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 sanding 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.
Kavita Shah’s new album, Visions, is exactly as she intended: jazz as viewed through an enchanted prism. All 15 compositions, including a bonus track, force the listener to open up another channel of perception. It’s all jazz, but played with global enlightenment, transforming jazz into a revelatory, blossoming dream just on the other side of the world.
Released on Inner Circle Music May 27, 2014, Shah’s new album contains a lavish collection of tough covers and splendid originals. The difference is in this New York City-based vocalist’s singularly individual and personalized approach to the material by such formidable artists as Joni Mitchell (“Little Green”) and Stevie Wonder (“Visions”).
Her ace in the hole is where she comes from and the world she embraces. Not content to play her standards straight, Shah — whose paternal grandfather traveled from his native Mumbai to New York in the 1940s — comes by the globally expansive, multi-styles naturally. Her parents emigrated to New York, raising her to love all kinds of music. “I didn’t grow up in a traditional household,” Shah said. “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.”
A spot on the award-winning, multi-lingual Young People’s Chorus of New York City at age 10 continued her global exposure. They played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and sang the gamut, standards, opera, folk, pop, “to contemporary pieces by major composers like Meredith Monk. 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.”
Classically trained on the piano since the age of five, the native New Yorker of Indian descent can also speak and sing in Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and grew up digging 1990s hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, bossa nova, and jazz.
In this, her debut album, the young singer/composer/arranger also made sure to bring in elements of her heritage, as well as that of other countries she’s studied and admired, including Brazilian and Malian music. Underneath the global styles, Shah infuses an emotional, thematic arc surrounding the death of her beloved father when she was 18.
She does global jazz so well that in “Rag Desh: Alaap,” clearly a tome to her native India, it’s impossible not to get lost in the hum of her unhurried vocal movement outward. The two-minute, 15-second intro into the drumbeat flutters of “Rag Desh: Teentaal Gat” is nothing but one long meditative chant — and it’s not boring!
“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 explained.
The different elements she brings in includes liberal use of the Indian tablas (Stephen Cellucci) and West African kora (Yacouba Sissoko) with a typical jazz ensemble of percussion, bass, piano, guitar, saxophone. All in all, 14 musicians signed up for her Visions: keyboardist Stephen Newcomb, guitarist Michael Valeanu, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Guilhem Flouzat, percussionist Rogério Boccato, kora master Sissoko, tabla prodigy Cellucci, and a string quartet led by Miho Hazama.
Benin-born guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke co-produced the album, sharing with Shah a similar global vision. “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.”
It all makes for one sweet trip. “We have one sound,” Loueke said. “You listen to the album from the beginning to the end, and even if the textures are different, it has a unity.”
Amazingly, for all that unity, there’s a mind-boggling amount of stylistic diversity emerging and reemerging throughout the tracks. Shah can switch from a Joni Mitchell number and her “Rag: Desh” chant, to a purely soulful dance groove on “When…,” a bonus track (#15), while still keeping the elusive, dreamy global lines steady in the pulse of the bass/drums and the guitar, that touches on the exotic. Her voice is heavenly, but without a true origin; equally at home in a Motown studio or faraway smooth jazz jaunt.
“I haven't been so excited about a project like this in a long time,” Loueke said. “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.”
The choices in Shah’s music elevate the lyrical poem of her ethereal voice into the stratosphere of a new kind of global experience. “Sodade,” for one. She blends her voice with the others in the choir, repeating the song title as each instrument lends itself to the dance spiraling into the sky. It’s the perfect amalgamation of jazz, classical, and world music, for a sense of the eternal. As she sings in another language, she bends her strange words in an angular fashion, then leaves the airy, rustling tension behind. The kora on guitar really lends a nice cross-cultural exchange, falling and tumbling delicately, without disrupting the dreamy flow inherent in the album.
“Visions” is in English, but the feel is like that of landing on another planet parallel to earth, where the landscape is pregnant with supernatural change. That sense of the supernatural is super-charged with the zing and zap of the percussion section juxtaposed against an almost rebelliously anti-melodic vocal trail, “I know that trees are green, they only change to brown when autumn comes around…” The entire effect is jarring, dropping into someone else’s dream, a sonic vision of the mind. The percussive jabs really heighten the surreal. Can you believe this is Stevie Wonder?
Not many would dare tackle a Joni Mitchell song. But Shah does, quite happily in “Little Green,” a poem within a poem. Her voice is poised just slightly above the notes, pulling out the extreme beauty as noticed within the lyrics — instead of staying underneath the dark shadows of the pauses as Mitchell tends to do. When Shah sings this sad poem, she takes away the feeling of abandonment, restoring the promise of a new beginning by building up the lyrical melody, raising the stakes in the dramatic highs just a little bit more than Joni Mitchell did. Shah sings the poetry beats in this song so well. Mitchell’s lyrics — “Born with the moon in Cancer | Choose her a name she will answer to | Call her green and the winters cannot fade her | Call her green for the children who’ve made her | Little green, be a gypsy dancer…” — pair so well with Shah’s poetic, global nature.
“It is so against who I am to pick just one style of music. 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.”