:: These reviews were originally published
:: in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


 

The power of understatement

Subtlety is Luciana Souza’s
best culture-crossing tool.

Daniella Thompson

8 June 2003

In his liner notes for Ella Abraa Jobim, producer Norman Granz wrote, “Ella, by the way, displays her ear for foreign languages by singing some of the songs in Portuguese. I think this is possibly Ella’s greatest and certainly most exciting, explosive album in years.”

That 1981 album remains exciting to this day. Not surprisingly, though, it’s at its best when Ella sings in English. Few are the popular singers who overcome the challenge of singing in a foreign tongue without a hitch. At the moment, I can’t think of a single American singer who has seamlessly interpreted a Brazilian song in Portuguese (write me a note if you can think of one). American songs fall prey to equally lame treatment at the hands of non-English speaking vocalists. Despite Ute Lemper’s linguistic acumen, I grit my teeth whenever she unleashes one of her over-rounded Ls l’americaine in Kurt Weill’s Broadway songs.

Luciana Souza has miraculously managed to elude the trap that besets so many of her fellow culture-crossing artists. Singing in English, as she did in The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs and as she does in her latest disc, Luciana manages a neutral accent that allows the songs to shine unmolested. How does she do it? A refined ear no doubt comes in handy, as does formal musical training. But a key ingredient in the formula is the singer’s absolute restraint at all times. Minimalism has always worked exceedingly well for Joo Gilberto, even though he’s famous for turning all languages into Portuguese. Luciana may have learned this important lesson from him.

Another lesson possibly gleaned from the maestro supremo is the wisdom of focusing on the brilliant songs of yesteryear. In her new CD North and South, whose repertoire combines music from both the Americas, we find two standards from 1931 (“All of Me” and “When Your Lover Has Gone”), two from the ’50s (“Never Let Me Go” and “Chega de Saudade”), and two from the early ’60s (“Corcovado” and “Se Tarde Me Perdoa”). The only recent songs were composed by Luciana herself. If I mention Joo Gilberto in connection with this repertoire, it’s because half the songs of North and South have previously received definitive interpretations from him. These include not only the three Brazilian songs but also “All of Me,” which Joo recorded with Caetano and Gil in Haroldo Barbosa’s Portuguese version (“Disse Algum”).

About North and South Luciana says in the liner notes:

This is the final album of a trilogy—my need to refer back to my Brazilian roots, my desire to embrace jazz and the American songbook, and my attempts to combine elements of these idioms in my own composing. By now I have lived half of my life in each place—north and south.

The three superb guitarists of Brazilian Duos have given way to three top-notch jazz pianists—Bruce Barth, Fred Hersch, and Edward Simon—each with his own distinct style. The opening track is a good example of how north and south have been integrated. Upon hearing Edward Simon’s Bachian counterpoints on the piano, the listener is reminded that “Chega de Saudade” is a choro. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Clarence Penn make no attempt to imitate Brazilian rhythms, and the result is fresh and invigorating—no faint praise when the tune in question is such a war horse. “Corcovado” (an even bigger war horse?) similarly escapes the obvious, emphasizing melodiousness over rhythm, while “Se Tarde Me Perdoa” does exactly the opposite.

“I Shall Wait” and “No Wonder” expose different facets of Luciana the jazz composer. The first meanders from a hymn-like opening to 4/4 and 6/8 sections, each dedicated to one of Luciana’s favorite composers. The second is a tune in AABC form, alternating rhythmically lively and lyrical sections and featuring free vocal improvisations supplemented by Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax and Bruce Barth’s piano.

The three American standards are sung in the same haunting legato style that so captivated in Brazilian Duos, but here the interpretations slip in and out of the jazz realm—more north, less south.

What’s to come from Luciana Souza beyond the half-life threshold? Only time will tell, but it’s bound to be well worth the anticipation.

Luciana Souza: North and South
(Sunnyside SSC 1112; 2003) 43:24 min.

01. Chega de Saudade (Antonio Carlos Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes)
02. I Shall Wait (Luciana Souza)
03. All of Me (Seymour Simons/Gerald Marks)
04. When Your Lover Has Gone (Einar Aaron Swan)
05. Corcovado (Antonio Carlos Jobim)
06. No Wonder (Luciana Souza)
07. Se Tarde Me Perdoa (Carlos Lyra/Ronaldo Bscoli)
08. Never Let Me Go (Jay Livingston/Ray Evans)

 


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