Sephardic jazz is the voice of the Spanish Jews, whom singer-songwriter Kat Parra has a special bond with as a descendent of this spirited community. This is the music that moves her and inspires her to reach into her soul and find her voice, which resounds stunningly on her latest release Azucar de Amor. The melodies have an ethnic feel which combines influences of Afro-Cuban, Afro-Peruvian, South American folklore, Sephardic music of the Spanish Jews, and some Brazilian standards which transform the album into a brilliant jazz tapestry.
Her first experience at performing various ethnic styles of music happened when she was an exchange student and recollects, "I also lived in Chile as an exchange student for my junior year of high school. I was placed in a very musical family in the north of Chile and was introduced to many new styles of music: música andina, nueva trova, Latin jazz, etc. While living there, I performed in many festivals and with many different musicians. What attracts me most to ‘ethnic’ music is its rhythmic and melodic qualities. I am drawn to percussion and interesting and unique melodies. I am of Spanish-Jewish descent as well, and learning about the music of the ‘Golden Age’ of Spain has been very exciting for me."
Parra continues to carry this excitement that ethnic music invokes in her and brings it out in her songs. The song, "Esta Montanya D'Enfrente" from Azucar de Amor, exemplifies the alluring shades which ethnic music exudes as she describes, "’Esta Montanya D'Enfrente’ is a lament from a woman who has lost her true love to another woman. She goes up to the mountain top to cry for her loss. The song basically talks about how she ‘trains/cultivates’ her love only to have him leave her for another woman to enjoy all her hard work! It is a sad song, and one that transcends time."
Assisting Parra in writing the songs and adding textures to the melodic make-up is her producer/trombonist Wayne Wallace and pianist Murray Low as she explains, "I compose the melodies and lyrics of the original songs and Wayne Wallace and/or Murray Low help me with the harmonic aspect of the songs. We work together to create a piece of music that will best represent the true nature of the song's meaning and feeling."
During the songwriting process for Azucar de Amor, Parra discusses the factors which awaken her muse and notes, "Many things can influence the creation of my songs, but I definitely can get inspired by percussion." She points out that the track, "‘Feed My Desire’ was written while waiting for a friend in a bar where strong rhythmic beats were pounding in my ears and compelling me to write lyrics that fit to the beats. But as the songs are being developed further, the melody and the lyrics help to determine what instrumentation will be used."
Parra recorded several songs for Azucar de Amor, but not all of them made the cut. During the selection process, she cites, "Wayne, Murray and I began the process of choosing and developing songs many months before we recorded in the studio. I first compile a list of the songs I want to record. I then have a conversation with Wayne and we discuss how all the music ties together--what's the common thread that binds them? We ultimately choose the songs that will best help to describe the story or feeling I am trying to convey on this particular recording. There were a couple of songs that didn't make it onto to Azucar de Amor. Hopefully they'll make the cut with the next CD!"
She adoringly praises Wallace for his understanding of musicians and for making the textures in the songs resonate brilliantly. "I couldn't have asked for a better collaborator as these songs were being created and readied for studio recordings. He is very respectful of my input as the songs are being developed. He is patient, amazingly creative, and incredibly knowledgeable about many different styles and always opens to new ideas. He also represents the true essence of the Bay Area Latin jazz ‘sound’ and I am honored to be able to be a part of that. As a producer in the studio, he is respectful of all of the musicians and what they bring to the table. He basically gets out of the way and lets us all explore the intricacies of the songs he has arranged. When he needs to give input, he always does so with respect to each of the musician's talents."
Wallace is also the owner of Parra’s label, Patois Records. He discovered her music talents shortly after she self-released her debut album Birds In Flight. "Wayne Wallace is the founder of Patois Records. When I first released Birds In Flight on my own label, JazzMa Productions, I had no distribution in place. Radio and PR promotion had been very successful and distribution was the missing link to the puzzle for me. I think Patois saw the potential for my music and Wayne asked me to be the first artist, after him, to be signed to his new label. I had never really considered signing to a label since I had thought I could do it all on my own. But now that I am a part of this fledgling label, I am very pleased to have such a great team of experts supporting me. I feel that being attached to a small independent label is preferable to a large conglomerate. I receive more attention and more support than I would if I were on a label with a glut of artists."
Parra’s debut release Birds In Flight initiated her mission into making songs with different ethnic-based styles. She tells that the album was inspired by, "LOVE! Love lost, love found, unrequited love. The title track ‘Birds in Flight’ is about the ending of my marriage and ‘These Old Feelings’ is about finding a new love and the fears that go along with that. ‘Dame La Llave’ is about falling in love and opening your heart to the experience of it."
