Beyond Genres: Music of Luciana Souza

By Audrey Coleman

Luciana_SouzaLuciana Souza is an unshakably honest singer blessed with an instrument of gorgeous timbre. The voice is distinctive yet unaffected. At times it has a transparent, sparkling quality. But it can also caress a phrase, intensifying the intimacy of a song. The terms bossa nova, jazz, world and classical music somehow feel constricting when one attempts to describe the different dimensions of her music. Appearing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Saturday evening, September 1, the Brazilian vocalist defies categorization.

Since her 1999 debut album, An Answer to Your Silence (NYC Records), the greatest number of external kudos has come from the jazz arena. Four of her albums have received Grammy nominations--Brazilian Duos (2002), North and South (2003), Duos II (2005) and Tide (2009). In 2005, she was awarded Female Jazz Singer of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Her 2007 album The New Bossa Nova became Billboard Latin Jazz Album of the Year. Her voice can also be heard on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning River-The Joni Letters. She has collaborated with Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, and James Taylor, to name just a few American luminaries who have sung her compositions.

During her childhood in Sao Paulo, samba and bossa nova imbued Souza’s natural gifts with their rhythms. Born in1966, she is the daughter of bossa nova innovators Walter Santos and Tereza Souza. Joao Gilberto, a legendary figure in the genre, was a close family friend. American jazz and Western classical music were also strongly present in her musical upbringing. Moving from South to North, she studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. Her unerring musicianship developed within a kind of creative dialogue among these diverse influences.

I first experienced Luciana Souza’s quicksilver musicality while listening to a piece called Baio Medley in a UCLA ethnomusicology course called Jazz Since the 60s. Never sounding forced or hurried, the voice displayed stunning agility. It was rounder and darker, more horn-like and not quite as cool as most bossa nova singing I had heard. (I confess that I did not get the title of the album the Medley came from and my web surfing has not yet yielded that title.) Since that first exposure, I have found exploring Souza’s repertoire to be to be an adventure in crossing musical genre boundaries.

Love of poetry, be it in English Spanish or Portuguese, is evident in many of Souza’s projects. One of my favorite pieces is her musical setting of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 49 on the recording Neruda (Sunnyside, 2004) to Catalan composer Frederic Mompou’s graceful piano work, Songs and Dances. The album was produced in celebration of the poet’s 100th birthday. Normally I would bemoan the use of an English translation from the original Spanish, but her tender lingering on phrases and strikingly expressive tone do justice to Neruda’s meaning.

It’s today: all of yesterday dropped away

among the fingers of the light and the sleeping eyes…

Her voice falls like dewdrops from a tropical flower. If terminology were needed, I would call the pieces on Neruda art songs.

Moving from strength to strength, Souza has performed classical works such as Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo with major symphony orchestras, among them New York, Boston, and Atlanta. She has worked with Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov on a number of projects, most notably performing in his cantata Oceana (Deutsche Grammophon, 2007) which also includes acclaimed American soprano Dawn Upshaw.

During the program at the Broad Stage, Luciana Souza will sing pieces from her two most recent releases. Duos III contains material from beloved Brazilian masters such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gilberto Gil. The Book of Chet finds Souza interpreting jazz standards like You Go to My Head.

Admission: I only know the song titles of the two new releases from print information. Due to time and travel constraints, I have not had a chance to hear either of them.

That confessed, I’ll also share that I’m especially looking forward to my first time hearing her interpret songs from these albums --not on CD but live at the Broad on September 1.

For ticket information, go to The Broad.

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of world and traditional music. She is currently a graduate student in ethnomusicology at University of California, Riverside.