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Kitty Margolis and Life on the Road Less Traveled

By Published: December 1, 2001
Like any good producer, Margolis pays close attention to the post-production end of making an album. It helps that she has more than a vague understanding of how the technical side of the recording process works. After leaving Harvard to return to the West Coast, Margolis enrolled as a communications major at San Francisco State and studied studio engineering. 'It's been immensely helpful to me to have learned how to hear frequencies and know what they're called,' explains the singer.

Although her fans would like to see her record more frequently, Kitty Margolis isn't entirely convinced that is a good idea. 'Too many people go and slap down a bunch of tunes not very thoughtfully,' she says. 'One of the good things about being an independent artist is that you didn't sign anything that says you have to make an album every year. I don't think I would necessarily have so much to say to make a studio album every year. I just like to wait and see where my creative road takes me.'

That creative road has paralleled, in many ways, Margolis's development as a jazz artist. For the last 20 years, jazz singers have been struggling with the question of where to take vocal improvising in a post-Betty Carter world. Margolis begins to address that question on her first album by stepping into the tradition at the point where her idols left off. Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the two most influential vocal improvisers in history, made their finest jazz records improvising on standards with a trio in front of a live audience. Live at the Jazz Workshop places Margolis in the same setting. Although it was her first record, Kitty Margolis was hardly a neophyte. She had been honing her craft as a professional jazz singer for nearly a decade. Live the Jazz Workshop is the work of a singer who has acquired the discipline necessary to channel her talent. 'With a Song in My Heart,' 'All Blues' and especially 'I Concentrate on You' are models of creativity and virtuosity.

Having proven herself capable of making a straight-ahead blowing album, Margolis expanded her vision for her first studio recording. On Evolution, she accounts for the different ways in which the art of vocal jazz has developed over time. Each branch or offshoot of jazz singing is explored. Margolis moves with equal skill between Tin Pan Alley standards ('I'm Old Fashioned') and jazz tunes ('Ancient Footprints'), scat ('Anthropology') and ballads ('Midnight Sun'), Brazilian tunes ('Evolution') and blues songs ('Someone Else is Steppin' In'). She transforms jazz tunes into songs ('Firm Roots') and songs into jazz vocalese ('When Lights Are Low'). She trades fours with the horns ('Gone With the Wind') and goes it alone singing with just piano ('Where Do You Start?') or bass ('You Don't Know What Love Is').

Three years later Kitty Margolis offered her own unique vision for jazz singing. More than a clever CD title, Straight Up With a Twist perfectly describes Margolis's approach. If you read the album's play list, you might think you have an idea of what to expect. After all, everyone knows tunes like 'Fever' or 'All or Nothing at All.' But knowing that 'Getting To Know You' opens the record hardly prepares you for the polyrhythmic treatment of the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune that comes out of the speakers. The album's unquestionable highlight is a breathtaking duet with Charles Brown on 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?' that takes the song off of the Broadway stage and places it in the cold, dark alleys where the homeless live.

Some jazz critics found Straight Up With a Twist too adventurous. The irony is that they are displaying the same reactionary blind spot as those now-forgotten critics who ridiculed the playing of the young Louis Armstrong. After all, 'straight up with a twist' really is just another way of describing jazz itself. What Kitty Margolis understands is that after nearly 90 years of jazz history, what we used to consider as the twist has now simply become the part that is straight up.

Left Coast Life very much follows in the path of Straight Up With a Twist, but feels like an entirely more integrated whole. What makes Left Coast Life an album worth waiting for is that it is a record with multiple layers. And if it is like Margolis's other albums, it will reward repeated listening not with boredom or familiarity, but with a greater appreciation for the music itself.

Still, Kitty Margolis concedes that a four-year gap between records might be too long no matter how accomplished the final product. 'My husband, Alfonso Montuori, who is my co-producer, says he is going to make me make an album sooner,' laughs Margolis, adding, 'I might make another live album.'

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