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099: Luciana Souza, ‘Baião à Tempo’ (“An Answer to Your Silence”)

Posted by jeff on Jan 11, 2018 in Brazilian, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

 

Here we are, SoTW 99, and we’ve avoided until now dedicating a post to our very favorite artist of recent years. So before we add a digit, let’s correct that historic injustice. Ms Luciana Souza, this one’s for you. I only hope that I manage to do credit to the most courageous and wondrous music I’ve heard in the past ten years.

In the mere 12 years she’s been recording – 8 CDs under her name released in North America since 1999, in addition to dozens of prestigious guest spots – she’s worked in four distinct idioms. Chronologically: two CDs of vocal jazz (“An Answer to Your Silence”, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop”); two of Brazilian songs accompanied by a single acoustic guitar (“Duos I & II”); one of musical poetry (“Neruda”); and three of more commercial ventures, American bossa nova (“North and South”, “The New Bossa Nova”, and “Tide”).

I have WAY too much respect for her to try to exhaust all I have to say about this prodigiously talented woman (b. 1966) in a single post. I was sorely tempted to start at the end and work backwards, because her three commercial CDs are so much more accessible. They include material you know, guests and collaborators of the first rank (she’s courted by luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Sting, James Taylor and Paul Simon).

But I decided to confine myself today to her first two CDs – the most obscure ones, perhaps the most difficult, and in my not-so-humble opinion, the best ones. Two CDs of singular, outstanding, innovative, beautiful genius – groundbreaking, underappreciated, and regretfully unknown. I promise to treat the easier ones down the road.

Sorry folks, but as interested as I am in turning you on to great new music, you’re going to have to slog through with me what might appear somewhat rarefied and obscure here. You can either trust me or not – but I’m telling you that “An Answer to Your Silence” is the most interesting CD I’ve heard in the last decade. If you don’t have the energy, I’ll understand. Really, I will. No hard feelings! I get that not everyone has the needs that I do to go hacking through impregnable jazz jungles or crawling across atonal minimalist deserts or getting lost in endless Nordic a cappella virgin forests.

But I’m just a bit compulsive when it comes to my music, and Luciana Souza’s first two CDs are quintessentially my music.

Luciana Souza hails from São Paulo, daughter of bossa nova founders Walter Santos and Tereza Souza, god-child of living legend Hermeto Pascoal, SoTW 068,  (with whom she toured for years–oh, what I would have given to have witnessed that!) She began singing radio jingles at 3, by sixteen she was an in-demand studio singer. She moved to the US, where she has been based ever since, studying and teaching at Berklee, the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music.

Critics have been more appreciative of her than the public at large, although she’s making a living, as they say. But I’m of course going to drag us back to the time when she was hungry, and making music that arises from ambition, desire, hunger, those wonderful motivators.

I’ve never heard anything like Luciana Souza’s first two albums, “An Answer to Your Silence” and “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs”. In my SoTW about Esperanza Spalding, that other incredibly talented and ground-breaking artist, I proposed this typology:

Singer: one who sings songs, where the song itself takes center stage, and the performer doesn’t stray from it significantly; Frank Sinatra

Jazz singer: like the above, but taking material primarily from The Great American Songbook and/or improvising on the basic format; Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald

Vocalist: using the above elements, but with a degree of mastery and control of the material that he/she transcends it to make a personal artistic statement; early Barbra Streisand (see SoTW 009), Billie Holiday.

Vocal artist: an artist who uses his/her voice as an instrument, free of the fetters of ‘songs’ or genre, or clearly using them as vehicles for a personal statement. Kurt EllingBobby McFerrin.

Jazz vocalist: one who works in a jazz context, often outside the framework of songs, relying heavily on improvisation in open, challenging structures beyond the standard 32-bar format; I can’t think of a single such artist from the 20th century, but it does two young ladies, Esperanza Spalding, and Luciana Souza.

My examples have changed a bit since I wrote that (Kurt Elling’s singularity has focused on the individuality of his repertoire choices and interpretations, but he seems to be confining himself more to ‘songs’.) But I think it’s still a valid set of categories, especially to show just how unique Luciana Souza is.

Elizabeth Bishop

The pieces comprising “An Answer to Your Silence” are almost all original compositions. They’re all completely personal interpretations. In “Elizabeth Bishop”, she takes a number of poems by the quirky and thorny lesbian Modernist American poetess (1911-1979), sets them to her own music, and juxtaposes them with her own compositions of the same ilk. In both CDs, she employs a very hot jazz quintet—a rhythm section of acoustic bass, drums, piano; and two lead voices, an alto sax and – whoops! – a human voice!! Wasn’t that supposed to be a trumpet? That’s our standard jazz combo, isn’t it? Well, yes it is. But here, Ms Souza is the composer and bandleader, and a member of the group. It’s not a quartet backing her, as has been the practice in every single vocal jazz album since the genre was invented in the 1930s. It’s not about embellishing standards (see ‘Jazz Singer’ and ‘Vocalist’ above). It’s about using the voice as an integral instrument in a jazz context.

