Go to Dazzle on Thursdays during the lunch rush, and you'll find Rekha Ohal serenading the bustling crowds.
The singer and pianist, who's as comfortable playing nursing homes as she is clubs, grew up in Tacoma Park, Maryland. She studied piano as a kid and continued through adulthood, even after she had a child. When her son was two years old, she gigged at clubs around Washington, D.C., as a piano player, but her agent said she could get more money if she sang. She needed the cash, and although the idea terrified her, she gave it a try.
“Some of the first weeks of this gig I was supposed to sing, I'd set all my gear up, and then I’d cough and pretend I had a sore throat, or I’d forget my microphone or just do all these silly things,” Ohal says. “Until finally somebody got wise to it and said, ‘Just sing.’ And I thought, I’ll lose my job if I don’t sing, so I'd better start.”
After three years of playing professionally around Washington, big-city life wore her down. Tired of rough neighborhoods, she yearned to go somewhere else, and ultimately landed on Colorado, where her son’s father and his family lived. When she visited, she thought it was beautiful, so she packed her bags and moved. For 25 years, she's called Denver home.
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She and her band of heavy hitters — Dan Schwindt, Matt Houston and Dave Devine — describe their performances as “weird versions” of classic songs like Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Billie Holliday’s “Summertime” and the like. But Ohal and her band play these songs as jazz standards.
“We can play the song from the top, and somebody might solo, and somebody else might solo and then play the song from the top again,” Ohal says. “It’s kind of just treating the song the way you would play a jazz number."
The bandmates are busy and only join forces for Dazzle shows or when Ohal performs her original music. “They’re all rock stars in this town. I’m lucky to get all of them if I can,” she says.
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After gigging for 28 years — 25 in Colorado — she still loves it. “When I sing, it actually physically feels good,” Ohal explains. “For some reason, it just feels like the most familiar thing I know how to do. And it feels like I’m connecting to myself more and to people more.”
Lately she’s played gigs at retirement centers, taking residents down memory lane to their childhoods. One couple approached her. The husband said that even though his wife has Alzheimer’s, she remembered all the lyrics to all the songs.
“That’s something that’s really interesting to me, working in this realm now — that the memory of lyrics of songs you knew when you were a child seems to not be scathed by dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Ohal says. “It’s just really amazing.”
Rekha Ohal regularly performs Thursdays during lunch at Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street.