She expresses, "Azucar de Amor takes this even a step further and explores the adventures of love, life and hope. ‘Un Grito’ is a song I wrote about following my path and not resisting the insistent message that my voice is the messenger and I can no longer deny that part of myself."
Birds In Flight can be interpreted as Parra’s music journal into what led up to her divorce after being married to a man whom she fell in love with at 18-years old and having two sons with him. Azucar de Amor turns the page to the next chapter which includes a lineup of talented musicians who will be backing her up for her live shows. She concedes, "I am blessed to be able to perform with some of the top musicians of the San Francisco Bay Area. The main core of my group consists of: Murray Low musical director/pianist, Masaru Koga saxophones and flutes, Peter Barshay acoustic bass, Paul van Wageningen drums and if funds allow either Michael Spiro or Michaelle Goerlitz on percussion. The chemistry is amazing on stage with these musicians. We all have a very healthy respect for one another and each of us appreciates what the other does. We all inspire one another with what each of us brings to the table."
She relates, "Each concert has a uniqueness to it. The songs are determined based on the venue and the kind of audience that will be present. Some are listening audiences, some are dance audiences. I always try and create set lists that will work within these parameters. We are always cognizant of whether the songs we record will be able to be played live. Many times we need to alter some of the arrangements for live performances as I cannot afford to have a full horn section and full percussion all the time. With both Birds in Flight and Azucar de Amor we created most of the songs to easily translate to live performances. I love being able to perform the songs from my CDs. Every time I perform them they are a little different from what we recorded and that makes the live experience much more memorable and exciting for me--and hopefully for my audiences."
She beams, "I am living my dream! It can't get much better than that."
It is a dream which her family planted the seeds in her but they never expected her to bloom so brightly. She narrates, "When I was around 6 years old, I got into trouble with the temple choir. My older sister was the lead soloist on ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ but every time she would get up to sing it, I would sing along with her and try and sing louder than her," she chuckles. "I loved to sing from an early age and loved the attention that went with it! As I grew older I became very shy offstage, but singing allowed me to be my true uninhibited self."
She remembers, "When I was 6, I was chosen to perform in the chorus section of a musical, A Twist of Rye. My mother couldn't believe they had chosen such a young girl. It was so much fun getting to stay up late and sing in the chorus!! I always sang at home and put on ‘shows’ for the family. In high school I formed a guitar folk duo with my best friend and right before I left for Chile, at 15, we had our first paid gig. But it really wasn't until I went to live in Chile that I began to perform regularly as a singer. I competed in contests, sang in festivals and performed wherever and whenever I could."
She tells that she was first introduced to Sephardic jazz while growing up in a family who played music as part of their everyday routine and shares, "While I was growing up, my father loved to listen to Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. This was my first introduction to the music of Latin America. My father was an accomplished classical pianist and a very talented singer. He loved to sing Gilbert and Sullivan. If times had been different I am sure he would have pursued music as a career. My great uncle, Aube Tzerko, was also a world-renowned classical pianist as well as one of the most sought-after piano teachers. I used to sit in on his classes at UCLA and learn so much from him. Although I know he was extremely proud of me for pursuing music as a career, he constantly told me to get out of the business! He was worried that it would be too hard for me to handle. I was always told to have a ‘back-up’ plan because no one ever believed that music was a stable enough profession. Because of these messages I received, I have made it a point to encourage my own children to follow their dreams and see which roads they may take them down."
Growing up in California, Kat Parra soon developed her own musical taste and declares, "Joni Mitchell was my hero when I was young, not only for her beautiful voice but for her amazing songwriting skills. I also love Linda Rondstadt for her ability to sing in so many different styles and succeed in each one." She lists some of her favorite musical influences as, "Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Yes!, Jethro Tull, Egberto Gismonti, Coquimbo e Moraes, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 and later on Al Jarreau, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Sarah Vaughan and Celia Cruz. My tastes were, and still are, wide and varied. I could go on and on and on because there are so many singers and musicians I admire and emulate."
She reveals in her bio, provided on her website, that after she was married, the only concern she had was for her family. It was not until after her divorce that she returned to music. She started by going to college and took the one course that she thought she would breeze right through - Voice lessons. She admits, "It wasn't until college that I took singing lessons. Up until that time I was self-taught, but still performing professionally. In college, I studied a little classical voice at UCLA and then transferred to San Jose State University where I began jazz vocal studies with Michael West and then Patti Cathcart. Singing had always come naturally to me and so I never thought I needed to study it. But then when I decided to switch from classical flute to voice, I began to appreciate what a difficult and delicate instrument the voice is. Patti Cathcart was the one who introduced me to the subtle nuances of the voice and the power it has to speak and spread truth and love."
