Kavita Shah is an award-winning vocalist, composer, researcher, and educator who makes work in deep engagement with the jazz tradition, while also addressing and advancing its global sensibilities. A lifelong New Yorker of Indian origin hailed for possessing an “amazing dexterity for musical languages” (NPR), Shah incorporates her ethnographic research on Brazilian, West African, and Indian musical traditions into her original repertoire.
In September 2023, after seven years of immersing in the traditional mornas and coladeiras of her idol Cesária Évora on the Atlantic island of São Vicente with Évora’s former musical director and virtuoso guitarist Bau, Shah released her latest album Cape Verdean Blues (Folkalist Records) which The Guardian has called “gorgeous” and The New York Times “quietly riveting.” Recently named a 2023-2025 Jerome Hill Artist Fellow, Shah is working next on a new album of original music for her jazz quintet chronicling the journey to her ancestral villages in coastal Gujarat.
Raised in Manhattan, Shah traces her commitment to jazz to the childhood influence of uptown saxophonist Patience Higgins, a former neighbor whose band she would later join at hallowed Harlem spots like Minton’s and the Lenox Lounge. Trained first as a classical pianist, Shah spent her formative years in the prestigious Young People’s Chorus of New York City, absorbing and performing in a vast range of musical idioms. An early and enduring fascination with Spanish literature and Afro-Cuban music helped guide her to major in Latin American Studies at Harvard, where her B.A. honors research on contemporary Afro-Brazilian music and politics, drawing on fieldwork in Salvador da Bahia, won the Kenneth D. Maxwell Prize in Brazilian Studies and the Cultural Agents Thesis Prize. She was also awarded the David McCord Prize for artistic talent. After a brief stint working for The Nation magazine and Human Rights Watch, Shah went on to earn a Master of Music degree in Jazz Voice at Manhattan School of Music, where she studied voice with Theo Bleckmann and Peter Eldridge, improvisation with Steve Wilson, and composition with Jim McNeely and Nils Vigeland. She was named Downbeat’s Best Graduate Jazz Vocalist in 2012 and won the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award in 2013.
Shah’s highly-acclaimed 2014 debut album—the internationally-minded project “VISIONS” (Inner Circle Music/Naïve Records)—was co-produced by guitarist Lionel Loueke. Her 2017 Park Avenue Armory premiere “Folk Songs of Naboréa,” an interdisciplinary song-cycle for seven voices, was named by Nate Chinen (WBGO/NPR) as one of the Top 10 Jazz Performances of the year. In 2018, she released “Interplay” (Dot Time Records) in duo with bassist François Moutin, with legendary guests Martial Solal on piano and Sheila Jordan on vocals; it was nominated for France’s Victoires de la Musique for “Album jazz sensation de l’année” (Jazz Album of the Year).
Shah has sung her music at major concert halls, festivals, and clubs on six continents, including such venues as the Kennedy Center, Central Park SummerStage, Park Avenue Armory, MASS MoCA, Art Basel: Miami, Rubin Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Museum of Jazz in Harlem, Safaricom Jazz Lounge (Nairobi, Kenya), Winter Jazz Fest, San José Jazz Festival, Exit Zero Jazz Festival, BRIC JazzFest, Rochester Jazz Festival, Jazz en Tête Festival, Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Melbourne Jazz Festival, Brisbane Jazz Festival, Perth Jazz Festival, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Joe’s Pub, Duc des Lombards, and India’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. She has performed and recorded with such elders and peers as: Sheila Jordan, Martial Solal, Mulatu Astatke, Billy Childs, Steve Wilson, Nicole Mitchell, François Moutin, Greg Osby, Lionel Loueke, Miguel Zenón, Bau, Miho Hazama, Nelson Veras, Alune Wade, and Yacouba Sissoko.
From her formal training, Shah draws a keen interest in complex arrangements and adventurous approaches to the voice as an instrument, leading her to collaborate with contemporary composers like Miho Hazama, Steve Newcomb, and Alexis Cuadrado in settings ranging from chamber groups to jazz philharmonic (her work on Hazama’s “Dancer in Nowhere” was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Large Ensemble Album). Just as important to Shah, she grounds her own compositions in the art of the song as passed down through the tradition – not least by Sheila Jordan, the great NEA Jazz Master who has been her artistic and professional mentor. Shah’s research interests in traditional music practices have taken her to Brazil, Cape Verde, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Turkey, and India, where her work has been supported by Chamber Music America, Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, Asian Cultural Council, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and the Hermitage Arts Retreat in Sarasota, FL. Shah credits tradition, as embodied in its elders, for grounding her own personal and artistic identity and her vision of music as not just pursuit of virtuosity, but cultural work. (Shah is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and is proficient in Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, and Cape Verdean Kriol. She has also studied Yorùbá).
A passionate educator, Shah combines her lifelong study of vocal technique in various disciplines (Western classical, jazz, Indian classical, and Jeanie LoVetri’s Somatic Voicework method) with her vast experience as a performer and improviser to guide each student to grow not only as a singer but as a consummate musician. She has worked as a Teaching Artist for Carnegie Hall’s “Lullaby Project,” Adjunct Faculty at The New School, and has offered masterclasses on vocal performance, artistry, and composition at Hunter College (New York, NY), The New School (New York, NY), California Jazz Conservatory (Berkeley, CA), University of Iowa, LaSalle College of the Arts (Singapore, SG), Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia), Porta Jazz (Porto, Portugal), Ghetto Classics (Nairobi, Kenya), Park Avenue Armory, Carnegie Hall, Rubin Museum, and BRIC. Shah is also a fierce advocate for gender and racial equity in the arts, and has led and co-led workshops and participated in panel discussions at The New School, NYU, Georgetown University, University of Pittsburgh, Bowdoin College, Winter Jazz Fest, Vision Festival, and APAP’s Wavelengths World Music Conference. She was a founding member of the Ori-Gen Collective and the We Have Voice Collective.