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Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled

By Published: December 1, 2001
Left Coast Life certainly says something different than most jazz vocal albums. The CD is a series of character studies that evoke life in the culturally diverse and economically schizophrenic San Francisco Bay Area. 'I've lived in the same neighborhood in the heart of the city for twenty-some years,' explains Margolis. 'I have watched the proliferation of BMWs and Porches takeover my neighborhood, and the rents just zooming up, and the musicians in my band having to leave the Bay Area because they couldn't afford to live here anymore' [and] now, obviously the whole economy has changed.'

Margolis brings the dreamers and the schemers of the Bay Area to vivid life in a series of performances that are by turns brazen, witty and rueful. A strutting version of 'Lonely at the Top,' Randy Newman's paean to egomania, performed with tongue planted firmly in cheek, segues into a time-stands-still reading of Frank Loesser's 'Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,' sung with heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity. The cynical nonchalance of Bob Dorough's 'Devil May Care,' given a near-definitive performance, precedes a joyous 'Without a Song' reimagined by Margolis as an idealist's celebration of art and life. As in a Robert Altman film or a Tom Wolfe novel, the drama of Left Coast Life lies not in an overarching narrative but in the juxtaposition of these seemingly disparate characters.

Of course, Left Coast Life can also be appreciated simply as a collection of interesting tunes rearranged with great creativity by a talented improviser. As with any CD, song selection serves as the foundation on which everything else rests. Margolis keeps a running list of dozens of tunes she might like to record. To make the final cut, a song must appeal to her at every level ' emotionally, melodically, harmonically and lyrically. 'It all has to be there,' she says. It is not a coincidence that her repertoire is dominated by standards. 'I love the classic repertoire. Where else do you get the songs? The complex way they're structured harmonically is something you don't often find in contemporary songs, except for in the case of Dave Frishberg or a few writers like that. That was the Golden Age of American song.' However, unlike other vocalists, Margolis doesn't use her affection for the Great American Songbook as an exclusionary rule. Left Coast Life also draws on good rock era tunes and smart original compositions. Margolis penned the lyrics to 'It's You,' which has a melody by renowned guitarist Joyce Cooling, who also appears on Left Coast Life. The Brazilian-flavored song proves to be one of the disc's highlights. 'You Just Might Get It,' a witty indictment of finger popping celebrity culture, is the first tune Margolis has recorded where she wrote both the music and lyrics. 'I used to write a lot of songs outside of the jazz genre, but then when I started doing jazz all I would do was write the lyrics to other people's songs,' she recalls. Unlike some jazz singers, Margolis doesn't turn a blind eye to quality when it comes to her own songs. 'I have high standards, so I wanted to do a good job.'

After a tune has been selected, Margolis begins work on the arrangement. 'I usually try to think from the groove on up,' she explains. 'Then I play around with the chords and play around with the bass lines.' Of course, not every song undergoes major surgery. For example, the haunting performance of Tom Waits's 'Take It With Me' that serves as the album's coda, 'I did it in the same key and used the same changes. That's all the song needed. It didn't need reinvention. 'Money' did need reinvention.' Margolis's memorably bluesy take on that Pink Floyd tune is done 'much slower, spacier, and with some different changes and instruments.'

Because of their ubiquitousness, Margolis tends to radically rethink standards. As a result, she can tackle a warhorse like 'The Best Is Yet To Come' without fear of boring her audience or herself. 'I didn't really picture myself doing a Frank Sinatra version,' observes Margolis with a laugh. 'I heard a more polyrhythmic treatment of that. Then I started playing around with the changes. That came next. Then I started playing around with the stops that are in there and the rhythmic notation and dynamics.' The final result, which finds Margolis singing her own multi-tracked harmonies over a 12/8 groove, sounds like an entirely new song. At the same time, the reinvention is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of brash optimism that distinguished the original tune.

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