Latin Jazz Conversations: Kat Parra (Part 2)

Passion and inspiration are sometimes luxuries that fill our life with endless amounts of richness, while other times we find ourselves in artistic poverty. It comes in long waves of positive and negative energy, often reflected in our life situations. Sometimes these changes are out of our control, while other times we push ourselves into artistic peaks or downfalls. Regardless of the reasons, these ups and downs are part of any musician’s career and in reality, they are necessities that define an artist’s future. During the high times, musicians create some of their best material, benefiting from the enthusiasm and focus in their lives. The low points sometimes stall the musical output, but they always provide a different perspective on the art form. Recovery from the low points never occurs for some artists, but many emerge from downward spirals with new concepts and new inspirations. Something catches these survivors that defines them artistically, embodies their core musical desires, and sets them back on track. This newfound passion drives them to take risks, work harder, and discover new sides of themselves, both as a person and as an artist. They might find the strength to grow within themselves, a strong collaborator might push them, or family member might inspire them with support. Whatever the driving force, the musician emerges with a new lease on their artistic vision that helps them reach new heights.

After building a diverse musical foundation that included classical flute, guitar, piano, and more, vocalist Kat Parra dove headfirst into the Bay Area’s Latin music scene. Finding a passion for salsa, Parra dug deeply into the style, studying the genre’s roots in Cuba and performing extensively with Bay Area group Charanga Nueve. This was a time of growth for Parra, who became a powerful sonera with a firm feel for clave, but after several years, she walked away from performing completely. Working during the day in the high tech world of Silicon Valley, Parra took some time to refocus her perspective on music and performing. A chance trip to the circus changed her path once again, offering a unique opportunity to refine her abilities and dive back into the musical world. With a newly invigorated desire to put music in the forefront of her mind, Parra made some major life changes. Her persistent focus on a high quality musical vision as a Latin Jazz performer brought her into contact with some of the Bay Area’s best musicians and led to a long collaboration with trombonist Wayne Wallace. Parra refined her ideas and recorded them on a stunning debut, Birds in Flight, a sparkling album that included Wallace, pianist Murray Low, and more. Building momentum, she quickly turned around and returned to the studio for a musically mature and engaging sophomore release, Azucar De Amor. With her career kicked into high gear, Parra looked ahead towards a bright future.

We looked at Parra’s musical development in the first part of our interview, a diverse road that included time in Los Angeles, Chile, and San Jose. These were the building blocks that led into Parra’s emergence as a recording artist. In the second piece of our three-part interview with Parra, she shares her passion for salsa, her withdrawal from music, and her eventual inspiration that led to the establishment of her personality as a Latin Jazz vocalist.

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LJC: What was the turning point that led you to your defined identity singing Latin Jazz?

KP: I cut my teeth in the salsa world with a group called Charanga Nueve for almost five years. It was one of those things – when you find something that sparks you, you put everything into it. I lived, breathed, slept, drank, and ate salsa; I would listen to nothing else. And then going to Cuba was a huge influence, a huge turning point. I studied music at Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana; I went there and just got a good education. It was only for a couple of weeks, but it was living the music. I was out every night until four or five o’clock in the morning, just dancing and soaking in clave. It just made a huge, huge difference, being able to study with the big guys over there.

LJC: Who did you come into contact with when you were in Cuba?

KP: Emilio Vega, who is a pretty big time producer, Pupi (the former pianist for Los Van Van), and some of the guys from Cubanisimo. The nice thing about a place like Escuela Nacional de Arte, is that they don’t say, “We’re the best musicians in the world, so we’re not going to take the time to teach you.” The best musicians came into this school and worked with these kids; they worked with us. It was a pretty awesome experience. I also did some vocal lessons with some of the top singers from some of the top bands. I would go over to their houses . . . that would always be an experience trying to figure out where they lived. The whole place is a maze to me!

LJC: Could you tell us a little bit about Charanga Nueve, because I believe they were the only band doing that type of music in the South Bay Area at the time.