She recounts, "After graduating with a Bachelors degree in Jazz Studies and Performance, I got a job waiting tables at a Greek restaurant. I worked there for 8 years, putting food on the table and a roof over my children's heads. As a single parent there were decisions that needed to be made and I felt it my responsibility to provide for them and make some ‘sacrifices’ in regards to my own career. While
driving to work one day, I heard advertised on the radio a program for Multimedia. It was just what I had been looking for; something that combined art and music on the computer. I began taking the courses necessary to get my degree in Graphic Design and Multimedia. After finishing the 18-month program, I started working in Corporate America, hi-tech, whatever you want to call it. I still didn't believe I could ‘make it’ as a full-time musician, but was still performing nights whenever possible. I worked at a few companies for a little over 9 years as a graphic designer. It was actually a fantastic experience and taught me much about marketing and branding products. This has come in handy as I navigate my way around as an independent recording artist."
She discerns, "After successfully raising my two sons as a single parent, I decided it was time for me to finally focus on being a full-time musician. I had never stopped performing, but didn't think I could survive as a full-time musician while trying to raise my sons."
She reflects, "I don't think there was ever really a defining moment that gave me the confidence to be a solo artist. It was just something I decided I wanted to do and never really doubted that I couldn't achieve that goal. The ‘break for me was really while studying with Patti Cathcart. She found a way to open me up and allow the strength and power of my voice to shine. After experiencing this kind of feeling with my voice, I knew there was no going back. I was hired in many different bands: R&B, old school Funk, Top 40 Dance bands, jazz and salsa. With each experience I grew as both a musician/singer and as a performer, becoming more and more comfortable on stage and in front of an audience. Probably the culmination was when my salsa band, Charanga 9, opened for Celia Cruz in 2000 to a crowd of over 3000 people. That has definitely been one of the highlights of my career so far!"
She recalls one inspiring audition. "In May, 2005 I was invited to audition for Cirque du Soleil. At this audition I met many singers who make their living as singers--no day jobs, just singing. These people inspired me and I decided after the audition that, although I didn't get the gig, I needed to finally take that leap of faith and follow the dream that I'd been living with for so long. I talked with my two, now grown, sons and explained my need to follow this dream completely. They made my cry with how supportive they were, and continue to be, as I move further and further up the rungs of this music career."
She reminisces, "I always joked with people before quitting my corporate gig that I know how to be poor. It's not my first preference, but I'm good with managing my money and making it last for as long as possible. I am living a bit simpler now than I was before, but I am so much happier than I was before that it is definitely worth the trade off."
After her divorce, Kat Parra had to re-organize her life. She is self-taught at budgeting her finances and her time, some of which goes to exercising her body, her mind and her vocals. "I try and exercise regularly by going to the gym or taking my dog on runs, always staying conscious of keeping my core strong in order to maintain good healthy vocals. I try and sing everyday, even if it's just a few exercises or some simple melodies. I also teach music to children during the week and so keep my vocal cords warmed up in that way. Before a gig I always do a good warm-up routine and then I put on Ray Barretto's "Indestructible", or something comparable, to inspire me and get me charged up for a fun and energetic evening of music."
And of course, she also budgets some her time to spend on dreaming, which she does about places that she would like to perform live. "So many places," she remarks like, "Europe, Australasia, South America. I love to travel and love even more to take my music to new places. Murray Low and I recently returned from performing in Brazil. The experience was fantastic and the music was very well received. I would also like to expand my touring around the US. We played in Chicago in February, will be in Washington State at the end of March and there are some other opportunities in the works. I am open to perform pretty much anywhere my music will take me!"
Kat Parra tells in her bio, furnished on her website, that studying with Patti Cathcart opened her up to a new way of singing that allowed her to "sing your own truth." Parra discovered that her truth lies in Sephardic jazz and the ethnic shades of Latin-based music styles. Her latest release Azucar de Amor is a cornucopia of Latin-based folk and jazz music that expands its breadth and lets it shine with sheer luster that immerses audiences in the emotions of these spirited communities firsthand. She does not just sing standards, but she sings them from her own truth and life experiences. Her music comes to audiences with firsthand knowledge of its origins.