The example we’re bringing you is “Baião à Tempo”, an original. The melody winds and loops and envelops you. First it’s her, then it’s her and the saxophone in unison, then in harmony, then it’s the piano. The tempo? For all I know, it’s 17/3.5. It’s Brazilian, it’s jazz, it shifts and smiles with inscrutable insouciance and subtlety and panache. But it sure is uplifting.

From her website: “Luciana Souza’s singing has been called ‘transcendental’, ‘perfect’, and of ‘unparalleled beauty’.” Yup. I buy that.

In the end, it’s all her music, but she spends less time singing than in directing a bossa nova baião jazz gestalt. It’s complex, it’s virtuosic, it’s a completely original conception. It’s wonderful, wonderful, wonderful music.

“Baião à Tempo” is quite typical of all the music on “An Answer to Your Silence” and “Elizabeth Bishop”. Strong but challenging melodic lines, all the instruments sharing the spotlight (lots of great bass solos, excellent drumming, fine, strong piano and sax). A never-ending wonderland of twists and turns, all genuine, nothing done for show, all integral, honest, each partcontributing to a musical whole.

I can’t recommend more strongly purchasing these two albums and immersing yourself in them as I’ve been doing for several years.

One more point I’d like to add here. I’d like to group with the “jazz vocal” style in these two CDs one of her many notable collaborations, as singer in the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Maria Schneider, Luciana Souza

I’ve sung the praises of compositrice/bandleader Maria Schneider (SoTW 081). One crucial ingredient in some of her most beautiful music is the voice of Luciana Souza, who is featured on her albums “Concert in the Garden” and “Sky Blue”. Ms Schneider’s orchestra is composed almost solely of brass and woodwinds, with a lot of accordion and guitar. So in format, it’s almost a big band. But the sound palette, as we’ve discussed, is all Gil Evans – weightless, cerulean, as light as a perfect cloud in a perfect summer sky. Ms Schneider often employs Ms Souza’s vocals as a featured instrument in her aural pastiche. And what a choice of genius that is! Check out these live performances of pieces from the album “Concert in the Garden”:  Choro DancadoBoleria, Solea y Rumba; or Journey Home from “Allégresse”. Or my favorite, ‘The Pretty Road‘ from “Sky Blue”.

Divine music, created by a beautiful woman, her celestial symphony graced with “the only instrument made by God” – the human voice. Here, one of the most beautiful of human voices I’ve had the fortune to encounter, Luciana Souza.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:

081: Maria Schneider, ‘The Pretty Road’
068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’
020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’

SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as iTunes or Amazon. Likewise, the photographs used are intended for non-commercial purposes only.

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178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

Posted by jeff on Aug 30, 2013 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Thanks to the very talented young musician Eyal Amir for his provocative thoughts about spoken language and music.

What is the beautiful? Well, there’s a stumper of a question for you. Some people would say Mona Lisa, others might go for Courtney Love. We’re going to look at a different model today, that of galvanizing poetry into jazz. Say what?

Soon It Will

Be showtime again. Somebody will
paint beautiful faces all over the sky.
Somebody will start bombarding us
with really wonderful letters…
letters full of truth, and gentleness,
and humility
…Soon (it says here)…

That’s a poem by Kenneth Patchen (1911–1972), an experimental poet, a guiding light for the younger Beat poets (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder & Co).
I’ll bet it didn’t move you.

Here’s what it sounds like as read by the poet.
I’ll bet that didn’t knock you out of your chair.

Here’s what it sounds like as performed by The Claudia Quintet+1 featuring Kurt Elling.
I’ll bet you that will keep your neurons reeling for a while.

Poetry (and Jazz)

What is poetry? According to Archibald MacLiesh (in Ars Poetica), “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit”. According to my father, it was “When the hell are you going to stop wasting your time with that drivel and prepare yourself for The Real World?”

I spent a lot of years (and a couple of academic degrees) trying to get some sense of what poetry is, to no great avail. I did achieve one understanding, though. Poetry is made of words. Poetry is the art of crafting words precisely. A poem is an artistic construct made from words.  Most of the people I know would call Bob Dylan the Poet Laureate of Our Generation. Well, I don’t think so. He’s a songwriter, and his lyrics are a thing of beauty and craft and profundity. But his creations are songs, and they have melody and rhythm and production and performance built in to their being. A poem is made from words.

One of the iconic images of the Beat Generation (see SoTW 065 for some of my musings on Beat), was a goateed/sweatshirted/sandaled guy (watched by a skinny girl with long black hair and a long black formless dress with lots of black eye-liner) reading incomprehensible verse to the accompanied by but unrelated to an incomprehensible free-form jazz trio.

Astonishingly, some things have changed since the 1950s. Three of my very favorite contemporary jazz musicians have been caught with their hands in the poetry jar, with some pretty earopening and mindbending results that I greatly enjoy and value and am pleased as punch to have the opportunity to share with you here.

