A vivid self-portrait in mosaic form, Kavita Shah's Visions (available May 27 on Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music) 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.
"My experience of diaspora has not exactly been linear, but more like a kaleidoscope. So musically, I wanted to bring together different elements that I love, and combine them in a way that may be surprising to others but makes sense to me," Shah says. "We have one sound," adds Loueke. "You listen to the album from the beginning to the end, and even if the textures are different, it has a unity."
Shah's own cultural heritage pointed to some unexpected directions. Her paternal grandfather moved from Mumbai to New York in the 1940s, a full generation before immigration from South Asia became common. After witnessing the birth of the United Nations, he returned to India as the first publisher to bring American books to the country, and Shah's father later retraced his path to New York to attend college. Shah's mother was one of 13 children, born to a father who insisted on educating his daughters rather than simply marrying them off; music, seen as a distraction, was forbidden.
"I didn't grow up in a traditional household," Shah recalls. "My parents wanted to expose me to music, an opportunity they didn't have growing up, but not just to Hindi film songs or Indian classical music. They immigrated to New York in the 1970s, so there was a lot of pop in the house: The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra." Both sides of that early musical diversity are represented on Visions: Shah sings Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" and Stevie Wonder's "Visions," while one of her first collaborators on the project was tabla player Stephen Cellucci. The two met while working on tabla virtuoso Samir Chatterjee's project "Rabi Thakur."
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, 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 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 spent her childhood with the radio dial parked on HOT 97, New York's leading hip-hop station, which is echoed in her tabla-driven cover of British rapper M.I.A's hit "Paper Planes." Perhaps her most formative musical experience came at the age of 10 when she joined the Young People's Chorus of New York City, an award-winning youth chorus with whom she regularly performed in more than 15 languages in venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
It was in the YPC where Shah was first exposed to jazz, and it stuck. "We sang everything from standards to opera to pop to folk music to contemporary pieces by major composers like Meredith Monk," Shah recalls. "For me, that all these types of music could co-exist was quite normal, and in a way, I've been trying to replicate that experience ever since."
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."
After college, Shah found herself working day jobs at nonprofits like Human Rights Watch until she received advice from an unexpected, brassy guardian angel: legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan. "I was on my way to work when the subway doors opened," Shah recalls, "and there was Sheila Jordan in front of me. At that time, I didn't have a mentor in jazz and I was a little lost. In 15 minutes on the train, Sheila basically gave me all of her mantras for life - she took me in and really encouraged me."
With Jordan's support, 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 by DownBeat 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 Cornelia Street Café, Bar Next Door, 55 Bar, Shapeshifter Lab, Kitano, and Minton's Playhouse.
The final piece of the Visions puzzle fell into place from passion rather than experience. Shah's love for the music of master Malian musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté inspired her to call kora player Yacouba Sissoko, who eagerly responded to the challenge of her musical mélange.
"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."
"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."
Upcoming Kavita Shah Performances:
* April 8 / Jazz Museum of Harlem / New York, NY
April 18 / Philadelphia Museum of Art / Philadelphia, PA
** May 27 / Joe's Pub / New York, NY
June 13 / Sunside / Paris, France
July 6 / JazzSchool / Berkeley, CA
July 26 / Children's Museum of Manhattan / New York, NY
* International Jazz Conversation Series
** with special guest Lionel Loueke
Kavita Shah · Visions · Release Date: May 27, 2014