Singer Kavita Shah's journey to the recording of her debut album, "Visions," was a long one, involving hours spent honing her skills — on stages and in classrooms — punctuated by bursts of inspiration and self-discovery.
If you want to talk degrees and accolades, Shah's pedigree is impressive: the undergraduate diploma from Harvard (she majored in Latin American Studies). The master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Composition and arranging studies with Phil Markowitz and Jim McNeely. Performances on some of the most prestigious venues in the country, and so on.
If you ask Shah about her musical education, however, she'll take you back even further. For eight years, from the ages of 10 to 18, Shah sang with the famed Young People's Chorus, a New York City institution that brought her to Carnegie Hall several times and exposed her to the music of Meredith Monk, John Taverner and Michael Torke, to folk music from all over the globe and to more traditional classical music, with fellow choristers from all over the socio-economic spectrum.
"We're talking about a professional group," Shah told CTNow. "We had rehearsals six to 10 hours a week, concerts every week, touring, leaving school early and skipping school to do it." Shah also got her first taste of jazz. "I had a unique education through that very rigorous program, by being exposed to many different types of sounds, some very complicated and some tonal, traditional three-part harmonies as well as 16-part harmonies."
Harvard, meanwhile, was a time for performing, for "doing things on my own, not with a choir," Shah said. "I had this crazy experience [with the Young People's Choir] growing up, and then I got to college and thought I'd join the choir. But it was either join the gospel choir or join the classical choir, and I was like, 'Forget it.' I couldn't do one without the other. It was tough for me." A turning point came during her junior year, when Shah, who's fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French, went to Salvador, Brazil to do ethnographic work with an Afro-Brazilian group, "something akin to what a samba school would be in Rio," she said. She worked on producing a show for Carnival while writing her thesis on the intersection between race, politics and music in the operation her group. "I was involved in music in a way where I saw more of the intellectual side, where making commitments to certain social values was completely in harmony with making music… It was exciting, and it was like, 'Okay, this is what I want to do. How do I get there?'"
After graduation, Shah's next step was to enroll in the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied jazz performance, composition and arranging with Markowitz, McNeely and saxophonist Steve Wilson. "It was pretty intense, but I'd been listening to jazz for a very long time," she said. "I had the skills as a musician growing up. I could read music, but in a way I think it's something you have to find on your own. There's only so much you're going to learn about jazz in the classroom."
Shah's primary degree recital, she said, was "jazz-oriented, like my arrangements of standards." Before she graduated, however, she wanted to try something different. "I said, 'What do I want to take advantage of being at this school that I won't have access to when I leave?'" Shah noticed that when she sang in Spanish or Portuguese, her teachers perked up. "I had an awareness that there was something I had access to that I had to take advantage of," she said.
A second, painstakingly crafted recital used sounds not usually found in jazz: the tabla, the kora, the string quartet. "When the [second] concert happened, it was like a light bulb went on," Shah said. "It was a special moment. It just felt right. But I didn't expect until the moment I got onstage, or even about halfway through. It was happening to the whole room." Shah subsequently played the music for her mentor, Wilson, who said, "You have to record this."
"I felt that I had walked into a room, and now I had to decorate it," Shah said. "It's an immense undertaking, just grasping in and owning it. That was the process, and deciding what's the goal and how do you make it palpable to the listener, because there's a lot of stuff going on and you want it to be cohesive and make sense. You want it to be accessible."
For the recording of "Visions," which came out this past May, Shah assembled the musicians from the recital and — on a whim — contacted Beninese guitarist/producer Lionel Loueke. "I reached out to him because of something I feel about his music," Shah said. "It's complex, at the same time it's very danceable and accessible. It's enjoyable to listen to, but it requires a great amount of skill to execute… I knew he could understand culturally being a citizen of the world, having grown up in different places and having links to different cultures."
Loueke helped the singer fine-tune the arrangements and choose what tracks to put on the album, and he also encouraged Shah to use the tabla and kora on even more songs. "He could see the big picture, where sometimes I was mired in details," she said. "Visions" situates Shah's compositions ("Moray" and "My Time is When") alongside an eclectic trio of pop covers (M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," Stevie Wonder's "Visions," Joni Mitchell's "Little Green"); some forward-thinking jazz (Wayne Shorter's "Deluge"); Hindustani classical music ("Rag Desh: Alaap," "Rag Desh: Teentaal," "Rag Desh: Meltdown"); and Afro-Brazilian sounds ("Oja Oba," featuring Loueke on guitar and vocals). Undoubtably a few other musical styles and traditions are lurking in the grooves, but parsing them all feels unsuited to the sounds themselves: it's all of a single, carefully arranged piece, it seems. Better to just take it all in.
You'll get a chance on Saturday, Aug. 23, when Shah brings her current ensemble — pianist Leo Genovese, bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez, drummer Clarence Penn and tabla player Stephen Cellucci — to the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme. Now that the album's completed, Shah said, the music feels much looser on stage. "There's a little more freedom in it," she said. 'At the beginning it was an idea, and bringing an idea to life is exciting. And now, there's no pressure to do that anymore. It's already alive." And knowing the music intimately, Shah said, allows her and the other players to think beyond the execution of that idea.
"It's more conceptual, and more corporeal, for me, anyway. As a singer it's more about the shared experience with the audience. It's like having a really big party every night: new people to talk to and to be excited, to share something with. The energy's different every time."
KAVITA SHAH performs on Saturday, Aug. 23, at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $28.50. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com.