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Kavita Shah brings potent mix of cultures and styles

Guillermo Cervera/HBO/courtesy of HBO

You might hear the arrangement of an Indian raga on singer Kavita Shah’s sparkling debut, “Visions,” or the prominent tabla on her version of the Stevie Wonder title track, and jump to conclusions about an immigrants’ daughter on a roots trip.

That wouldn’t be quite right. Shah’s Indian parents had little music at home save for a few LPs; her first instrument was the classical piano, and she only dabbled in Indian music training while already a jazz student at the Manhattan School of Music.

You might, instead, hear the opening track, the Cape Verdean “Sodade,” marvel at Shah’s flawless accent, and wonder if you’d stumbled on one of Cesaria Evora’s nieces. Her fluent Portuguese on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste” only compounds the effect.


Mix in the Joni Mitchell cover (“Little Green”), the M.I.A. reworking (“Paper Planes”), Wayne Shorter’s “Deluge” with Shah’s lyrics added, and her own compositions. The picture forms of a polyglot in more than language alone.

And the presence of first-call players like saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Linda Oh, kora master Yacouba Sissoko, and even a string quartet, with guitarist Lionel Loueke co-producing, speaks to the respect Shah has earned in just a few short years on the New York jazz scene and — although it’s not how she sees it — a measure of healthy ambition.

“I was just learning the ropes,” says Shah, who released the album in May and plays on Tuesday night at Regattabar, a spot she remembers from her undergraduate days at Harvard. “I had no intention except to make this music that I wanted to make.”

She had many strands to draw on: the childhood piano and youth chorus in New York City; the years studying literature and Latin American social movements; the semester studying in Salvador de Bahia; and, yes, India, though only once she’d gone deep into music and culture of other traditions, the Afro-Brazilian one in particular.


“That experience awoke a lot of consciousness in me,” Shah says in an interview at her Manhattan apartment. “You go into other cultures and languages, and at some point you realize, this is part of who I am too. Part of it is a desire to connect. Part is not having a community that you grew up in, but having this awareness of other places instead.”

In the summer of 2013, while Shah and Loueke were plugging along making the studio tracks into a finished album, she attended a workshop in Banff, Canada, directed by pianist Vijay Iyer, and gathering a star-studded jazz faculty. One, the saxophonist Greg Osby, had heard of Shah but, by his own admission, pigeon-holed her.

“Because of her heritage, I thought she would be more folkloric,” Osby says. But with his famous ear for talent — the MacArthur-winning pianist Jason Moran, among others, emerged in his band — Osby heard Shah at a Banff jam session and instantly recalibrated.

“She was in there,” he says. “She was swinging, with great intonation, attack, and phrasing. She has a great tone, it’s not strident and not unnecessarily gravelly and dark, it’s very centered and focused. And that’s what I like.”

In chatting with Shah, Osby learned her record was in production and asked if he could hear it. Before long, he invited her to release it on his label, Inner Circle. “She sent me the demos as they became available, and it was a no-brainer,” he says. “If I hadn’t made the proposal, someone else would have.”


Part of Osby’s happy surprise was Shah’s erudition, despite her eclectic exterior, in jazz’s lyrical and technical canon. (He could also have consulted DownBeat Magazine, which anointed her best new-graduate vocalist of 2012.) Shah has studied with two of the music’s grandes dames, Helen Merrill and Sheila Jordan. She steered clear of standards for her debut, but she’s got plenty in her repertoire, and fully intends to record some.

“It’s part of the tradition of jazz that you’ve gone through this particular education, and that you continue to absorb it,” she says. “I keep listening to and transcribing a lot of the early stuff.” She just finished reading Stanley Crouch’s biography of Charlie Parker, and says it’s given her new ideas, including curiosity about the work of Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

Touring behind her album, which also had a European release on a French label, Shah is making discoveries in her songs as she performs them with different groups. In Boston, she’ll have piano, bass, drums, and her regular tabla player, Massachusetts-raised Stephen Cellucci.

“The music breathes in a different way,” she says. “There are things to hear, space to fill, and vocally for me, different ways of expanding how I use my instrument.” Her arrangements are typically through-composed but she’s improvising more, and finding she enjoys it. “And my focus is now more the audience, and the stories of the songs.”


As for eclecticism, Shah wears it proudly, as she has since childhood, when she performed everything from gospel to Scandinavian folk songs in the Young People’s Chorus of New York, a foundational experience that set a high standard.

“We sang in Carnegie Hall several times a year,” she says with a laugh. “Now, I’m working to get back to where I was when I was 11 years old in terms of stature.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at