For a performer of any discipline, not being able to perform in front of a live audience results in soul crushing emptiness.
But jazz singer Radha Thomas beat the pandemic blues with the amazing feat of releasing as many as 52 videos in one year — an average of one song per week.
Thomas did everything to make this happen.
From finding musicians that she had never worked with before, to arranging each tune, to arranging the look of the video, directing the sound and video engineers (both of whom are in South America) right down to using walkers, crutches, canes, chairs and upside down stools as rigs, to create an ersatz studio at her home.
Each video was an exercise in multilateral coalition; and educating fellow musicians on things other than music.
Jazz musicians devote themselves to their cause because jazz requires a considerable degree of chops; skill, technique, a deep technical knowledge of musical structures and imagination determine how “good” a jazz musician is and how well they can improvise on call.
Video technique is not one of their skill sets.
Some of them had no clue how to arrange themselves in a frame. So it fell to Thomas — who had become fascinated with making videos — to send them scans of scribbles or instructing them verbally on just about everything.
And then, she had to arrange the music.
Arranging a jazz tune means deciding how the song starts i.e., the intro, who plays the solos and for what length, what the tempo and the groove (the rhythmic pattern) will be, how the accompanists will play behind her, and finally, how the song will end.
And then recording the song with musicians each recording their parts remotely is another challenge.
In classical music — or any other music where each musician is told exactly what to play — the song has been scripted.
Jazz is music played by improvising live. The musicians always listen to each other and feed off the other to play accents, fill-ins and such.
The worst challenge for a jazz musician is to play without the ability to listen to the other musicians in the song and yet sound credible. This is particularly true when accompanying a singer — in jazz, musicians support and complement what the singer does live, such as accents and emphasis.
So Thomas had to find a way to construct each song by providing each musician the ability to play as though they were live and recording in the same room.
Layer by layer, she traded scratch recordings of herself and the rhythm section instruments with the soloists approaches and by a process of collaboration over WhatsApp, voice mails and Zoom, and each song came alive.
And then each musician’s audio and video recordings had to be synchronized perfectly with the others’ recordings.
Thomas found her collaborators in the form of both audio and video engineers based in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Some were done in India and Russia.
Radha Thomas found musicians from many countries to accompany her, including from USA, UK, Russia, Italy, Japan, Dubai, Estonia, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Iceland and India, variously playing guitar, drums, bass, vibraphone, trumpet and piano.
The line up once even included a konnakol beatboxer that Radha Thomas used for her original composition, “Would I Lie”.
In another video, she accompanied herself, using the voice in parts to replace the bass and rhythm with the video in triptych.
Having built a lifetime of singing jazz to enthralled audiences in the capital of jazz, New York City — Radha Thomas, now divides her time between New York and Bangalore, India.
Thomas had been particularly busy of late and her recent work included launching an album with her principal musical collaborator, the talented pianist Aman Mahajan. Bangalorean jazz enthusiasts were treated to concerts in venues around the city including Bangalore International Centre and Jagriti.
And then the pandemic happened and all venues were shut down.
Thomas found herself marooned at home in Bangalore.
At first, the novelty of the lockdown — in a time when the city of Bangalore was not facing any particular outbreak of Covid — was quirky. Thomas even wrote a tune about how loud the birds had become. But as the pandemic wore everyone down, her compositions took a darker theme with one that talked about how she missed seeing her son and daughter-in-law, who live in New York City.
Still in demand for appearances, she did live performances online by event organisers, House Concerts and the newspaper, Times Of India.
“Performing live to an iPhone camera has its charms,” Radha Thomas told Explocity, “but it’s unnerving when you finish a song with a flourish to a deafening silence, instead of applause.”
While the bleakness of the pandemic depressed many, it triggered a defiant response in Thomas. Refusing to be kept down, she fought the odds and decided to release songs as videos.
One thing led to another and Radha Thomas threw herself into this new world, almost wide-eyed in learning new things about making these videos. The harder the task, the more she rose to it.
The result? The amazing feat of single-handedly creating and releasing 52 videos in one year.
The first video that went up was in June 2020, Thelonius Monk’s famous tune, “Round Midnight” as a guitar-voice duo with Bangalore-based jazz guitarist Ramjee Chandran.
The 52nd video that went up in June 2021, was a jazz standard, “Fools Rush In” as a piano-voice duo with New York based pianist, Tomoko Ohno Farnham.
Only fools, Radha Thomas wrote in the description of her YouTube video, would rush into a project like this.
This story first appeared in Explocity Bangalore. For a list of all the artists Thomas collaborated with and to watch the videos, click here to read the original story in full.