Sri Lankan pianist and Moores School of Music piano performance junior Thanushka Bandara has taken on the challenge to broaden Houston’s sphere of musical influence by shaping jazz into a rhythmic, international style. However, he first had to learn the basics, and who better to help him get exposed to classical music than someone who raised him?
“My dad had grown up in Sri Lanka and played a lot of Indian classical music. Of course, he then brought me up on that kind of music, and especially while I was always listening to a lot of other different things,” Bandara said.
“My ears were very open at a younger age. I often find that a lot of people who grow up listening to pop or radio music find it hard to understand classical music, so I was lucky to have parents to have come from that background and how they chose to nurture me.”
Much like his father, he and the rest of his family are also musicians who constantly have their hands on various instruments. For Bandara, percussion was his first love. Throughout his years at Clear Lake High School and at the Los Angeles Music Academy, he made sure to stay close to his Sri Lankan roots with tabla drums, an important component of Indian classical music.
The obsession with piano and jazz music came along shortly thereafter. Being around students at the Los Angeles Music Academy and working with the piano gave Bandara interesting ideas. After helping out some of his friends with their projects, he transferred to UH in hopes that he could learn more about the black and white keys.
His transfer also helped shape his newfound outlook on music, such as the emotion portrayed and its effectiveness.
“I read a musical piece once, and it was based on something sad that happened, but it was very generic. There are so many shades of sad. There’s never just one type of sad,” Bandara said.
“With music, there’s a place for all these variations of different types of emotions. So, for example, in a moment where we have the soloist who would try to express one shade of sad — that in itself can critically create a dynamic with the audience.”
Assistant professor of piano Tali Morgulis became his piano instructor. Alongside teaching him more about chord progressions and other intricacies, what Bandara remembers most about the lesson was learning how to sit at the piano.
Morgulis notes that he has come a long way in his playing abilities.
“It is true that he didn’t know how to play the instrument well when I started teaching him,” Morgulis said. “However, he always had that spirit, that creativity and the ear for music. He’s a very diligent in his work and a real perfectionist. He truly strives for best results.”
Bandara eventually formed his own jazz quartet after becoming friends with some of the musicians in the jazz orchestra.
In addition to Bandara, the band members consist of drummer and music graduate Grant Martin, saxophonist and engineering graduate Eric Bustamante and bassist and music graduate Alex Zapata.
Martin noted Bandara’s eagerness to bring a new sound to Houston.
“It’s somewhat of a European style of jazz. We get to play the type of music that I would otherwise not be able to have the opportunity to play,” Martin said.
“Doing shows with him is really interesting, because the style of music that he plays is not really found in Houston a lot. I think he’s the only guy who can really play that way.”
In an effort to bring a particular invigorating style to jazz music, Bandara and his quartet are looking to put out a self-titled instrumental album next spring. The bandmates have set their goal of recording and mixing 14 songs and plan to keep only 10 of them for the album. Each of the songs touch deeply into Bandara’s personal experiences. During performances, the band plays on the fly, following his lead.
In addition to recording music, Bandara and his quartet have played their tunes at Bohemeo’s, Jet Lounge and the recently closed Ciao’s Wine Bar. On Sunday, the band performed at Numbers, serving as an opening act for Armenian jazz pianist and award winning artist Tigran Hamasyan.
Bandara said he often emphasizes the importance of knowing where music started in order to become a full-fledged musician. At the same time, he also doesn’t forget his father’s lessons of sticking to music as he did during his youth, even in the midst of stress-inducing studies, practices and try-outs at music schools.
“I’m really influenced by classical music. I feel that you have to study classical music in order to be an all-around musician. That’s what my dad taught me, but he also reminded me of why I play music,” Bandara said.
“When you go to school for music and you study it a lot, sometimes it’s easy to get lost. My dad always tells me to remember the joy of playing music when you’re younger, because that was the time when it didn’t matter and that there was no pressure.”