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Upon moving to the Denver area from Washington, D.C., two years ago, vocalist/ composer/keyboardist Rekha Ohal suffered the usual setbacks while establishing herself on the local music scene. But rather than sitting home and feeling sorry for herself, Ohal found another way to exercise her voice: She began teaching a class at Colorado Free University whose title sounds like a situation comedy in the making--"How to Be a Night Club Singer." The class culminated with each student performing a song or two at the Beacon Grill under the watchful eye of his loving mentor.
Judging by Rekha, her new CD, Ohal is certainly capable of putting her knowledge to use outside the schoolroom. The ten jazzy original songs on her self-produced disc are vibrant, and the playing, by a band (also called Rekha) that features percussionist Ben Makinen, bassist Chris Harris, guitarist Paul Musso and backing vocalist/euphonium and conch-shell player Tom Ball, is just as impressive. Ohal credits the album's quality to her fellow musicians. "When I look at what we've done, I think what shines most clearly is the dedication of all of us to this," she says. "The band was so great. They always came to rehearsals, and they were always up and happy even though I didn't have any money to pay them--because all my money was going to the studio. So I would make turkey sandwiches for them to eat, and that's what they worked for."
Actually, Makinen received a few more benefits: He and Ohal became romantically involved shortly after they formed their musical relationship. Now, in addition to appearing with the band, the pair also performs as a duo under the moniker East Meets West. An East Meets West bonus track appears on Rekha.
Ohal's maternal instincts are central to her music. In fact, she believes that she might not be a performer today had she not first become a mother. "I took piano lessons when I was little, and later, I took voice lessons and I sang at weddings, nursing homes and the church my parents attended," she recalls. "But I never really thought about music as something that I would ever do anything with. I just thought I would grow up and do conventional things like get a job doing something and have babies--things like that. Nothing fancy. But then, when I did have a baby, I actually began getting serious about my music. It started when I got to thinking that playing music would actually be a great way to make some money in the evenings after my son's dad came home from work."
Over the almost seven years since her son was born, Ohal has made steady creative progress--so much so that she set out to document it in the studio beginning last February. She notes that her compositions soon developed into group projects. "I would sequence the tunes with a specific bass riff or something, and the rest of the band would take it from there. We would rehearse, and the songs would just kind of evolve. See, songs come to me at any time. I don't write music on paper. I can write chords and things, but as far as the actual notes and stuff, I don't do that. I'll just put it on tape or I'll sequence it directly on my keyboard.
"One of the songs on the CD, `All Deities,' started coming to me when I was driving back from Wyoming," she goes on. "I had no way to put it down, and I was worried because I had five more hours' drive to get home and it was pouring down rain. I was sure I'd forget it. So I stopped in this real tiny town, thinking I'd buy a little recorder and just record it. But it was Sunday, and the only thing open was this gas station, and they don't sell recorders at gas stations. So I went in, got about three dollars' worth of change, went out to the phone booth, called my message machine at home and sang the bass riff into the phone. The door on the phone booth was broken--it wouldn't close--and there were these two farmer types in a pickup just watching me like I was some crazy woman."
Ohal's efforts paid off. The finished recording displays the diverse influences brought to it by the players: classical, blues, funk, jazz and gospel among them. Throughout, the rhythms are strong, as are Ohal's lyrics, which cover a great deal of emotional territory. Her voice is versatile enough to handle these variations, and her keyboard work, while understated, rings with promise.
The same can be said of several of Ohal's pupils. Although she recently decided to take a break from teaching at the university, she continues to offer private and group vocal lessons to many of the students who completed her night-club tutorials, and she believes that several of them show considerable potential. Ohal displays the same aptitude, thanks to a little help from her friends. "We're a band and we're going to stay that way," she says. "It's my goal for us to just stay together for the rest of our lives, playing music."
Rekha, with Karen Capaldi. 9 p.m. Tuesday, January 23, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5, 322-2308.