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Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled

By Published: December 1, 2001
Although her bop roots go deep, Margolis's musical reach is wider than straight-ahead jazz. She has been particularly fascinated by world music most notably the singers, songs and rhythms of Brazil and Africa. She also loves to explore that area where jazz meets the blues. 'When I got into jazz, I thought I couldn't do the blues any more, even though when I was in high school I was playing Robert Johnson and Bonnie Raitt tunes. Jazz blues became more like Charlie Parker's 'Billie's Bounce' type blues,' she explains. 'Blues is a huge part of jazz history. We all know that, but for the younger person who doesn't know that or hasn't figured that out, I would recommend listening to a singer like Joe Williams or Ernestine Anderson or Etta Jones. Those are the three for understanding the connection between blues and jazz.' Margolis tends to avoid traditional 12-bar blues in favor of blues songs with a bridge, which, it should be noted, she sings with more idiomatic authenticity than one would expect from a Harvard-educated white woman. 'The message in the blues I like to sing is usually a powerful message for women rather than, 'my man done left me and slapped me around.' I don't like those kind of blues.'

Unlike some jazz fans, Margolis is not a genre snob so much as she is a quality snob. 'The best jazz is original to me as is the best pop,' she explains. 'The first thing I look for in music is does it have soul? It either hits me or it doesn't. Singers like Van Morrison and Abbey Lincoln are just oozing soul.' Within jazz, Margolis tends to admire musicians like Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
, Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
Joe Zawinul
1932 - 2007
and John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
, artists who have not confined their pursuit of self-expression to narrowly drawn categories.

What makes Kitty Margolis such a remarkable artist is the way in which she melds together all of these different musical impulses into her own unique vision of what it means to be a jazz vocalist in the 21st Century. There is a double-take quality to her singing. She makes you sit up and pay attention because she is not a musician particularly interested in making mood music. 'There are so many things you can do to spice things up without being precious or overly self-conscious. Things that are integral to my sound,' says Margolis. 'You can use elements of pop and world music, or at least I fully intend to. The thing I like about jazz is the amount of freedom it gives an artist.' Margolis takes full advantage of that freedom by utilizing non-traditional rhythmic ideas, unusual time signatures, varied instrumentation, and challenging reharmonizations.

Although her music can be startling, it is neither coldly cerebral nor densely inaccessible. What separates Margolis from some of the other more adventurous jazz singers is that she never loses sight of the fact that music resides not in our heads but in our hearts. 'The most important thing to me is to make people feel something,' she says. The riot of sounds and inventive musical ideas simply become new garments Margolis wraps around the emotions that have long been the concern of great jazz singers. Of course, there will always be some people that want to hear those emotions expressed in the same familiar ways. However, Margolis doesn't spend time worrying about the accessibility of her work. 'I don't think the jazz audience is as dumb as some music industry traditionalists would have them be,' she explains. 'I think we should expect more from the audience. I certainly don't think they are unsophisticated.'

Respect—for her audiences, for her material and for the jazz tradition—is definitely part of the formula, but the chemical reaction that generates Kitty Margolis's art comes from combining that sense of respect with a healthy irreverence for convention and a thirst to explore the unknown. The way those elements interact to produce fresh and exciting jazz singing can be heard on Margolis's recently released fourth CD, Left Coast Life.

Recorded with an impressive group of West Coast musicians, Left Coast Life highlights the vocalist's distinctive approach to making music. Too many jazz singers misinterpret the goal of 'finding your own voice' to mean that every song should be performed the same way. Kitty Margolis, on the other hand, approaches each song on its own terms and looks for ways to individualize rather than homogenize her performances. 'Individual songs have their own intrinsic message,' explains Margolis. 'Usually, as soon as I think of a song, I don't think of it in its old form. First, it's how you interpret the lyric. You bring your own subtext to it from your life experiences. That's one layer. The arrangement, the instrumentation, the production. That provides a context. You put all of those together and get a completely new gestalt of the tune. So each song is an attempt to say something different in the jazz idiom.'

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