Mumbai band Bombay Brass on their love of baraats, blending the city’s cosy jazz with a bunch of influences and providing a background score in a Mira Nair miniseries

Bombay Brass

Thirty-four year-old Mumbai-based saxophonist Rhys Sebastian knows how to throw a party. Frontman of Bombay Brass – a Mumbai-based 11-piece floating jazz outfit which has found inspirations in the varied sound of an Indian baraat, funk-and-soul legend Maceo Parker, Hindustani classical music, and noted composer duo Shankar-Jaikishen – Sebastian turns the band’s concerts into a riot of sorts, thanks to his slick showmanship. He dances in slo-mo, carries a tune while lying flat on his back, and walks in the aisles, asking the audience to intone and repeat some of the passages – including a few incredible originals, without a note out of sync.

At the recently concluded 16th edition of Jodhpur Riff (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) at the the majestic Mehrangarh Fort – Sebastian and his band segued into musical splendour with their dexterous blend of groove, energetic musical filigrees, and charisma – all the hallmarks of a good jazz show. Besides Sebastian on the alto sax, the band includes Ramon Ibrahim on the keys and trombone, Robin Fargose on the trumpet, ID Rao on tenor sax, Jarryd Rodrigues on soprano sax, Saurabh Suman on bass, Sanjeev Aguiar on electric guitar, JJ (Jehangir Jehangir) on the drums, Avadhoot Phadke on the flute, and Emmanuel Simon on percussions.

While JJ and Sebastian went to college together and began making music quite early, the others – all musicians with solo careers and significant roles in other bands – came along gradually. “We all spent a lot of time on the road performing with different bands. So coming together was easy,” says Sebastian, who is also the one working out the logistics of bringing 11 musicians with different careers and schedules together under one roof for rehearsals and recordings.

Bombay Brass began its career with covers – funky interpretations of songs not even remotely linked to jazz

A deep admirer of New Orleans jazz that evolved with the colliding and intermingling of many different influences, Sebastian found it to share similarities with jazz in Bombay, where he grew up and which was once a haunt for musicians from around the world, just like New Orleans. “I felt that it’d be nice to have brass as the frontman, turn it into our lead singer of sorts and revive that sound in our own way. There could be versatility in that. I felt it could be quite cathartic,” says Sebastian, both of whose parents were musicians and who himself has had extensive training in Western classical music. His mother Merlin D’Souza makes it to the stage often, on the keys for Bombay Brass.

Interestingly, Bombay Brass began its career with covers – funky interpretations of songs not even remotely linked to jazz, such as Kisi disco mein jaaye (1998, Bade Miyan Chhote Miyan), O o jaane jaana (1998, Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya) and Kala chashma (2016, Baar Baar Dekho). This was fabulously upgraded baraat music with influences of jazz harmonies. The band had a great time, the crowds lapped it up, it was a win-win for all. But Sebastian and others were keen to go the extra mile, and focus on their own voices, which led to a number of originals. “Bombay also had the military bands playing besides the jazz bands. Bombay Brass is an attempt at the revival of that culture. Of course, they weren’t ripping guitar solos like we are but brass was the essence,” says JJ.

So, if OP Nayyar’s composition, Mera naam chin chin choo (1958, Howrah Bridge), became a part of their repertoire, so did Badshah’s Jugnu (2022). In between, there were also a bunch of original compositions, including Joggers Park, a piece based on raag Jog; Goodbye Ravi in raag Bhairavi and a fun piece titled Prime Sinisters. Sebastian says it is here that the individual talents of the members come to the fore. “For instance, it helps that Suman and Phadke are classically trained in Hindustani music because I am not. But I like to dabble in the permutations and combinations of the ragas that are suggested. It’s enriching to find new meanings for the music I know,” says Sebastian.

Then came Quegdevelim Sunset, an ode to the rocky but peaceful beach in Goa, one of the two originals the band has created. It was spotted in 2019 by musician Ankur Tiwari, who was then the music supervisor for Mira Nair’s screen adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (2020). While Nair didn’t like the first recording, she approved the second one and used it as the backdrop to a soiree in a newly-Independent India in the mini-series. “Mira is extremely open as well as exacting. She was available in the recordings remotely and gave her inputs throughout. We stuck to the brief and the result’s been very interesting,” says Sebastian.

When Sebastian created Bombay Brass, he was clear that as much as he loved jazz standards, he didn’t want to get stuck in them. Which is why he decided to merge the music with electric guitars, synths and even a duffli. “You can choose to work only with jazz as a career or you can choose to amalgamate your experiences with it. I choose to do the latter. It allows me to think out of the box,” he says.

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