I recently talked to LA based singer Natasha Agrama about what makes a good jazz club, her upcoming debut record, and how the recent death of close friend and collaborator Austin Peralta has shifted her philosophy on life.
After The Show: What is it about jazz as a genre that appeals to you?
Natasha Agrama: I grew up in jazz. My stepdad is Stanley Clarke, legendary jazz bassist, one of the trailblazers of fusion in the early 1970s. With Chick Corea he was in a band called Return to Forever, and growing up, he was always shoving Ella Fitzgerald under my nose.
I went to art school. I studied painting and performance art and video production. I spent a lot of time not studying music, loving jazz the whole time — it’s the family business.
I loved singing — it was my favorite thing to do ever since I was a little kid. It’s what I need to do on this planet, and a lot of people need to hear…That’s the situation I find myself in, in this body, in this lifetime. It’s about jazz music for me, there’s nothing that I love more.
Also, I’m half Egyptian and half Chilean/Argentinian. I’m first generation American on both sides of my family. I felt totally ostracized…I’ve always felt displaced, both of my parents are transplants, my parents are not normal. I just never had a place, and in jazz, I have a place. I have a home, and I’ve been accepted. And the music accepts me. That’s my art form and it’s American — jazz music being the great American art form — and it’s built by people who never felt that they had a place. I feel a really deep connection to the music and the history of the music.
You’ve played at clubs like Blue Whale in LA and Blue Note in New York. What makes a venue good to perform in and do you have a favorite?
Actually it’s my dream to have my own venue. So I will be researching this question more and more in my life. And I’m just now starting to ask people and to formulate my own opinions. Stanley always makes fun of me because if you were to talk to him, he’d tell you that for the last 3 years of my life, I go to jazz clubs every single night of the week. That’s not true all the time, but it certainly is true a lot of the time.
Every time I go to New York…7 days a week. I’m at Smalls, I’m at Blue Note, Village Vanguard, the Jazz Standard.
And in Paris, I love all of the underground jazz clubs, like Le Caveau des Oubliettes which means ‘the cave of the forgotten ones.’ They have an old, functioning guillotine and carvings on the wall of people that were in there being tortured and suffering God knows when.
The first place I ever got on stage repeatedly was this place called Caveau De La Huchette. In World War II it was a bomb bunker! And then I love how Blue Whale is quiet and like an art gallery for jazz.
You have to have good sound and it should be affordable so that people can access it. People should come to the music. A good jazz club nurtures the music and makes it available to people. It should have beautiful drinks, and food probably, although I don’t think that food is necessary. Personally I can’t eat and listen to music at the same time, it’s like eating and crying — I just don’t want to do it at the same time.
Lighting is something I want to explore more, visuals with jazz music – no one’s going there. They’re so compartmentalized – it’s like Art. Jazz. Dance. Cooking. It’s all different worlds, and I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades with a deep passion for singing, so I want to bring it all together…that’s my destiny. I have to, to be fulfilled in this life.
The last show that Austin Peralta played was with you (November 20th, 2012)…how are you processing his death?
It was my second show at Blue Whale, and it’s a show that will go down in history. People came up to me that night that I had never met, and I got messages from people like this German guy who had already gone back to Germany, who told me he couldn’t get this show out of his mind…it’s the best show he’s ever been to.
It was a magical show and it’s because I was so hyper aware that playing with Austin was my dream come true. I’m so glad I was present enough to get that and to not let it pass me by without really taking stock…it’s a huge gift.
Let’s talk about how you arrange. It seems like there’s almost an infinite amount of possibilities and directions you could take in making a song your own.
For me, arranging is really a team effort – it depends who I’m playing with, what their vibe is. My foundation is in performance art, where anything can happen. You have a concept and then you bring it to the world, and you put it out in the vacuum of the world, in the elements and it weathers your idea, breaks it down, smashes it or it picks it up in a whirlwind and takes it and it touches someone…you never know.
