The jazzy interludes in Stevie Wonder’s famous song ‘Visions’ were always kept to a bare minimum. The musician never liked the idea of the whimsy of jazz lurching around his lyrics. After all, this was not just a song for him, but a yearning of wanting to be in a place “where hate is a dream and love forever stands”.
So, when one hears a version of ‘Visions’, where a tabla kicks in with some drum ‘n’ bass, followed by a piano solo repeated over eight bars, it is hard not to pay attention. As the 20-something Kavita Shah begins whispering the song, it is clear that the Wonder track has just received a fresh and unique makeover. There is even a touching intimacy to it all, as if it is being sung for 20-odd people in a cafe with jazz standards and more. The song is a part of an album, also called ‘Visions’ (Inner Circle Music), with which the New York-based singer-songwriter makes an exquisite debut.
“Arranging, for me, is a way of trying to find my voice within a song that has been done many times. I spent my childhood singing along to my favourite CDs. As an artist, it doesn’t make sense for me to cover a song in the exact style of another singer. On stage, I cannot be Stevie Wonder. So if I included an arrangement of a popular song, it was because I felt I had something new to say about it” says Shah, a third-generation Indian-American who is beginning to find a growing level of acceptance in the New York jazz scene. Among the familiar material she has refreshed is also a hushed version of Joni Mitchell’s warm ballad ‘Little Green’.
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Produced by famous Benin-based jazz guitarist, Lionel Louke, who has accompanied jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock and saxophonist, Wayne Shorter among others, the 15-track album is a mix of originals and covers. Each track is finely detailed and layered with multiple cultural styles. “Louke is a tremendous artist, guitarist and vocalist and his music, in spite of its virtuosity and sophisticated vocabulary, is accessible to everyone. It makes you want to dance. Lionel understood the technical aspects of the music, including the complicated jazz harmony, as well as the overall aesthetic effect I was going for in incorporating different musical traditions”, she says.
What is also interesting about the album is the use of unconventional instruments. The piano, drums and an upright bass, quintessential parts of a jazz quintet, are paired with the tabla, African kora and bells. “My intention was neither to subvert the integrity of jazz through mere imitation nor to appropriate them into a melting pot of my own design. Rather, I am curious to see what happens when disparate elements come together on their own terms, in dialogue”, says Shah. The result has been laudable enough for her to have bagged tours of the US and Paris from the producers of the album.
Growing up in Manhattan — with holidays in Mumbai — on daily doses of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson and Raj Kapoor classics, Shah was exposed to music by her parents. Shah’s mother was raised in a household where education was paramount.“But music was associated either with religion (also prohibited) or prostitution,” she says. Her mother made sure that Shah attended piano classes regularly and, by the time she was 10, Shah was a member of Young People’s Chorus and holding regular performances. She went on to study jazz voice at Manhattan School of Music.
Shah’s originals take listeners from the delicate-yet-powerful ‘Ojo Oba’ (also featuring Louke) to ‘Moray’, which she penned while sitting among the concentric circles of a ruin in Peru and contains the idea of spirals in a song. There is also an alaap in raag Desh and trance inducing ‘My time is when’. “The diverse musical, cultural, and linguistic influences are the result of the distinct people, places, and soundscapes that have shaped my life — from New York to Mumbai to Sal.