A vivid self-portrait in mosaic form, Kavita Shah's Visions heralds the arrival of a strikingly original, globally minded new voice. The gifted vocalist/composer brings together a rich variety of musical, cultural, and personal influences into a formidable debut album that combines a jazz quintet with Indian tablas and the West African kora.
Visions interweaves Shah's multicultural background (she's a native New Yorker of Indian descent fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and French) with her wide-ranging musical tastes (reared on 90s hip-hop, Afro-Cuban music, and bossa nova, she studied jazz voice and classical piano) and her fascination with ethnomusicology (which she studied at Harvard). The album was co-produced by the renowned Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, a kindred spirit who shares the singer's cohesive view of a multi-hued musical experience.
"I haven't been so excited about a project like this in a long time," states Loueke. "Kavita is a real, true musician. She's a great singer, but the way she writes music, she's not really thinking just about the voice. It sounds like she could be a horn player, a saxophone player."
Shah majored in Latin American Studies at Harvard, living abroad in Peru and then Brazil, where she conducted research on Afro-Brazilian music in a Bahian favela. That period is reflected in her rhythmically intoxicating duo with Lionel Loueke on Edil Pacheco/P. C. Pinheiro's "Oju Oba" as well as in her own composition "Moray" (winner of ASCAP's Young Jazz Composers Award), named for an Incan archeological site and inspired by Pablo Neruda's epic poem "Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu."
Shah went on to receive her Masters in Jazz Voice from Manhattan School of Music while studying privately with Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Steve Wilson, and Jim McNeely. Wilson's supple reed playing is featured on three tracks on Visions, while McNeely proved instrumental in nurturing Shah's innovative arrangements. While at MSM, Shah was named byDownBeat as Best Graduate Jazz Vocalist, and she has since become an active member of New York's thriving jazz community, performing regularly at such venues as Joe's Pub, Cornelia Street Café, Bar Next Door, 55 Bar, Shapeshifter Lab, Kitano, and Minton's Playhouse.
"It is so against who I am to pick just one style of music," Shah says. "Being a global citizen in the 21st century means having a somewhat disjointed life - scattered memories, connections, and experiences that can be enriching but also isolating. Visions is my small universe of all the parts that make me whole."
Shah had never met Lionel Loueke when she called on him to co-produce the album, but she recognized a fellow traveler in his own globetrotting sonic collage. "Lionel went above and beyond as a co-producer. He and I share the same vision for how we approach music, so I think there was an automatic trust, respect, and appreciation there. He has a really beautiful spirit and we formed a special relationship; he's been incredibly generous and supportive of my music."
Fourteen musicians from around the world ultimately contributed to breathing life into Shah's Visions, including keyboardist Stephen Newcomb, guitarist Michael Valeanu, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Guilhem Flouzat, percussionist Rogério Boccato, kora master Yacouba Sissoko, tabla prodigy Stephen Cellucci, and a string quartet conducted by Miho Hazama. The album follows an engaging narrative sweep, tracing the cycle of a day or, from a more melancholy angle, stages of grief (Shah's father died when she was 18). But through Shah's restless searching, it possesses a geographic as well as emotional sweep, made cohesive by her singular, prodigiously confident vision.
"I see myself as a cultural interlocutor. A singer can play an almost mystical role, connecting these different elements on stage with an audience through the human voice, through words. With the Visions project, it's amazing to see the Joni Mitchell fan who has never before seen a kora standing next to the hardcore jazz fan who would not expect to hear tablas on a Wayne Shorter tune. I hope that people find something familiar in the music that draws them in, but then discover something new that might change, even for a second, how they see the world."