Luciana Souza – “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop” and “Neruda”

Luciana Souza (b. 1966 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, residing many years in the US) is the only singer I’ve flown halfway around the world to hear. She’s released a dozen albums in the US in almost as many distinct styles, each one a unique work in and of itself. Her second album, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs” pays homage to Ms Bishop (1911–1979), a New England proto-lesbian poet laureate and compadre of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Luciana wrote the music for the album, singing Bishop’s poetry as lyrics, mixed with (non-word) vocalese, as a front-line instrumentalist together with the sax. It’s a very fine album, cut from the same cloth and almost on a par with her tragically underappreciated “An Answer to Your Silence”. Here’s ‘Insomnia’ (the poem, the song). (“The moon in the bureau mirror/looks out a million miles/(and perhaps with pride, at herself,/but she never, never smiles)/far and away beyond sleep, or/perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper”). And just for fun, here’s a non-Bishop cut from the same album, ‘In March, I Remember’.

One of Luciana’s most intriguing albums is “Neruda”, in which she sets the poetry of the Chilean communist Nobel laureate (in English translation) to her own music – here only the very fine Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon and herself on percussion. Much of the material is Neruda’s (1904–1973) highly-charged love poetry. As performed by Luciana with impeccable restraint and precision, it’s one of my very favorite albums.  Try, for example, ‘House’ (here’s the poem). Or, and I’m just so honored to share this with you, ‘Sonnet 49’ (here’s the poem, from “100 Love Sonnets”). This video shows Luciana recording the song, accompanying herself on the kalimba. To my taste, this video/song/poem is divine, one of the most perfect works of art I’ve had the fortune to know and love. “No one can stop the river of the dawn.”

Maria Schneider – “Winter Morning Walks”

Maria Schneider (b. 1960) kept us waiting for six long years for the release of her brand-new CD, “Winter Morning Walks”. It’s no small departure from her six previous albums, in which her compositions were written for her orchestra of about 20 instruments. Technically it’s a big band, brass with a small rhythm section, but the sound is all the ephemeral, dreamy aural cloud of her mentor Gil Evans. Here Ms Shneider (from rural Minnesota) has composed works employing the poetry of Ted Kooser (rural Nebraska) and Carlos Drummond de Andrade (rural Brazil, translation by Mark Strand) sung by Dawn Upshaw (also b. 1960), a MacArthur-fellow soprano who works in both opera and contemporary classical music.

Maria Schneider: “In setting poems to music, the poems themselves speak the rhythm, etch the melodic contour, and emotionally elicit the harmony.”  Here’s her beautiful composition of Kooser’s ‘Walking by Flashlight’: Walking by flashlight/at six in the morning,/my circle of light on the gravel/swinging side to side,/coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,/each watching from darkness/this man with the moon on a leash.

The Claudia Quintet +1, featuring Kurt Elling

John Hollenbeck (Photo ©Tomas Ovalle)

The Claudia Quintet (bass, drums, vibraphone, accordion and clarinet!) is the brainchild of progressive percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck (b. 1968). Here’s his pretty darned funny story about the group’s name. The “+1” here is a piano, a large, keyed percussion instrument occasionally employed in jazz settings. He’s worked with such luminaries as Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch and Meredith Monk.

In his obscure (even for him) 2011 album “What is the Beautiful”, nine of the twelve cuts feature a vocalist singing Patchen’s poetry – four by Theo Bleckmann, five by Kurt Elling. The other cuts are ‘simply’ inspired by it. ‘Showtime’ is a tour de force creation, both in Hollenbeck’s conception and composition as well as in Elling’s over-the-top head-spinning knockout performance (what he calls ‘enlarged reality’). Just for fun, here’s another Patchen/Hollenbeck/Elling, the riotous ‘Opening the Window’ (can you imagine how much Tom Waits would enjoy this?).

Kurt Elling (Photo ©Adrian Korsner)

I think ‘Showtime’ is a real lesson in how to work poetry into music. If poetry is charged language, this cut is a model of extracting every last drop of meaning out of the source – not adapting the poem, not riding on its back, but honestly and humbly eliciting its very essence. It reminds us how much poetry demands from the reader. It’s not prechewed, it’s raw and autonomous and challenging. Hollenbeck and Elling, I believe, here do the work for us of interpreting or grasping the poem, and thereby demonstrate a truly innovative approach to exploring what the human voice is uniquely capable of.

I recently tripped over a truism: ‘The best things in life are acquired tastes’. Boy, do I subscribe to that.

I can’t help juxtaposing this material with Kurt Elling’s last album, “The Brill Building Project” – lyrics by Hal David, Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin, et al. That album will hopefully sell a trillion copies and should have won a gaggle of Grammies. “What is the Beautiful” has probably sold two copies so far – to Hollenbeck’s mother and me.  Lest you think I’m being a snob here, I’ll readily admit that I’ll probably listen to “Brill” more than to Patchen/Hollenbeck. But if you catch me at my best, at my most curious and my most energetic, and you ask me: “Hey, Jeff, to your mind, what is the beautiful?”, I know what I’ll answer.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs on Luciana Souza

SoTWs on Kurt Elling

SoTWs on Maria Schneider

 

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