KP: Charanga Nueve was definitely about trying to be authentic charanga music. There were some other charanga bands around the Bay Area, but they would be using horns. Then there was Anthony Blea – he was probably the closest to the other charanga band. There was also La Moderna Tradicion, but they were much more just danzones. It was an amazing experience to be able to work with Charanga Nueve. Jimmy Biala was one of the founding members of the group – he was and remains to this day an incredibly dedicated musician and awesome musician. He raised the bar very high for everybody, and that was a challenge for some people. Some people in the band wanted it to be a party band and didn’t really want to work hard; they just wanted to show up and play. Jimmy really wanted it to go somewhere and I was of the same mind. Ultimately, that’s why I left the band; I need to be challenged and I need to grow. I’m not one who feels comfortable becoming complacent in anything that I do and it was starting to feel that way with Charanga Nueve. I’d reached my limit and it was time to move on and find somewhere else to go.

I thought I was done with music when I quit Charanga Nueve – so I left music for a couple of years. When I quit Charanga Nueve and I didn’t do anything with music for about a year, which was hard. It was a really, really hard time to go through, but also really important. It showed me how important music is in my life. I realized that music is part of my identity – it’s who I am and it’s really hard to separate that out of my life. So I started teaching music in elementary schools. I was working at Cisco and they were kind enough to let me off a couple of mornings a week so I could go and teach. I found a lot of joy working with children and giving them the gift of music. It was pretty cool.

A while after I quit Charanga Nueve, I went to a Cirque Du Soleil concert with my family and my Mom said, “You know, I read somewhere that Cirque Du Soleil is auditioning singers . . .” I’ve been really intrigued by the music that they do in Cirque Du Soleil, so I went on their website and I checked it out. I sent in a demo CD and my press kit that I had at the time. I got a response pretty quickly saying, “We want to audition you.” I was completely flabbergasted and so excited. They said, “We’ll give you a warning a month before we’re in an area near you.” I thought, “Cool!” I started taking voice lessons again and getting my voice back in gear. Then I didn’t hear from them, and four or five months went by. I wrote them to see what was going on and they said, “It can take up to five years.” So I just put it out of my mind and I just kept doing what I was doing. About a year later I got an e-mail saying “We will be in Los Angeles in May and you are to present yourself there.” Then it was like, “Oh no, I have one month and I haven’t been practicing or singing . . .” So I quickly got myself back into some form of vocal shape, flew down to Los Angeles, did this crazy audition. It was not the best, but it was a great experience at the time.

The bottom line was that going down there and doing that audition gave my voice back to me. It made me realize that I love to sing. Even though I didn’t get the gig with Cirque Du Soleil, I learned that I could be a singer and I could do this full time . . . at least I needed to try. So I came back up here and I put the plan in motion. I talked to my kids – the deal with my children was that they pay tuition and I’d pay for everything else for their college education. Since my older son took four and a half years to graduate, I was extending the same courtesy to my younger son. He had about another year left at school, so I said, “Here’s the deal – you get one more year of my money and then I’m broke!” I think that being able to do this and having their support really made it that much easier to make this transition, because they were both saying, “Mom, we’ll respect and love you so much more if you’re doing something that you love to do instead of staying in a job that you hate.” It was really, really touching, and they have been so supportive of me since I quit my job at Cisco and pursued music. They’ve been a part of the journey with me – my older son rapped on the first CD (Birds in Flight), which was really fun – it was the hit of the CD, which was even cooler! My younger son is a film maker and a photographer, so he’s been a part of all that stuff as well. It’s been kind of fun to include them.

LJC: Once you left Cisco, how did Birds in Flight come about? One of the things that I thought was very impressive was that it was your first release as a band leader and it was very defined – how did you pull that together?

