A corona kind of crazy, with a dash of jazz
Jazz musician Radha Thomas’ new single captures the absurd melancholy of these times
In March, jazz singer Radha Thomas, who has been an intrinsic part of Bengaluru’s music scene since the late 1970s and fronts the jazz band UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble, released an album of original songs and compositions called Bangalore Blues with a long-time collaborator, pianist Aman Mahajan. It was an exciting time for the duo— early reviewswere positive and encouraging, and Thomas and Mahajan were hoping to go places with their new music. And then, like a million plans around the world, theirs too died a quiet death waiting for the world to right itself.
Thomas is surprisingly upbeat, though. “The pandemic has been awful for most people and I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a really terrible person but it has been a pretty amazing time for me," she says over the phone, in her breathy, throaty, perfect-for-jazz voice. “It has opened up all sorts of possibilities and opportunities and it has forced me to improvise." One of these opportunities came in the form of a collaboration with the New York-based, Japanese-origin jazz pianist Tomoko Ohno Farnham. The song, Corona Kinda Crazy, “popped into" Thomas’ head one morning as she was thinking about the unique situation we find ourselves in— and specifically about people who are separated from those they love.
With a smooth, mournful/playful rhythm, the single, written by Thomas, captures the longing of a woman separated from her lover, whom she wishes she had been “locked down" with. She hopes they will “break a few laws" to come visit her in the darkness of the night, capturing the absurd melancholy and desperation of these times.
The song was recorded at Thomas’ home in Bengaluru’s Frazer Town, in a makeshift studio put together with old furniture and discarded knick-knacks, while Farnham recorded the piano music in New York. The video, uploaded on Facebook, has a home-made feel to it too, in a way that has become familiar over the past few months. Thomas is in a casual blue kurta, defying the unwritten global jazz dress code of all-black.
How did it come about? “Over the years, I have built connections with musicians in all parts of the world—from Italy, Sweden and Germany to Brazil and Argentina and, of course, New York," says Thomas, who started her musical career with the Bengaluru band Human Bondage. She lived in New York for 20 years, holding a variety of day jobs while singing in clubs at night. During this time, she collaborated with jazz fusion guitarist Ryo Kawasaki; some of the tracks they recorded were released as a limited-edition album, Trinkets & Things. Returning to Bengaluru in the early 1990s, she started collaborating with musicians like Louis Banks and Keith Peters, forming UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble in 2009. Their latest album, Bangalore Blues, features Thomas’ signature style, with its distinctive sound of classical jazz layered with Hindustani ragas. One of the songs from the album, The Morning After, has a melodic strain from Raag Bageshree, says Thomas, who trained under Hindustani classical greats Kumar Gandharva and Fariduddin Dagar in her early years as a musician. “Can’t you hear the Indian influence in Corona as well?" she asks, eagerly. Untrained ears probably can’t capture it at first go, but after a few listens, one can hear the Carnatic lilt in Thomas’ voice.
“Once I had the song in my head, I played the chords on the guitar and sent it to Tomoko using this program called iRealB that musicians use, and said ‘can you do something with this?’ She promptly sent a few piano notes, and soon we were recording in separate parts of the world," says Thomas.
She would do it again in a heartbeat, she says. “While Aman (Mahajan) and I worked hard on our Bangalore Blues album, recorded at a top-notch studio, invested a lot of money into getting it perfect, I realized after doing this song that these spontaneous collaborations are also very meaningful," says Thomas. She has gone a corona kind of crazy, but in a good way.