Songbook of the Americas
April 1, 2016
Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
I’m unfamiliar with San Franciscan Kat Parra whose facility with languages and passion for Latin music rides tandem with a supple, contralto voice. This CD, a tribute to women songwriters from North, Central and South America, is a curious combination of evocative Latin jazz and easy listening chestnuts. There are Spanish, Portuguese and American songs.
Betty Carter’s “Please Do Something” arrives as a cool cha-cha with definite sass and a soupçon of Parra’s fine scat. During the bass-centric swing “Wouldn’t It Be Sweet?” (originally Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” with lyrics by Parra), the performer’s vocals slip/slide octaves with skill and fluency over what would have been Parker’s solo. I admit to not understanding the language, but sound works well to evoke the period and attitude. Masaru Koga’s superb soprano sax is a pleasure. On acoustic bass is Aaron Germain.
The samba “Dare to Dream” (Parra), featuring jazz duo Tuck and Patti, is a swaying, barefoot walk on the beach, rocking in a straw chair, dancing under palms strung with lights. Rhythm is infectious. The two scatters at play create particularly appealing closure. “María Landó” (Chabuca Granda/César Calvo) is sultry, sensual. Parra’s delivery is lush. Written as an interpretation of a Criollo waltz with Afro-Peruvian rhythm, this arrangement has an effectively replaced the guitar with Murray Low’s piano.
For me there are two highlights: The dark, insinuating “Veinte Años” by Maria Teresa Vera (Vera was a trovador, a troubadour who toured around Cuba singing and playing original compositions) feels French Moroccan. The wonderful Lila Sklar on violin evokes Django Reinhardt. The combination is rather cinematic—Parra finds herself in a tense, black-and-white, 1950s film; and, I’m almost embarrassed to say, the usually corny “Bésame Mucho” (Consuelo Velázquez). Hypnotized by Masaru Koga’s shakuhachi and Parra’s smoky vocal, the song slithers in on its stomach like a snake. One thinks of opium pipes, smuggling, clandestine meetings. What happened to the elevator music?
Undistinguished cuts include, in part, two by male songwriters: Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” (featuring jazz singer Nate Pruitt) delivered like a country club rhumba; and “Mambo Italiano” (Bob Merrill), which even Rosemary Clooney couldn’t make palatable today. So much for women songwriters!
Kat Parra has a smooth, pliant jazz voice. Musicianship is excellent.