The San Jose, CA-based Kat Parra is a flexible and broad-minded jazz vocalist who has very strong Latin leanings but has also been affected by Middle Eastern, Arabic, and North African music. In many cases, the term Latin jazz has been used to describe Afro-Cuban jazz -- and Afro-Cuban music has, in fact, been a major influence on Parra, who has cited the late Cuban salsa queen Celia Cruz as one of her idols. But Afro-Cuban music is not the only type of Latin music that has influenced Parra, who has also combined jazz with everything from Brazilian samba to Afro-Peruvian music. Another big influence on Parra (who plays flute, guitar, and piano) has been the traditional music of Spain's Sephardic Jews; Parra, who has recorded jazz arrangements of some traditional Sephardic songs (including "Por la Tu Puerta" and "Esta Montanya d'Enfrente"), is Jewish herself and has said that her heritage is about 75 percent Russian Jew and 25 percent Sephardic Jew. Parra has performed in several different languages, including English, Spanish (which she speaks fluently), Portuguese, French, and Ladino (which is the language of Sephardic Jews and is considered one of the romance languages).
Parra, a Northern California native who lived in Chile as a teenager, moved to Southern California to attend the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she studied classical flute and voice for a year. But Parra returned to the Silicon Valley area and shifted her educational focus to jazz, studying voice at San Jose State University with singer Patti Cathcart (who was half of the husband-and-wife duo Tuck & Patti). Parra (who has described Cathcart as her "musical mentor" and a major influence in her life) went on to spend five years as a lead vocalist for Charanga Nueve, a Bay Area-based salsa band that favored charanga instrumentation (which is known for its use of flute and violin and is associated with Orquesta Aragón and Orquesta Broadway, among many others). When Parra was with Charanga Nueve (whose name means Charanga Nine in Spanish), the band opened for major salsa artists such as Celia Cruz and Cuba's Los Van Van; Parra has said that getting a chance to meet and speak to Cruz was one of the highlights of her career. Despite all that musical activity, Parra still had a "day gig" outside of music during her years with Charanga Nueve: she worked for the well-known technology giant Cisco Systems. But in 2006, Parra left Cisco to be a full-time singer and concentrate on music exclusively. It was also in 2006 that Parra's first solo album, Birds in Flight, was produced by Bay Area-based trombonist Wayne Wallace and released on JazzMa Records. After that, Parra signed with Wallace's independent label, Patois Records, which reissued Birds in Flight in 2007. Parra's second solo album, Azucar de Amor (Sugar of Love), was produced and mostly arranged by Wallace and released by Patois in 2008. ~ Alex Henderson