I knew of Kat Gang long before I ever knew her personally. I’d dug her work as a thoughtful lyricist and high-flying improviser on The Wishbone Project, and I knew she had wowed throngs of listeners at Birdland as a frequent host of the club’s Sunday night jazz party. Kat even called me to fill in for her at one of her steady gigs in town when she was (I kid you not) climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that Kat and I actually met face-to-face. Our paths finally crossed when we teamed up to sing a duet of “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” at a Sinatra-themed concert that Will Friedwald curated earlier this year. We not only had a great time singing together, we became good friends, too. Kat is vivacious and approachable, witty and warm, and she brings all the sparkle of her personality to every song she sings.
Newly returned from a globe-trotting summer—she’s just returned from a jaunt to Iceland, in fact—Kat took some time to answer a few questions about her life as a musical storyteller. Thank you, Kat!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I have always been a performer. Ever since I was young, I would put on plays with my sister, turn tables into stages, and sing at the top of my lungs. I was lucky to be raised in a household with lots of music; my father used to play piano, and I would watch his feet on the pedals. I could recognize melodies from a very early age. I had fabulous teachers who supported me and urged me to follow my passion. One in particular was Louis Curtis, our church choir director—she let me join the choir a year early because I was so eager.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
I have a really good ear. Therefore, I found that I could get away with less theory work through my innate understanding of harmony. The technical stuff was always difficult for me; reading music was a painstaking process. I have always been impatient with the stuff that does not come naturally. Sometimes your gifts can be a blessing and also a curse!
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think about this question a lot. There is something important about singing that I can reduce, in essence, to communicating: telling someone a story, [telling someone] your story. I think I would like to be a translator, someone who is always telling and re-telling stories, and communicating between languages. How and why people communicate is a fascinating study. Maybe I could learn Italian and live in Tuscany and drink wine and eat pasta and re-tell people’s stories. That would be awesome.
Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
I love Chet Baker, his improvisational lines and sound. I love Carmen McRae and her boldness and the way she takes her time. I would love to trade fours with Ella, or try and hold my own with Keith Jarrett as we both make up a song on the spot. Brad Mehldau’s trio is pretty tight—I can imagine singing with them and being in sonic heaven.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
One of my favorite quotes (I think it is by Woody Allen) is, “80% of life is showing up.” This is especially true for our profession: the extent to which one must persevere—even on terrible gigs, even when no one is listening—is so extreme. We do what we love and are therefore guided by some other power. A club owner told me once, “You have to sing the songs that are connected to your heart.” Be present, be authentic, that’s about it. And Bobby McFerrin told me to just “keep singing.” I’m gonna go with that!
What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
There’s a singer who I cannot get enough of named Paula Morelenbaum, who evokes the smoothness and intricate harmonies of Brazil. I also find, recently, that Bill Frisell’s “Ghost Town” can be an antidote to the harshness and chaos of living in New York City.
I live downtown and, whenever I head out on the 4/5 train, I buy a 25¢ Blow Pop from the subway candy stand. It’s a little OCD and a little nod to my sugar addiction!
Kat’s recent album, Dream Your Troubles Away (Arbors Jazz), was released to glowing reviews; the Midwest Record called it “…a classic jazz thrush album from start to finish…what easy sophistication is all about. A stone cold winner.” She’ll be celebrating the album’s release at Birdland on September 18 at 6:00 pm. Don’t miss it! You can also catch Kat every Wednesday night at the Plaza Hotel, singing and swinging in classic Old New York style.