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Telluride Daily Planet, July 29, 1998
"Nice Work If You Can Get It'
By Louise Redd

For those of us who miss the fabulous scatting of Ella Fitzgerald and the dessert-rich tones of Sarah Vaughan, this year's Telluride Jazz Celebration offers proof that the torch has successfully been passed. Kitty Margolis embodies the best of her predecessors while blazing a path of her own, with a full, rich voice that can move with ease from honey to fire, from a joyful scat to a sorrowful ballad. And just in case her gorgeous voice isn't enough for discerning jazz fans, Margolis is blessed with instincts of gold and an intelligent wit that allows her to twist jazz standards into unexpected forms, bringing a freshness to every song she touches. You might think you know a song like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," from My Fair Lady, until Kitty gets hold of it.

"That song is always done in this really happy, perky, way," Kitty told me from the San Francisco offices of Mad-Kat, her own independent label. "but to me it's really a song about homelessness, which we see way too much of in San Francisco. I wanted to bring out the poignant thing I was hearing, so I found some sadder chords and slowed it down to a crawl. I like to bring out the contemporary subtext in these older songs. Sometimes you've maybe heard a song all your life and then it suddenly jumps out and says, 'Sing me!'"

If I were a song, Kitty Margolis is the singer I would jump for.

Catch Kitty and her quartet all weekend long at the Telluride Jazz Celebration. In the meantime, here's what she has to say about her life as a jazz singer, her upcoming weekend in Telluride and a few other things.

DP: Why jazz? Why not fluffy pop tunes?

KM: When I decided that I was going to do music as my life's work, just about the time I decided I was really going to do this and not push it away anymore, I moved to the neighborhood of North Beach in San Francisco which had a big jazz scene and I got very turned on by it. It's the most sophisticated music there is, I think, because the jazz artist is always improvising. Also the most challenging, on the physical level, the emotional level, the spiritual level, and also on the social level. You deal with the most diversity there is any musical form because there are so many flavors of jazz: Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, Brazilian, Third Stream, Asian American jazz. Also all the different time periods of jazz: New Orleans, swing, be-bop, hard-bop, cool jazz, avant-garde, acid jazz, funk, and blues. Let's not forget the blues. I like to try to use a lot of world influences from around the planet. Right now my house is full of African music.

DP: When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

KM: I knew in about fourth grade. I was living in San Francisco and it was the epicenter of a musical revolution. I was just a little child then but I was definitely strongly tuned into music. Music is really a calling and if you're tuned in, you're tuned in no matter what.

DP: If you had a young daughter who said, "Mommy, I want to be a jazz singer!" what would you say to her?

KM: I think of my youngest students as my kids. I deal with that all the time, that question. I just tell them to put as much energy as they have for the music into it and see what develops. Listen to as much live jazz as you can and of course, study the greats on recordings. Educate yourself as much as the musicians do...theory, ear-training, improvisation, history of jazz, the works. Study the lyrics and find your own take on them from your life experience. About a fraction of one percent of the people who want to be jazz singers ever get good enough to even work. It's one thing to say you want to do it, but you have to be ready to pay the years of dues you have to pay. No matter what pans out, studying the music enriches and deepens what you can hear, and even if you only perform on an amateur basis you can still have a lot of fun.

DP: The fact that you chose to do a live recording for your very first CD {Live at the Jazz Workshop} says to me that there's some essential chemistry between you and your audience.

KM: Very true. The audience can make or break their own show. They're just as responsible for the show as the musicians are. You've gotta participate and throw me that energy. I feel very strongly about there being that circle of energy. An artist is not going to give everything they have unless they feel some love coming back to them. But if the audience is a live one, lookout, because there are no limits to what can happen.

DP: Feeling as strongly as you do about your audience, is it difficult for you to turn on in the studio?

KM: What I have in the studio is myself and my headphones. And of course the musicians that we hand-pick for the project. The way I have my headphone mix is pretty hot so that I get into a much more minutiae-oriented relationship with my voice. It's hard in the studio because it takes so much concentration, but the advantage is the clarity with which you can hear yourself. My energy is inner rather than outer directed, the way it would be in concert. Recording is much more intimate and subtle, in a way. Doing my first album live was a completely uncalculated brilliant career move. For me it was the easiest way to go because I was just stuck and didn't know how to make a record, so I just did a live recording since that seemed easiest. I ended up getting a lot of kudos for it because people dug that it was a risky way to come out of the gate, since "live to 2 track" there was no way to "fix" anything.

DP: What do you think about when you're singing?

KM: I'm not really usually thinking in the literal, linear sense. The ultimate state is when you're not really thinking but you're just a conduit, just sort of channeling the music, although I hate that word because it's so new age. I'm just experiencing the music coming through me and connecting with the music gods. If I have a good PA and I can hear myself well in a high quality way and I have my own band and all the elements are there for a good performance physically, then I get into that state.

DP: How do you perceive your own voice?

KM: I don't really separate the voice from all the other instruments, except that it is actually part of the body. I talk about singing as being similar to a horn. I feel my approach is a musician's approach in the sense that I improvise and play with as many colors and choose my notes and lines as freely as a saxophone player would. The human voice is a wind instrument, after all. The human voice is the first instrument. But the singer has a very powerful advantage because of the lyric. As long as I can touch people and make them feel something I'm happy. I'm doing my job.

DP: We're looking forward to hearing you this weekend.

KM: I'm excited. James Moody {this year's guest of honor} is a real hero, on every level, because he's so humorous and dignified and well-spoken, and such a gentleman. Not to mention one of the true giants of the music. He has been a very big influence on me because he was so intertwined with Eddie Jefferson. There are going to be so many great artists. Flora Purim is a hero of mine too and I can't wait to see her again. "Seeds on the Ground" by Flora and Airto was the first jazz record I ever got and it rocked my world. I was about 15. And Paul Machado (the director of the festival) is a good man, a soulful man. I've had sushi with him. You can learn a lot about someone from eating sushi with them.

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