Las Aventuras de Pasión!
In the 21st century, the finest singers of jazz define themselves by exploring material far outside the covers of the American Songbook. But few jazz vocalists have traveled as far through time and space as Kat Parra, who has assembled a singularly rich repertoire by fusing Latin American grooves with luminous medieval Sephardic songs. Her new album Las Aventuras de Pasion!, slated for release August 14 on her label JazzMa Records, is the latest dispatch from her far-flung creative sojourn, and it features some of her most beautiful discoveries yet, as well as several stellar original and classic pieces.
Part of what sets Las Aventuras apart from her previous albums is that Parra has taken a firm hand in crafting the album’s overall sound and instrumentation. She worked closely with several arrangers, but mostly with Grammy-nominated Wayne Wallace, who also co-produced the album, in developing a unique instrumental concept for each piece. Instead of dense charts featuring multiple horns and a full Latin percussion section, the music tends toward transparency, all the better to hear her gorgeous voice rendering a program of mesmerizing melodies. Parra credits tenor saxophonist and cultural activist Francis Wong, who has served as a creative and fiscal consultant for her, with encouraging her new musical path.
“He sparks so many ideas when we sit down to talk about what I want to do and where I want to go,” Parra says. “During one of those conversations I realized I wanted to explore sparser arrangements where my voice could blend with different and unusual instrumentation.”
Parra kicks off the album flexing her vocal muscles with a hard-charging version of the Mardi Gras classic “Iko Iko” set to a ferocious Puerto Rican bomba groove. A sure crowd pleaser that turns into an audience call and response session, the piece features lyrics by Zap Mama that fit comfortably into Parra’s contemporary sensibility.
Parra also introduces two originals, including the heartfelt “Call Your Name,” a luminous Afro-jazz ballad dedicated to the beloved drummer Paul van Wageningen, who plays beautifully on the track despite dealing with serious health issues. “Oye Papi” is a bold cha-cha kiss off with full salsa instrumentation that wouldn’t sound out of place with a blazing Carlos Santana guitar solo. That flash of anger is a rarity on an album that overflows with moments of sublime beauty, like Parra’s interpretation of the Linda Ronstadt bolero “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” featuring a gorgeously textured arrangement for string quartet and marimba by Turtle Island Quartet violinist Mads Tolling.
While each piece features a finely tailored instrumental setting, the album seamlessly blends ancient and modern tonalities. The cohesive feel is all the more amazing when you consider that about half of the album focuses on Parra’s Sephardic repertoire, which she created with the support of grants from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.
From “Dieziocho Anyos,” featuring Michael Spiro’s congas and Michael Hatfield’s marimba, to the batá-powered “La Comida de La Manyana,” set to an Afro-Cuban folkloric rumba, each piece creates a vivid and utterly personal sonic world all its own. The haunted love song “Yo M’Enamorí D’Un Aire,” features an ethereal tabla and cello arrangement, a vibe enhanced by Masaru Koga’s delicate shakuhachi.
While a number of artists have explored these songs from the 14th and 15th centuries, Parra sees the potential in modernizing this ancient music to create a broader audience awareness of these timeless melodies. Since the release of her impressive 2006 debut Birds In Flight, she has steadily expanded her repertoire based on a treasure trove of songs written when Sephardic Jews thrived in Muslim-dominated Spain. The Golden Age came crashing to an end in 1492, when the Christian re-conquest led to the expulsion of Spain’s Jews and the spread of Sephardic culture across the Mediterranean and the Americas.
In another leap through time, Parra concludes the album with two stunning pieces inspired by late 19th century French composers. There’s a ravishing Wallace arrangement of “Nature Boy” that opens with a passage from Faure’s “Pavane,” and the closer featuring original lyrics set to Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1,” the theme for the documentary Man On Wire.
“I wanted to explore the possibilities of combining all of my musical influences, and Western classical has always been an important part of my life,” Parra says, noting that she studied classical flute at UCLA. “The intro to ‘Pavane’ seemed to fit with ‘Nature Boy,’ so I took it to Wayne and asked him to help me blend the two songs. I heard one of my favorite Eric Satie songs, ‘Gymnopedie,’ when I was watching the documentary Man On Wire and was so inspired by the movie I immediately sat down and wrote these lyrics.”
Even before she started exploring the Sephardic repertoire, Parra always distinguished herself with her restless musical curiosity. The veteran Latin jazz vocalist had long been interested in expanding beyond the genre’s foundational Afro-Cuban grooves by adding sensuous rhythms from Brazil, Peru, and the Middle East. In many ways, the San Jose-raised singer simply took another step by setting ancient Sephardic songs to pulsing New World grooves. The rhythmically expansive arrangements give a whole new meaning to Latin jazz.
Her 2008 album Azucar de Amor (Patois Records) includes two Sephardic tunes, the classic love song “Por La Tu Puerta” and the ethereal ballad “Esta Montanya D’Enfrente.” One reason the pieces blend so seamlessly with her other Spanish and Portuguese-language tunes is that Ladino consists largely of old Castilian, a language preserved by Jews who fled mostly to the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion.
After dipping her toes into the welcoming waters, she took the plunge with 2010’s Dos Amantes (JazzMa Records), a breathtaking album featuring her Sephardic Music Experience ensemble. She commissioned several artists to create arrangements for her, such as the esteemed bassist Oscar Stagnaro, but her key collaborator was pianist/music director Murray Low, one of the region’s most sought-after accompanists. While the songs are set to an enticing array of Latin (and even Middle Eastern) rhythms, the lyrics all tend to dwell on one particular topic.
“All these songs embrace the basic theme of love,” Parra says. “Unrequited love, loss of love, a longing for the one true love, love of country. There’s also an underlying theme of the strength and perseverance for not only the Jewish people but of women in general.”
Ultimately, Parra’s sound is what makes the concept work. Full and throaty in her lower register, clear and crisp in her mezzo range, she possesses a voice with personality and soul. In transforming ancient Sephardic songs into evocative Latin jazz vehicles, in creating more vulnerable settings for her voice and by fusing unusual instrumentation with her songs, she is both following her muse and hoping to inspire listeners to explore a music that often defies classification.