On her debut album Visions (Inner Circle Music), vocalist and composer Kavita Shah works with a surprising mix of musical ingredients. There’s a kora from West Africa, a tabla from India, an American jazz rhythm section—and they’re all playing well-known songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and MIA, as well as Shah’s own compositions. For a lesser artist, this kind of international eclecticism can feel forced, a kind of musical tourism. But for Shah, it’s completely natural, an organic outgrowth of her diverse experiences as a singer and musical scholar. Produced by fellow musical omnivore and guitarist Lionel Loueke, the album has received much critical acclaim in the last year, including a four-star review in Downbeat Magazine.
This Thursday, June 25th, Ms. Shah makes her Jazz Gallery debut with a top-notch quintet featuring, among others, Steve Wilson on saxophone. Shah was kind enough to answer some questions via email about her work both on and off the bandstand.
The Jazz Galery: You were born and raised right here in New York City. How did you interact with the city musically growing up?
Kavita Shah: Musically speaking, growing up in New York was very unique. It was the 90s, which was a golden age for hip-hop, so my radio dial was parked on Hot 97 (that hasn’t changed much, actually!). At home, my parents played everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beatles to Michael Jackson to Mukesh. Then from ages 10 to 18, I had the privilege of singing with the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. We had a rigorous tour schedule, traveling often and playing regularly at places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. But perhaps most important for me was the early exposure to all kinds of music: we sang jazz, classical, pop, gospel, folk music in more than 15 languages, and commissioned worked by contemporary composers like Meredith Monk. I grew accustomed to having all these styles—from the esoteric to the popular—co-exist on an equal footing.
I also studied classical piano, so I would bring home my choir pieces to learn the inner voices and piano parts. This is how I first got into jazz; we sang “How High the Moon” and scatted to what I would later learn was Ornithology. I was obsessed! On my own, I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald and big band music, and the older I got, the more I wanted to explore standards. Patience Higgins, my former neighbor, played reeds with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, so when I decided eventually to pursue a career in music, I would go sit in with his band at the Lenox Lounge or (the old) Minton’s. The Harlem jazz scene was another big influence for me.
In terms of concerts, I used to go to Smalls back in high school. Back then, the cover was $10, and there was live music until 6am! I also started getting really into Afro-Cuban music and bossa nova, and being in New York, I got to experience that live. I must have been 16 or 17 when I saw João Gilberto at Carnegie Hall. I distinctly remember the feeling of community in that huge room, seeing how one person on stage with only his guitar could unite so many people in silence. I thought to myself: I want to do that!
TJG: You attended Harvard for your undergrad and studied Afro-Brazilian music and politics. How has your musicological research informed your work as a performer and composer?
KS: Personally, especially as a singer, I feel a very strong connection between music and language. Culture is the context that puts the two together; it makes music feel like something greater than mere notes on a page. My time in Salvador, Brazil had a particularly huge impact on me as an artist, because it was the first place where I witnessed this first hand. There, I worked closely with Malê Debalê, a bloco-afro (Carnival group) that served as a meeting ground for a marginalized community on the outskirts of the city. Through music, percussion, and dance, Malê drew from the rich legacy of Afro-Brazilian history, the US civil rights movement and African independence movements to disseminate positive messages about black consciousness. There was a great sense of pride that came out in the music.
Seeing how art and civil engagement and cultural identity could align like that gave me a deep sense of purpose as a musician. Studying other traditions and languages has been a means for me to grapple with my own identity as a member of a diaspora, and a continued source of inspiration in my own artistic endeavors. And it’s beautiful to be able to pass that on through my music; I love when audience members come up to me and say that they were taken on a journey, that they were touched by a particular story, or that they heard an instrument or a language they had never known of before.
TJG: Your debut album Visions from last year draws from a huge range of musical traditions. You feature instruments like the kora and tabla along with more traditional jazz instruments, as well as cover material by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and MIA alongside your own compositions. It can be really challenging to fit all of these ideas under one roof, so how do you approach composing and arranging in this way?
KS: First of all, I think it’s important to understand that the choices behind VISIONS—the instruments, repertoire, etc.—were all deeply personal. When we list them on paper, they can seem very eclectic, but in reality, they were based on actual places I have visited, people I have met, and music that has shaped my sonic landscape.
Someone told me once that you can only sing or play what you yourself have experienced, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. So in terms of writing, it’s not just taking a bassline from one tradition and a rhythm from another and juxtaposing them for dramatic effect. It’s much more natural than that. When I sit at the piano, I’m not actively thinking about specific styles; I’m just trying to follow my ear and see what sounds good to me. And of course, what comes out is going to reflect my particular musical intake, which has been very diverse.
This is something that my Visions co-producer, Lionel Loueke understood intuitively, and I was very lucky to benefit from his guidance in bringing it all together in the most natural way possible. And of course, there was also a lot of trial and error involved, for which I am indebted to the wonderful musicians on the album for their patience and willingness to step out of their comfort zone.
What’s interesting to me is not how all the different sounds and forms come together, but rather what happens once they do. The dialogue that results—within the music itself, among the musicians, and between the band and the audience—can be very powerful. When a Joni Mitchell fan hears my arrangement of “Little Green,” he or she might recognize the words and melody, but be thrown off by the harmony and meter, not to mention the West African kora. Maybe that person will dislike it. But maybe, just for a moment, his or her perspective will shift slightly, and even open up to new possibilities.
TJG: You’ve mentioned that you’re going to be presenting some new material in addition to repertoire from Visions. Are these new pieces an extension of what you’ve done with the Visions project so far? Do they play with new conceptual ideas?
KS: The main difference is the instrumentation, which is a jazz quintet. I had an incredible experience touring over the past year with Visions, but due to practical constraints, I couldn’t always go on the road with the entire 7-piece band. Yacouba Sissoko (kora) and Stephen Cellucci (tabla) were such a key part of the music that I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of substitutes. So I had to learn to adjust to a smaller setting, to find ways to bring out the same atmosphere and musical textures with less instruments. And I found that I enjoyed returning to the bare bones of a rhythm section, the space it provided me as a singer, which in turn affected my writing.
I’d also say these new pieces I’ve written and chosen to arrange are also more geared toward a song format rather than being through-composed, which leaves more room for live interaction and improvisation among the band. Glenn, Yotam, Michael, Obed, and special guest Steve Wilson are all musicians I have played with in different musical contexts, and I’m curious to see what we will create together!
TJG: Thanks for speaking with us, Kavita. It looks like the Gallery has a very exciting show to look forward to this week!
KS: Thank you! The Gallery has always been a place I have associated with some of the most interesting and creative music in the world, and I am really looking forward to Thursday!
Vocalist Kavita Shah plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, June 25th, 2015. Ms. Shah is joined by Glenn Zaleski on piano, Yotam Silberstein on guitar, Michael Olatuja on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and special guest Steve Wilson on saxophone. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.