Enter Kat Parra’s fifth album, Songbook of the Americas (JazzMa Records JMR1005). A quick look at the line-up and special guests quickens the pulse. The guest artists are Tuck & Patti, the great Venezuelan singer María Márquez and, from San Francisco, Nate Pruitt. The expressive Murray Low on piano, Aaron Germain and Sascha Jacobsen on acoustic bass, Marc van Wageningen on electric bass, Colin Douglas and Daniel Foltz on drums, Michael Spiro and Raúl Ramirez on percussion, John Worley on trumpet, Wayne Wallace on trombone, Lila Sklar on violin, Seth Asarnow on bandoneon and the very impressive Masaru Koga on alto sax and soprano sax, flute, coros and shakuhachi. The shakuhachi is the Japanese traditional bamboo flute. To hear that on a Latin Jazz album is enough to set your hair on fire.
And that, right there, is part of the brilliance of Kat Parra’s arrangements and re-imaginings of these classic songs from the Americas. To use unfamiliar instruments and startling new arrangements of well-known, even beloved, songs is adventurous, imaginative, and creative.
The album begins with (Four) Ever More, Parra’s arrangement of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s original Four. She turns it into a mambo with lyrics inspired by the Persian poet Rumi. The fine horns of Koga, Worley and Wallace sets a hot flavor to the rhythms. John Worley’s trumpet solo is an exercise in tonality. Murray Low’s piano is spot-on and, with those Latin chords, sets up the Spanish call and response closing of the piece. Multiculturalism at its finest.
Please Do Something is bassist Aaron Germain’s arrangement of Betty Carter’s original. But Carter didn’t have the smart cha-cha-cha dance swing. Low’s get the cool solo as the percussionists lock down the groove. Parra’s scat adds to the light-heartedness. Furthermore, she has remarkable control and her diction if flawless. It’s so easy to get caught up in the arrangements that one misses just what a fine vocalist Kat Parra really is.
It’s also too easy to miss what these musicians are performing. Aaron Germain’s acoustic bass is always appropriate and straight-up. Masaru Koga’s alto sax is beautiful, as always.
She scats her way into Wouldn’t It Be Sweet? Which is her arrangement of Charlie Parker’s Au Privave. She wrote the lyrics and the vocals over Koga’s soprano sax. His solo is full of fun runs and tight textures. Aaron Germain gets a fine bass solo and reworks the main theme with cool precision. Daniel Foltz drumming is right on it. A great treatment of a great original.
Dare to Dream features Tuck & Patti. Parra and Patti Cathcart duet over Tuck Andress’s soulful guitar. The duet includes a scat dialogue that is warm and expressive. Their pitches are very complementary and the bossa nova style of the piece is completely enjoyable.
Maria Landó was written by Chabuca Granda, the Peruvian composer who married Criollo waltzes to Afro-Peruvian rhythms. Parra and pianist Murray Low arranged the piece for piano instead of guitar and adding cymbals to the cajón whose distinctive percussive sound is augmented by the crashes. Low’s playing of the melody is rich and the coros’s answer to her call adds such great flavor. Sacha Jacobsen’s acoustic bass is warm and touching. Low has some of his most lyrical moments here.
Veinte Años is a smart and lovely trova piece by composer Maria Teresa Vera, a Cuban guitarist and singer. It is narrative and compelling. Murray Low arranged the piece into something more Jazz than the original. But that’s what he got paid for.
The piano opening is smooth and opens the door to Aaron Germain’s bass. Koga’s flute is beautiful as they prepare the path for those luscious vocals of Parra. Lila Sklar’s violin work is a fine addition to the movement and sound.
Low has switched up the times which adds to the complexity and fascination. When Sklar and Koga duet, something extraordinary happens. Daniel Foltz (drums) and Michael Spiro (percussion) are terrific together with Germain. I love the movement of the piece. Brilliant arrangement.
Como La Cigarra was written by Argentine poet and composer María Elena Walsh. Joining Parra is María Márquez, the wonderful Venezuelan singer. The blending of their voices is a fine treat and, according to Parra, “gave the music even more depth and beauty.”
Seth Asarnow on bandoneon added the authentic sound that is so familiar to Argentine music. Raúl Ramirez on percussion joins acoustic bassist Sascha Jacobsen in the rhythm section and Koga’s flute rounds out the unique approach to the original.
Koga’s shakuhachi introduces Besame Mucho. Who could have expected that? In a song recorded thousands of times, one would think it almost impossible to find a new approach. Parra and Low, however, have indeed found new insights into the Consuelo Velásquez original. The shakuhachi intro was just the beginning.
The vocals are far more dynamic than I’ve ever heard. In a beautiful work brutalized by the Beatles and trivialized by Dean Martin, Kat Parra recreates a much more soulful, moving song. Murray Low’s piano is lush against the shakuhachi and the fine bass of Germain and Daniel Foltz’s drums and Spiro’s percussion.
Till There Was You was equally surprising. What you heard in The Music Man is not what you hear here. There are three distinct section is the song: Invocation, Duet, and Resolution.
The song opens with a Canto de Ochún, an invocation to the goddess Ochún—the god of beauty and love. The invocation is a prayer “to help open our hearts to unconditional love.” Parra sings the invocation with María Márquez.
In the second section, Low brings in the Jazz piano as Parra duets with Nate Pruitt beautifully. In the Resolution, the duo and Low erupt joyously with Marc van Wageningen (bass), Colin Douglas (drums), and Michael Spiro (percussion). This was a highlight.
Dame La Mano is a poem by Gabriela Mistral and was arranged by David Pinto. With Parra’s powerful delivery is the delicate Koga flute, the adamant bass of Sascha Jacobsen, the definitive percussion of Raúl Ramirez and the ubiquitous piano of Murray Low. This is tight Latin Jazz, sung exquisitely with flawless instrumental performances.
The closing track of the album is Mambo Italiano was composed by Bob Merrill and arranged by trombonist Wayne Wallace. It is a smoking mambo rhythm. It is vibrant, fun, sensuous, and a great piece to end the album. The horns are hot and the rhythms are riveting. The coros are having the time of their lives, it seems, as Parra says farewll with a “That’s-a nice” to which they respond with “Huah!”
Song of the Americas is superb fun with splendid arrangements and sublime musical performances. Kat Parra, with Murray Low and other arrangers, have crafted an album of amazing traditional pieces, reframed within a Jazz setting, and delivered with exquisite virtuosity and passion.
Opening Besame Mucho with a shakuhachi! Who would have imagined…
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl