Kavita Shah: “Listening to my music is like visiting 10 places at once”

The term ‘rising star’ seems to have been coined to describe Kavita Shah and her meteoric ascent within the New York jazz scene. However, she’s much more than the new face – and voice – in the jazz star system; an inventive vocalist and composer with a captivating voice, and a background in journalism, she creatively combines elements of different folk cultures, weaving them together with a jazz thread. The result is the musical counterpart of her ethnological studies, reimagining jazz as a metaphor for engaged citizenship. The Australian jazz audience will have the chance to experience all this by themselves, as Kavita Shah is about to tour the country.

What brings you to Australia?

I’m coming to Australia for a three-week tour and to collaborate with Brisbane-based composer Steve Newcomb. Steve and I first met as graduate students at Manhattan School of Music in 2010, and we have since worked together on several projects, including my album, ‘VISIONS, which Steve played piano on, and Steve Newcomb Orchestra’s ‘Caterpillar Chronicles‘.We just recorded SNO’s second album, ‘Meltwater Pulse’, which will be released this year.

What are your shows going to be like?

Those who come to our concerts can expect to hear our original music performed in a traditional quartet setting (voice/piano/bass/drums), but led by two composers who are committed first and foremost to creativity and improvisation. Our music, though harmonically rooted in jazz, incorporates influences from contemporary classical, pop, and world music idioms. We’ll be joined by local bassists and drummers in each city, including Sam Anning in Perth and Melbourne, whom Steve and I also studied and played with a lot in New York.

What do you expect from the Australian audience?

I’m not really sure what to expect from the audience since this is my first visit to the country, but I do know from having met many Aussie expats in New York and Canada that there is a dynamic jazz scene in Australia, and I hope that I can share a bit of what I do with that community.

How would you describe your music to someone unfamiliar with it?

I am a vocalist and composer engaged in bridging improvisation-based jazz with diverse folk music traditions. Listening to my music is like visiting ten places at once in a very intimate way, with a spirit of immersion, exploration, and warmth. That’s the idea, anyway!

You combine many different elements in your music; what does each mean to you?

I do source material from the Americas, Brazil, West Africa, India, and beyond. These are all places where I have lived and traveled to extensively, studying musical and cultural traditions, and developing personal connections to local communities.

How important is it for you to blend different traditions?

Blending traditions is essential to expressing my identity as an artist. I grew up in New York in a family of Indian immigrants; I studied classical piano and I sang diverse music in the Young People’s Chorus of NYC – from Czech folk songs to gospel to contemporary works by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin; I listened to hip-hop and Afro-Cuban music; I became fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French; in college, I studied and lived  abroad in Brazil, Peru, China, and South Africa; and this is all before I decided to become a professional musician. So it’s only natural that so many different cultures – and their respective systems of knowledge – would find their way into my musical world.

I’m not a big fan of the word ‘fusion’, because it feels binary to me, and I’m trying to achieve a sound that is multifaceted and fluid. And I think this sound reflects our world today, one which is increasingly more complex and interdependent, and one where migration – both for young college-graduates searching for work opportunities and for the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people around the globe – is a constant reality. Imparting a sense of social inclusion to the audience, by bringing these diverse elements into my music, is something that really drives my work.

How did you find your own voice as an artist?

I am still very much finding my own voice as an artist. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with that! But to some degree, the jazz scene in New York is so competitive that you are forced to reckon early on with who you are, what drives you, and what you have to contribute that is unique. My father also passed away unexpectedly when I was 18, and he was only 46-years-old. His untimely death gave me an insatiable drive to define my purpose on this earth, and to give all my energy to realizing it.

As I mentioned above, travel, culture, language and people have always been at the center of my life, so once I developed the technical tools I needed to make a life in music (thanks to the guidance of many wonderful teachers), it’s been a process of trying to reflect my principles and my worldview through my craft. Developing relationships with musicians I trust has also been a large part of my artistic growth. Steve Newcomb, for example, is such a brilliant composer, and I’ve learned so much by singing his music, which often presents the voice as a supporting instrument, helping me to expand the scope of my vocal expression. In many ways, I think my voice as an artist is already present within me, but I am learning over time to uncover it and hone it.

How was your collaboration with Lionel Loueke?

Lionel is truly an amazing musician who had a big impact on my life. He co-produced, played guitar and sang on my album, ‘VISIONS, and I continue to learn from him on and off stage. What I admire most about his music is his ability to synthesize esoteric jazz harmonies and complex polyrhythms with traditional African music in a way that is organic, accessible, and deeply touching. Lionel had an immediate understanding of my musical vision, and was able to help guide the band and the sound of the record towards that aesthetic. He also exudes a sense of musical integrity that has served as a compass for my own artistic development.

Who are your heroes?

I have so many! Lionel, of course, is a hero of mine. Wayne Shorter’s music and playing speaks to me on a very deep level. I’ve been blessed to study with vocalist Sheila Jordan and call her and vocalist Helen Merrill my jazz grandmothers. Another mentor whom I look up greatly to is Jason Moran – I find his interdisciplinary work so inspiring. I have recently been tracing the life of the late Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, whose heartbreaking music I also feel deeply tied to. The list continues… but I suppose what all these artists have in common is their uncanny ability to tell stories, to be radically themselves, and to evolve over time.

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz to me means complete freedom. Freedom to be yourself and to embrace yourself as an imperfect human being. Freedom from the expectations and constraints of society, especially as a woman and a person of color.

How did you get into jazz?

I got into jazz through Ella Fitzgerald. My choir sang her song ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ when I was 10 years old, and I was mesmerized with that early swing band sound. It’s funny, because most people wouldn’t guess that about me. But it’s a timeless sound, and of course her voice is perfection, so it makes sense that it resonated with me. I think the syncopation also spoke to me on a visceral level, a liberation of sorts from the rigidity of my classical music education.

What is your greatest aspiration?

My greatest aspiration is to simultaneously maintain a career as a performer, composer, and educator while also continuing my ethnographic work – traveling around the world, learning new languages, documenting marginalized folk music traditions, and finding a way to shed light on those traditions and contribute to their cultural preservation. I hope to do this not only through music, but also through my writing and multimedia work, collaborating also with filmmakers and visual artists. As a small step in this direction, I recently started a blog about my ethnographic work, called The Folkalist, sharing writings, photos, and videos about my fieldwork.

What did you have to denounce to pursue your dreams?

The artistic life requires total and absolute dedication. I recently realized that I don’t have any hobbies! All of my interests are somehow caught up in my artistic aspirations (learning languages, reading, photography, visual art, even exercise!). It’s not this 9-5 life where you leave your work at the office and then come home and start your ‘other’ life. It’s all-consuming, which is beautiful, but can be exhausting at times. I used to work in journalism and human rights, and was seriously considering a future in academia or law. Of course, choosing a career in music meant foregoing a more lucrative and stable career path, but it’s very clear to me how these experiences informed who I am as an artist and how I create music today, even if indirectly.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Lennie Tristano’s ‘Lennie’s Pennies’.

I’ve been working on it for a duo project, and I can’t get it out of my head these days. Lennie’s writing is so insane. The first time you read it through, it is so challenging – the speed, the rhythms, the chromatic melodies. And then when you play it though a few times, it all starts to make perfect sense on an intuitive level. This song describes my current state of mind well because I am about to fly to Brisbane and I still have to pack! Hopefully, that will come to me intuitively, too!

*Kavita Shah is touring with Brisbane-based composer/pianist Steve Newcomb throughout Australia. Performances Include: