Vocal Qualities

Sonya Kitchell, at the age of 18, finds herself touring with the legendary Herbie Hancock

When music legend Herbie Hancock needed a singer to perform the works of fellow visionary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell on his current concert tour, he turned to a young woman who wasn't even born when most of the songs were written.

Singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, who is 18 years old, says she was flattered last year when her jazz-pop debut album Words Came Back to Me inspired critics and fans alike to compare her vocal quality to that of Mitchell.

On his latest album, River: The Joni Letters, Hancock pays tribute to Mitchell, performing jazz instrumentals based on her melodies, as well as tunes backing guest vocalists Norah Jones, Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner, Luciana Souza, Corinne Bailey Rae and Mitchell herself. (The bonus-track version of the album, available exclusively through Amazon.com, also features Kitchell singing "All I Want.")

But Hancock couldn't take all those singers on the road with him, so he invited Kitchell. Hancock and Kitchell will appear Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Centennial Hall.

Kitchell says she is not even sure how her gig with Hancock, which should last about two weeks, originally came about.

But she first met him during the summer of 2006, when she was invited to sing at the festival Sonoma Jazz +, where she performed "When Love Comes to Town" with Hancock and blues singer Keb' Mo'. (Hancock covered that song--originally released as a single by U2 and B.B. King the month after Kitchell was born--on his 2005 album Possibilities, with vocalists Joss Stone and Jonny Lang.)

"We also ended up playing one of my originals together, too," she remembers of the Sonoma festival. "It was really a wonderful experience, and I guess the feeling was mutual, because (Hancock) asked me to do a song on his new album. Now there's this tour, which is a total surprise and honor."

The Massachusetts-based Kitchell is speaking during a break at the New York City studio where she is recording her a new album, a few days before she's scheduled to fly to Los Angeles for rehearsals with Hancock's band.

During Hancock's tour, Kitchell says, she will sing "mostly Joni Mitchell songs, but I am part of his band on this tour, I guess, and I just found out they're going to let me sing a couple of my originals. There's nothing set in stone, though. The way it seems to work is that it'll come together as we get out there."

Kitchell's poster-artist father and graphic-designer mother played music throughout the house as she grew up; her dad preferred world music, and her mom was partial toward female singer-songwriters. Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones were two early influences.

Twelve-year-old Sonya wrote her first song in shocked reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Local news reports led to a gig and the eventual formation of the Sonya Kitchell Band in 2002.

A year later, Kitchell's tune "Romance" won two Student Music Awards sponsored by DownBeat magazine, and she was one of 40 jazz composers younger than 30 to be accepted for a weeklong workshop at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

She released an EP, Cold Day, in 2005 and followed with Words Came Back to Me. Songs on that critically acclaimed CD have been compared to the works of (in addition to Mitchell) Carole King, Van Morrison, Al Green and Burt Bacharach. Steve Addabbo, who has worked with Suzanne Vega, Dar Williams and Shawn Colvin, produced both recordings for Velour Music.

Words Came Back to Me became the second album to be distributed by Hear Music, the music-label arm of Starbucks. Coincidentally, the latest recording released by that imprint is Joni Mitchell's Shine.

Kitchell started playing and performing as a 9-year-old piano and vocal student. She has always aspired to be a jazz singer and spent many a summer at jazz camp, but the most important thing to her now is songwriting, she says.

"You know ... just writing the best songs I can write. I want to write stuff that affects people as deeply as the music I love has affected me, songs that can have emotional impact and are strong enough so they can stick around for a long time."

She's got other ambitions, too.

"Grow as a composer is one; I'd love to compose scores for films someday. And now more than ever, I would love to be a shredder on guitar, you know, just really blow people away. But I am also starting to play cello, so who knows what direction I will end up going?"

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