KP: Well, a lot of that is thanks to Wayne Wallace. Wayne is a phenomenal producer – we had a lot of meetings and there was a lot of pre-production that went on talking about how to shape the music and how to shape the CD itself. This was many years in the making really. I actually did the CD during that year that I was preparing to leave Cisco – the day after my last day at Cisco was the CD release concert . . . which was so perfect! It just worked out so well. I really have to give a lot of credit to Wayne, helping me really get clear on what my vision was. Wayne just really helped me focus and get really creative. He asked all the right questions and made me think hard about how I wanted to present this music and what approach I wanted to take with it. Before I even wanted to make this CD, I approached Murray Low and talked to him; he started working with me and all the rest of the guys followed suit. The vision was I wanted to be a Latin Jazz singer, but I didn’t want to do just the typical Afro-Cuban or Bossa Nova style. I wanted to represent all of Latin America because there’s so much richness in South America and Central America. Having lived in South America, I was exposed to so many different songs and styles of music and I really wanted to represent that. On the first two CDs (Birds in Flight and Azucar De Amor), there are songs that I learned when I was living in Chile. It means so much to me to be able to reproduce those songs. Of course, we re-arranged them and made them different, but still the essence of the music is there. Wayne and Murray Low did great arrangements . . . that in itself is so inspiring – to have beautiful arrangements to sing with.

LJC: You were one of the first releases on Wayne’s Patois Records. Was that something that was part of your recording process? That label has put out some incredible records over the past few years and really grown – you were there at the beginning of that.

KP: Well, it was kind of a serendipitous thing. I actually put out Birds in Flight on my own label – the Jazzma label. I had found a promoter, the PR, and everything, but the one piece of the puzzle that was missing was the distribution. During this time, I was talking to Wayne, and he had told me that he had a distributor; so he gave me their contact information. I sent them the CD, and they said, “Well, you have one CD under your belt, and we need a catalogue.” So they were actually the ones that made that connection, and said, “Wayne, why don’t you put Kat on your label.” They really believed in the CD and they thought it was good – worthy of getting out into distribution. I was actually the first artist besides Wayne to be signed to Patois, and then Alexa Weber Morales followed me. I had a two CD contract with them, so I re-released Birds in Flight with a re-design on the CD cover and then did Azucar De Amor.

LJC: That second album, Azucar De Amor, seemed to come out pretty quick after Birds in Flight.

KP: It was two years. Initially, Birds in Flight came out in July of 2006, but it sure did feel pretty fast.

LJC: Did you have a bunch material and you were ready to go? How did that come about?

KP: That again is Wayne! Wayne has got a really good vision of how things should work. Especially where radio is concerned – they’ll play your CD for a couple of months if you’re lucky, and then you’re gone. They just get so many CDs; there’s no way that they can keep you in the rotation unless you’re huge. To keep yourself visible in the music community, you’ve got to keep doing stuff. It’s either you’re touring a lot, which is incredibly expensive, or you’re making CDs, which is also incredibly expensive – either way you’re broke! You’ve just got to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be broke but happy. Wayne really urged me to go back into the studio and get the next CD. So when Birds in Flight was re-released in 2007 with Patois, I think that we were already working on the new CD; we were already in pre-production. It’s a really fun process to work with Wayne, because you go over to work in a studio with him and you collaborate. It’s not just him – he comes up with certain frameworks and then I was able to go in and give my input – “Let’s try this or do it like that . . .” He really made it my project, I owned it. It wasn’t like he could do all the stuff and I just get into the studio and sing; it was mine. Even more so with Dos Amantes.

LJC: It seemed like more opportunities opened up for you after Azucar De Amor, did you notice a difference?

KP: Absolutely. I had a little bit of name recognition at this point, which is nice. Matt Beasley is my booking agent and he’s done a good job of really stretching the boundaries of where I perform. We’ve been up to Washington state twice to perform; we went to Chicago and I would love to go back there again. Because of the CDs, I was invited to Brazil by one of the radio DJs, who puts on a festival down there. That was pretty amazing. The same kind of deal with Mexico – we were invited to the Festival De Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico and San Cristobal. So, yea, definitely, it’s been wonderful. I’m really hoping that it keeps building from there and I’m able to hit more markets in the United States as well as break into Europe this time around.

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Make sure that you check out Part 1 of the LJC interview with Kat Parra and read some history about Parra’s musical development. You can find it HERE.

Keep on reading to get the full scoop – Part 3 of the LJC interview with Kat Parra delves into her passion for Sephardic Jazz and her album Dos Amantes. Check it out HERE.

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Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Conversations: John Calloway (Part 2)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Jose Madera (Part 2)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Mitch Frohman (Part 2)
Latin Jazz Conversations: Poncho Sanchez (Part 2)

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