I like to let things come up organically…I heard the other day, Miles Davis never told anyone what to do — he just picked the right players. And this is in a live setting of course.
Normally I have a feeling of how I want it to go, and it either happens that way or it doesn’t. I never really tweak what people are doing. I’ll set the tempo with my body because I dance too. When you set up a song it’s a theatrical thing.
Like the last night at the Blue Whale, we did this song called “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and it changed my life…I’m a different person after singing that song and playing it with Austin. We play one of these songs that everybody has done, it’s a classic Duke Ellington song, in my favorite key F, and it’s “Solitude.”
So I said “Solitude,” and Austin said “can you give me the quarter.” And it came in and it was EXACTLY what I wanted, deeply what I wanted. I say darken it up a bit, and he adds this tension…and the perfect arrangement came out. I just sang the whole form through twice and it got so dark, so heavy, it went into a shuffle feel…it was grinding. And it found its way because truth was guiding it.
What’s the breakdown between covers and originals on your record [hopefully out this spring]?
I think I’m shooting for 4 originals and 8 other songs. Out of those 8 other songs there are some jazz standards. One’s “All Matter” by Bilal. There might be Little Dragon…There’s Mingus, there’s Ellington, Joe Henderson…so not even ‘standards standards’ but songs in the jazz family.
As you know I love your song “Stand Still” ~
I was challenged to write a song about beauty. And I did it over this little loop – D minor G minor, D minor G minor, D minor G minor, F major 7, A minor 7. And that repeats. It just came out…our beauty is that we will never be/this will never be right.
What’s your philosophy on life and how does it affect your music?
I’m learning a lot about life right now. Well, we never die. I’m pretty positive about that. Every go around we have, let’s see how much weight we can lift up this time around. You get thrown in this world and all these things make you forget your purpose. Society tries to turn you into a mindless zombie slave, and there’s evil everywhere…like shallow modes, staleness, and depraved humanity on every advertisement, and it’s just the lowest vibration.
My philosophy is: I’m here to heal and I’m here to elevate, and music is the way I’m doing that today, and it’s the way I can get my voice heard, and it’s something I love.
When I first started dedicating my life to music I didn’t realize that I’d have to become a different person. My body is my instrument…I have to take on this responsibility. Austin has made my sense of purpose blossom and I know the path that I’m supposed to go down now.
On Austin Peralta ~
I know the path – I’m very lucky in that he’s showed me. I want to play with the musicians he’s played with in the same venues and cities. I can’t believe it, but I got to play his last show on earth with my idol.
The way that he lived his life, enjoying everything. He loved things so much. Everything is so much more beautiful since he died. It’s crazy that death makes me want to live more. And my dad brought this up the other day…That’s where humanity is at, that we still need people who we love to die to get it, but one day we’re not going to need that.
His death is an enlightenment and it’s changed my philosophy on life and music– I got this tattoo that says ‘the love the music forever,’ because as long as you have the love and the music, which are synonymous, then life is full of purpose and music is full of purpose.
People make music that is not full of heart, it’s full of ego. Even people whose music I enjoy…their process is squelched of passion. I never want to make music for the wrong reason, and I have, because it’s scary to put your soul out there and be vulnerable, but I really want to get into it and die every time. Then rebirth every time. Remind people without having to die for them why we’re alive.
Now I’m really serious about life. I’m not this raging soul, consuming life fast and hard. I used to be kind of like that. But I’m a nurturer. I’m serious. I’ve wasted a lot of time not taking life seriously. It’s a really dark scary place without the love and the music, and without the understanding of infinity and forever.
It’s so exciting that we exist and we can enjoy music. That’s exciting. This is a privilege and a chance and I want to uplift — I really take that very seriously these days. I’m not going to let it fade it away — I’m not going to let Austin fade away.
Thank you Natasha!
**People in LA – you can catch Natasha performing this Sunday, January 13, at Room 5.