Kavita Shah. Photo: Julien Carpenter
Kavita Shah. Photo: Julien Carpenter

If Kavita Shah had stuck to her usual morning ritual, she would have missed the fateful subway ride that changed the course of her life. For some reason, instead of hustling down the stairs to catch the train to her job at Human Rights Watch in midtown Manhattan, she decided to wait for the next train. When it arrived, and the doors opened, she immediately recognized Sheila Jordan, the extraordinary jazz singer who has served as den mother to a diverse array of aspiring vocalists for more than four decades.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for Sheila,” said Shah, a rising New York vocalist who makes her Bay Area debut Saturday at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House, and Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Jazzschool).

The American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, Shah recently released an enthralling debut album Visions on Greg Osby’s Inner Circle Music, a label that has launched some of the most interesting jazz artists of the 21st century. Produced by Benin-born guitar star Lionel Loueke (heard recently at the SFJAZZ Center with Herbie Hancock), the album features her singular synthesis of jazz, Afro-Brazilian, West African, and Hindustani music.

Lione and Kavita. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Sankara
Lione Loueke and Kavita Shah. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Sankara

When she encountered Jordan, Shah was at a crossroads. She had grown up in Manhattan studying classical piano and singing in the award-winning Young People’s Chorus, an ensemble with an international repertoire encompassing more than a dozen languages. After graduating from Harvard with a Latin American Studies degree, which included on-the-ground research into the black consciousness movement in Salvador de Bahia in northeastern Brazil, she was trying to figure whether to follow her passion for music or her interest in human-rights work.

“I was trying to sort through all of these things, whether to become a lawyer or how to do music,” Shah says. “Music wasn’t supported in my family. I didn’t know how to pursue it. It’s one thing to want to, but how practically? I didn’t have the resources around me, or a community of musicians. I just had a desire. And then Sheila Jordan was sitting in front of me. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.”

The subject of a soon-to-be-release biography Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by East Bay vocalist and California Jazz Conservatory teacher Ellen Johnson, Jordan was an anomalous part of a close-knit community of bebop acolytes in 1940s Detroit. A white woman from Pennsylvania coal country, she was smitten with the music of Charlie Parker, who encouraged her to move to New York. She connected with many of the city’s most adventurous improvisers, but she spent decades working a day job in the research wing of the groundbreaking ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach while intermittently recording classic albums that earned her a cult following. Now 85, she’s an NEA Jazz Master who still cracks wise and sounds a good three decades younger.

“When I said hi, are you Sheila Jordan? She said what did I do? Who do I owe?” Shah recalls. “I don’t remember everything she said to me, but we had this beautiful exchange. She gave me the inspiration I needed. She had worked in an office for a long time, and I felt comfortable telling her I don’t know what to do, I have this talent and I’m sitting in an office all day. She told me not to give up. She said ‘You have to stay on the train. I’m at the end of the ride and I’m so glad I stayed on. You have to work for the music until the music can work for you.’ I ended up going to this jazz camp where she taught, and even now she writes back to my newsletter, just little sweet notes.”

Shah ended up enrolling in a master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with vocalist Peter Eldridge, saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist/arranger Jim McNeely, and vocalist Theo Bleckmann (who does an annual vocal residency at the California Jazz Conservatory). It was at MSM that she met the players she’s touring with. At the Jazzschool, Shah is joined by French drummer Guilhem Flouzat and Australian pianist Steve Newcomb.

“Guilhem was an undergrad and Steve was getting his doctorate,” Shah says. “Steve is a wonderful composer and arranger, and he had this great large ensemble that I sang in, doing lead vocals and more instrumental kind of vocal parts. We played together a lot and in a vocal combo, and he was playing my charts over and over, so it just made sense to hire him when I started gigging.”

The bassist is Berkeley-raised Noah Garabedian. He was recommended by East Bay raised saxophonist Pat Carroll, a friend of Shah’s from MSM who is appearing Sunday as a special guest. At the Red Poppy Shah performs with Flouzat and Newcomb on a double bill with a Carnatic jazz duo featuring Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam and East Bay alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, who has forged a melodically charged sound melding South Indian classical music and jazz.

The economics of touring don’t allow Shah to present her full septet, which features the Malian kora master Yacouba Sissoko and tabla player Stephen Cellucci. Interpreting a disparate array of material, from Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” and Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” to Jobim’s “Trieste,” various ragas, and her beautifully constructed originals, Shah feels that she’s internalized the various influences enough that her concept comes through even in the stripped down setting.

“I think the music and spirit is there, though not having all the instruments forces you to keep on your toes a little bit,” she says. “My biggest learning experience after being in the studio and then playing more live is being in the moment and learning to adapt. At first I was scared, but the music is the music, and these other elements can change. The spirit will come out in a different way.”

Visit the website of the California Jazz Conservatory for details of Shah’s Berkeley engagement.

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....