When I hear someone described as a Latina jazz singer, a certain image/sound comes to mind—someone with a voice like Flora Purim’s, with a backup band sounding like Eddie Palmieri’s or maybe Tito Puente’s. (I know that doesn’t necessarily fit, but it’s my image, OK?) Of course, music reviewers love neat categorizations. It makes it easier to write articles. But whatever your image is, you can probably throw it out when talking about Kat Parra.
Ms. Parra’s journey through the musical world has been more roundabout than most. While she grew up in a musical family and played several instruments, she eventually switched to voice and studied with Patti Cathcart at at San Jose State. Parra put her musical dreams on hold for many years while raising her family. She received her introduction to salsa music while singing with the Bay area group Charanga Nueve for five years.
She finally quit her job as a graphic designer in 2006 to focus exclusively on music. While certainly not a household name, she has quietly accumulated fans and critical acclaim. She’s been selected “Best Latin Jazz Vocalist of 2010″ and for 2008 before then by Latin Jazz Corner, and received a 2008 nomination for “Latin Jazz Album of the Year” from the Jazz Journalists Association. Las Aventuras de Pasión!, to be released August 14, 2012, is her fourth CD. It features Murray Low (keyboards, music director), Masaru Koga (woodwinds, percussion), Chris Lopes (acoustic bass), Dan Foltz (drums), and Katja Cooper (percussion). Arrangers include Low, Wayne Wallace, David Pinto, and Mads Tolling.
Parra has a clear, rich, soprano with an expressiveness that ranges from caressing to sassy. But what separates her from other vocalists is the breadth of her interests and styles. She and her arrangers apply an unusual mix of instruments and approaches. The CD opens with an imaginative arrangement of the Mardi Gras standard “Iko Iko”. Parra uses the call-and-response nature of the song to change the rhythm from the usual New Orleans beat to a Latin Puerto Rican bomba. The Afro-jazz original ballad “Call Your Name” is a touching tribute to a fellow band member. “Oye Papi”, a Parra composition that evokes the anger of a scorned lover, has a bit of the flavor of Santana’s “Evil Ways”. Parra turns to Turtle Island Quartet violinist Mads Tolling for the arrangement to Linda Ronstadt’s bolero “Lo Siento Mi Vada” (for string quartet and marimba). The haunting standard “Nature Boy” opens with a passage from Faure’s “Pavane” and inserts a subtle clave beat from Renata Bratt’s cello.
But the most unusual element of Parra’s music is her attachment to Sephardic Ladino music. Ladino (the technically correct term is Judeo-Spanish) was the language of Spanish Jews who fled their homeland after their expulsion in 1492. Based on old Castillian, it was spoken in North Africa, Italy and the Middle East. Today, it is considered a dying language, although it is experiencing an academic resurrection. While it shares elements with the Yiddish-based Jewish music more familiar to listeners in this country, Ladino music has a very different sound. Probably the best known Ladino song is “dos Bilibilicos” (“The Swallows”), covered by Richard and Mimi Farina in the ‘60s. Five of the songs on Las Aventuras de Pasión! are Ladino.
It’s very difficult to convey the feel and authenticity of folk music from another time and language, while keeping it accessible to a modern audience. Parra doesn’t shy away from this task, using her skill with languages, her expressiveness and the imaginative arrangements. “Yo M’Enamori D’Un Aire” (“I Fell in Love with a Breeze”) features tabla, cello and shakuhachi (a Japanese flute). The combination reinforces the light, ethereal feel of the melody and lyrics:
I fell in love with a breeze, a breeze of someone so pretty
Dearer to me than my heart
I fell in love during night
The moon deceived me
Were it day, I would not have found love
If I fall in love ever again, I’ll do it in daylight
“La Comida de La Manyana” uses batá (a Nigerian drum used in Cuban music), other percussion and background vocalists to recount the eternal story of a daughter telling her skeptical mother about a man she longs to marry. The lullaby “Durme Durme” uses acoustic guitar, various percussion instruments and hand clapping. (Speaking of categories, should we describe Parra as a Ladino jazz singer? Now that’s a specialized category!)
For me, the most enjoyable music appeals to both heart and mind, educating the listener while touching his/her soul. Las Aventuras de Pasión! does both, a tribute to Kat Parra’s musical talent, erudition and taste. It should be a welcome addition for those interested in expanding their world music library.