. Radha Thomas and Aman Mahajan certainly know how to write hooky tunes – I’ve been listening to the album for two or three weeks now and some of the melodies have wormed their way into my head. If this is what jazz from India can do, then more please.

 

Click here for more about Radha Thomas on her website. Click here for more details and samples of Bangalore Blues.

 

Radha Thomas and Aman Rahajan

 

 

 

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