What distinguishes jazz from contemporary popular music is almost entirely the presence of improvisation. But in this concert, Radha Thomas didn’t do so nearly as much

Although the blurb for the concert might have misled one to believe that Radha Thomas and her ensemble UNK would be previewing their new album in the offing, in fact they presented a mix of new and old material at B Flat Bar on September 13. The line-up of musicians was almost the same as on her earlier album : Aman Mahajan on piano (digital keyboard), Matt Littlewood on tenor and soprano saxophones, Ramjee Chandran on guitar, Mishko M’ba on electric bass, and – replacing Suresh Bascara – Jeoraj George on drums. This incidentally was, except for Thomas and Chandran, the line-up for Mahajan’s recent concert at B Flat reviewed by me last month.

Among the pieces the band played were at least two from the last album, Mahajan’s “Connections” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”. And in a reprise of Mahajan’s last concert we also got his compositions “Load-shedding” and “Leafmotif”. Perhaps they’ll find a place on the new album. The new stuff included a funky piece, probably written by Thomas herself, called “Randu Dosai”, an ode to the dosa or dosai as it is called in Tamil, of which Thomas claims she eats two (randu) and then two more every morning, and goes on to enumerate all the many varieties of this divine dish! This number and “Watermelon Man”, which, although not humorous is certainly light-hearted and quite funky, were juxtaposed in the second half of the concert and did much to brighten the mood. Not that the mood was dark or sombre otherwise, but there were a couple of more romantic pieces, including “Love on the Dance Floor”.

The ensemble worked well as a team, all members getting enough opportunities to contribute their individual parts to the whole in the form of solo improvisations. Chandran, for example, whose relative obscurity I pointed out in my review of the earlier album – he was heard only occasionally there in a couple of solos – got plenty of solo space in this concert. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that in the ensemble passages he was hardly audible although, sitting close to him, I could see he was working hard, so he probably was doing so on the album. On this occasion he got solos on the bulk of the tracks, sometimes two solos on one track as on “Love on the Dance Floor”.

M’ba in contrast was less prominent this time than last month but still evidently in fine form, a remark that might also apply to George. Mahajan was going great guns again like he was last month, as was Littlewood, this time using the tenor and soprano saxes about equally often. Thomas’s own solos were less frequent, although she contributed a neat dhrupad intro, harking back to her Indian classical training, to “Leafmotif”. In response to a demand voiced by the audience, she promised a blues at the end – it was called “Bangalore Blues” – with the remark “Save the best for last”.

Alas, I can’t say that about my remarks on her interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s classic tune “Nefertiti”, to which she added not a lyric but a recital of the story of the legendary Egyptian queen. Her vocal was a straightforward narration which tended to drown out the music from her accompanists, from whom it was pointless to expect any improvisation since one couldn’t pay any attention to them in the background of the history lesson.

Which brings me once again to one of my recurrent themes: what distinguishes jazz from contemporary popular music is almost entirely the presence of improvisation. And that brings up the role of vocals in jazz. Unlike in Indian classical music, where improvisation is highly developed in vocals, in jazz many singers don’t improvise at all, but their performances still qualify as jazz because their accompanying instrumentalists solo extensively. Thomas has been known to improvise quite a bit, as for example on her last album, but in this concert didn’t do so nearly as much, letting everything ride on her evocative voice. “Nefertiti” could have in fact been conceived as a vocal improvisation but wasn’t, and didn’t leave any room for the musicians to solo either. Which was a pity.