My grandma won’t stop talking about Natasha Agrama. A month ago, she acquired an advance copy of the jazz chanteuse’s The Heart of Infinite Change, and now we can’t have a conversation without her raving about Agrama’s exquisite voice and magnificent arrangements.
So if you don’t believe my assessment that Agrama’s World Galaxy/Alpha Pup debut is one of the most beautiful jazz albums of the year, take the word of an octogenarian who used to watch her cousin Benny Goodman play at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and once parried an amorous advance from Harry Belafonte during a Catskills soft shoe.
Or scan the credits to understand its singularity. Released next week, it features the final collaboration between iconic keyboardist George Duke and Agrama’s stepfather, legendary bassist Stanley Clarke. It also captures the final session of piano prodigy Austin Peralta, who died in 2012, and his only recorded collaboration with the Bruner Brothers (drummer Ronald and bassist Stephen, better known as Thundercat).
“It’s not my album; it’s something that I facilitated,” Agrama says when we meet at Elderberries, a cafe affiliated with the social justice and conscious communities, where she used to sing at jazz brunch, down the street from where she grew up. She’s wearing ripped blue jeans and a flowing white handmade smock.
“Austin was so generous, brave and innovative; he meant the world to me,” Agrama continues. “It’s a mindfuck that the universe saw me fit to be his last collaborator, and it changed my entire perspective about music.”
In person, Agrama’s temperament matches the tone of her music: ebullient and organic, dreamy but intelligent. Her story reflects a triumph of both professional and personal adversity. Born to an Egyptian father and a Chilean mother, she weathered feelings of alienation as one of the few brown people at a San Fernando Valley private school.
She’d sung in school plays since first taking vocal lessons in the sixth grade. But by college, she’d become insecure in her musical abilities and opted for art school instead, matriculating at CalArts and then the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied performance art.
A random trip to Paris to collaborate with an electronic artist sparked her reimmersion in music. Not long after, she began crooning around L.A., occasionally accompanied by her longtime friends in The West Coast Get Down, who had just begun their now-immortalized residency at the Piano Bar.
“It wasn’t until I found a home in jazz music that I felt embraced for who I am,” Agrama says. “Jazz accepts anyone who wants to participate in it, innovate with it, let it grow and live through them to perpetuate into new horizons. Jazz is constantly adopting people and stories from all over the world, and I’m honored to have been adopted by the art form.”
Her voice is a rich, clarion instrument influenced by the harmonies and phrasings of Clarke’s bass playing, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday’s proto–hip-hop pockets and Ella Fitzgerald’s elegance. It’s traditional enough for my grandma but updates that tradition for the modern era. Agrama even wrote her own lyrics to Charles Mingus’ original “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” reshaping Joni Mitchell’s cover version to reflect the current social climate.
“Not everyone grows up feeling like a superhero,” Agrama says. “I had to get over my insecurity to share my music. I felt like I could’ve hidden in the shadows a little while longer, but Austin’s death was a swift kick in the pants — like, nope, you can’t fuck around anymore. You’re actually holding something that’s extremely powerful and you have to share it with the world.”
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Natasha Agrama's The Heart of Infinite Change is out digitally on Sept. 8 on World Galaxy Records.
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