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Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled

By Published: December 1, 2001
That may be due, at least in part, to the fact that Margolis is always keenly aware of the original parameters of the songs that she sings. 'In my teaching, I always emphasize singing the melody correctly,' explains Margolis. 'The first time you have to show me that you know the melody. No going off it. Rhythmically, you can phrase it anyway you want, but you've got to give me pitch for pitch every pitch in the tune. Otherwise, what are you improvising on?' Margolis goes on to observe, 'That's one reason why a singer like Rosemary Clooney is so important, because she sings the melodies right, and you should listen to her for the melodies and how to sing them the way the composer wrote them. There are certain people that do sing them right. Ella Fitzgerald in her song book albums sang them right, at least the first time through the song. I think it's great that there is a real conservative/retro group of singers on one end that's taking care of that job so I don't have to do that. I can do it, but it's nothing I want to do.'

While there is little doubt she could, Margolis's phrasing is so improvisational in nature that it difficult to imagine her as a straight singer. 'The main thing about jazz for me is freedom and improvisation,' observes the vocalist. 'Having it be different every time.' Margolis places the accent in 'jazz singer' over the word jazz. 'I have spent a lot of time listening to the great horn players,' she explains. 'I work with saxophone a lot. My main teachers were sax players.' It shows. Margolis does not sing so much as she plays her voice. Her articulation and attack on up-tempo numbers and the breathiness of her timbre on ballads closely resemble the sounds of an alto saxophone. She also has an instrumentalist's preoccupation with structure rather than a singer's preoccupation with tone.

Left Coast Life features less scat singing than on previous recordings, which is a shame because Margolis is one of the finest vocal improvisers on the contemporary jazz scene. For many jazz fans, the very mention of scat summons an image of clueless singers blazing through chorus after chorus of nonsense syllables. However, Margolis punctures that stereotype both with her extraordinary musicianship and her ability to contextualize her scat choruses. Like the wordless improvisers she admires (Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Nancy King, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan), Margolis brings a distinctive sound to the idiom. 'Scat has its own vocabulary. For me there is a bop vocabulary that has a completely different set of syllables than I would use on a Brazilian tune. With bop, I use a more consonant attack.' That distinction is underscored on Left Coast Life by the very different styles of scat heard on 'Without a Song' (rapid and fiery) and 'It's You' (cool and hypnotic). Even those who claim to dislike scat singing may be surprised at how organically Margolis integrates the lyrical and wordless parts of her performances.

Margolis sounds as relaxed and inventive when improvising within the lyrics as she does when she dispenses with them altogether. Her clear diction allows a listener to understand the words even when they aren't the point of the performance. 'If it is a real fast song and you can skate through it, the lyrics are less important,' explains Margolis. 'The overall vibe of the tune becomes more important. The lyric can then be a little more trite or stock. Like 'I Want to Be Happy' [on Left Coast Life]. That's a cute lyric, but it's not exactly a depth charge. That's all about burning and joy and energy and an abstract feeling of happiness. The lyric is the vehicle for sound and stretching out.' Ballads are, naturally, a different matter. A jazz singer performing a ballad must be careful that her improvisational choices do not distort the syntax of the lyric or otherwise interfere with her ability to communicate the meaning of the words. It is altogether a far more difficult task than a performance like 'Heart's Desire' from Left Coast Life might suggest.

On the modern jazz scene, it is not uncommon to run into singers who, like Margolis, are also arrangers, songwriters and bandleaders. It is, however, a rarity to encounter a jazz singer who is also a producer and record label owner. All four of Kitty Margolis's albums have been released on the Mad-Kat Records label, which Margolis co-founded with the fine jazz singer Madeline Eastman in the late 1980s. In the history of jazz, artist run labels have been rare and unsuccessful. Despite the fame and personal popularity of their owners, both Tony Bennett's Improv and George Shearing's Sheba bombed. Only Betty Carter's Bet-Car label and Blossom Dearie's Daffodil Records remained viable over an extended period of time due in no small part to the rabid cult following enjoyed by both singers.

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