Kavitah has kindly taken the trouble to respond to some questions from Roger Mitchell for Ausjazz blog. Originally it was intended that these responses be incorporated into an article, but lack of time has ruled that out, so they are presented in Q&A format:
1. Saxophonist Steve Wilson says you are fresh and unique, a breath of fresh air, and that your music is hard to categorise, genuine and original. How would you describe your music to people in Melbourne? Is it useful to have categories in music and does yours fit a genre or genres?
My music is deeply rooted in jazz harmony and improvisation while also incorporating influences from many musical cultures, especially West Africa, Brazil, and India. As you might imagine, I’m not too keen on using labels to describe music, especially when dealing with so-called “world music” which is itself a problematic coinage. Genres, by definition, are exclusive and lack nuance. My music, by creating a creative space in which many different cultural traditions can come together in dialogue, aims to impart a spirit of social inclusion to the audience.
2. Lionel Loueke says you are a great singer, but when you write music you are thinking not only about voice, but how a trumpet or saxophone will feature in the piece. Have you been composing throughout your time as a musician?
Composition is still a new process for me, but in some way or another, I’ve been writing my whole life. I come from a family of book publishers, and my dad was a talented writer so growing up, I explored a lot on pen and paper — through journalism, creative writing, poetry, and songwriting. I began composing music in graduate school at Manhattan School of Music, where we were encouraged to really find our own voice in approaching jazz. I began to arrange standards, and over time, my arrangements grew more and more ambitious to the point that I was really composing with pre-existing material. That gave me the confidence to write more of my own music. Right now, I think those two threads — writing stories and writing music — are coming together in my compositions.
3. How important is composition to you compared with being a vocalist?
I have been thinking a lot about this question lately. Being a vocalist — focusing on my instrument and my technical craft — has definitely been at the forefront of my practice until now. But I’m in a phase of transition where I’m starting to approach music as a composer first, both in terms of writing music and on a larger scale of designing projects, sets, performances. I feel a calling not only as a musician but as a global citizen to create art that makes an impact on how people think and feel, and composition is an important tool to achieve that end.
4. Do you regard the voice as one instrument among many, or is it different?
The voice is one instrument with many different manifestations (haha, that sounds like Hinduism!). Singing in Steve Newcomb Orchestra (SNO) is a great example of this: I use my voice differently in interpreting and delivering lyrics, in singing instrumental music without words, in improvising as a lead or supporting voice. The more I travel and do ethnographic research on traditional singing practices around the world, the more I am fascinated by the sounds the human voice can make — from tribal singing to opera. I am very much trying to embrace the exploration of sound in my own practice, to break out of the tyranny of “sounding pretty.”
5. Your debut album, Visions, had its genesis when you studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Before this period of musical education, how did you come to love music and what teachers helped you along the way? Were your parents’ tastes or any particular teachers especially significant?
I have been singing for as long as I can remember. I studied classical piano and at the age of 10, joined the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, where I was first introduced to jazz. My conductor, Francisco Núñez, definitely had a big impact on my life; he established a choir of diverse singers from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and chose repertoire that ranged from opera to gospel to folk music in 20+ languages to contemporary works by composers like Meredith Monk and (Australian) Elena Kats-Chernin. My first voice teacher, Dr Cara Tasher, was also a very positive influence, teaching me classical technique while encouraging me in my exploration of contemporary repertoire. And of course, Sheila Jordan was my first jazz teacher who inspired me to really pursue a lifetime in music.
6. What attracted you to jazz?
I got into jazz through Ella Fitzgerald. My choir sang her song A Tisket, A Tasket, and I was mesmerised by her voice. On a visceral level, I’ve always been attracted to rhythm, so I think the syncopation in jazz spoke to me. On an emotional level, I was attracted to jazz for its sense of freedom. It’s an art form that is inseparable from the history of racial discrimination in America; as a person of colour who encountered prejudice because of my ethnicity, I found in jazz a sense of belonging and cultural lineage.
7. You’ve said that you avoid having the band play a particular style of music, such as Indian or African or Brazilian or jazz, because it is all music and all part of a whole. Can you explain what happens when the various instruments and the cultural heritages in which they have traditionally been used are given the chance to come together in that way? Is the outcome taking the listener, whatever their cultural backgrounds, to new places altogether?
Yes, exactly. I don’t believe jazz or classical music is superior to any other form of music, and I think we have a lot to learn from folk traditions. By constructing a landscape in which these diverse elements can come together on a level playing field — a place where my ancestors from Gujarat can come to life alongside inhabitants of a Brazilian favela and jazz elders in New York, each on their own terms — I’ve found that there is a beautifully organic dialogue that can take place. The listener, regardless of background or musical taste, is very much a part of this dialogue, and hopefully gets transported by it somewhere beyond the scope of his or her own reality.
8. Is the music largely improvised or are their detailed charts? Are the musicians drawing from and contributing to the others as they listen and respond during these pieces?
My charts are fairly detailed, but with open sections dedicated to improvisation. It’s a delicate balance between letting the music breathe, part of which means not imposing rigid boundaries, and eliciting a specific sound that I hear as a composer. I ultimately want the musicians I work with to feel free to explore in the moment, and respond to whatever that moment demands, which could be going completely off course, while also respecting the intentions behind the composition or arrangement.
9. You draw on the music of Stevie Wonder, hip-hop artists, Joni Mitchell, MIA and Wayne Shorter — people you say wouldn’t normally be brought together at the dinner table. How does this fit alongside the variety in cultural backgrounds and instruments of your band members?
The musicians I work with are usually very diverse and versatile — not just in terms of nationality but also in terms of their musical backgrounds. Balance is certainly very important for my music, because I need to create a space where all these different musical elements can come together on equal footing. If the rhythm section is too oriented towards one type of music, the music also becomes lopsided.
10. Is there a danger of too much fusion?
The word “fusion” is very misleading because it presumes that the music we already know and love is not derivative in some form or another of various other threads. Isn’t jazz itself the definition of “too much fusion”? Was Charlie Parker a fusion artist because he was influenced by Stravinsky?
The world we live in is a world of “too much fusion,” one in which we are all interconnected and migration — by choice and by force — is a constant. On the road, I am always struck by the scope of jazz today, which really reaches across continents and cultures. My music, rather than merely appropriating traditions into my own melting pot, very much reflects the complex yet fluid realities of our global generation.
11. On your tour of Australia you’ll perform with Steve Newcomb. Tell us about your collaboration. How will you approach these concerts touring with Australian musicians?
Steve and I met as graduate students at Manhattan School of Music, and we have since collaborated together on several projects, including my album Visions and Steve Newcomb Orchestra’s Caterpillar Chronicles. We just recorded SNO’s second album, Meltwater Pulse, which will be released this year. Steve is a brilliant pianist and composer and playing his music. We’ll be playing with local bassists and pianists in each city, many of whom are friends whom we have worked with before (Sam Anning & Ben Vanderwal in Perth, Ross McHenry & Angus Mason in Adelaide, Oli Nelson & Max Alduca in Sydney, Helen Svabeda & Aaron Jansz in Melbourne, and Sam Anning & Sam Bates in Melbourne).
My thanks to Kavita Shah’s hard-working and effective publicist, Amanda Bloom, for arranging this Q&A. Readers may also wish to read the musician’s responses to other questions at AustralianJazz.net.