“I like singing live; I try to sing well live, I try to prepare myself for the audience, for that room. And I care a great deal about singing live, because I think that’s the experience of jazz. Even if I’m singing Brazilian music.”
By Evelyn Rosenthal
Luciana Souza is in residency at New England Conservatory through tomorrow (Dec 4) and that night she will be singing at 8 p.m. in Brown Hall, in a concert featuring NEC students and Souza performing “The Music of Luciana Souza.” For full information click here.
Souza will also be performing with a quintet featuring Lionel Loueke and Gregoire Maret on January 25, 2014, at 8 pm at Sanders Theatre, as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.
The Brazilian-born jazz vocalist Luciana Souza’s New England roots go back to her days at Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated in 1988, and the New England Conservatory, where she got her masters in 1994. When she came to Boston from São Paulo, though, she already had many years of music and recording behind her. Souza’s father, musician and composer Walter Santos, and her mother, poet Teresa Souza, owned a recording studio where Souza started singing commercial jingles as a child. Growing up in a family whose friends included Brazilian masters Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and her godfather, Hermeto Pascoal, it’s not surprising that one of Souza’s signal achievements has been the series of three sublime Duos recordings in which she gives definitive readings of bossa nova, samba, and the Northeastern style called baião, with the help of some of Brazil’s top guitarists.
But Souza has also made her mark in jazz, both with her own recordings, starting with 1998’s An Answer to Your Silence up through the 2012 Book of Chet, a revisioning of songs associated with trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, and with notable collaborations, including Moss (2008), with fellow vocalists Kate McGarry, Peter Eldridge, Theo Bleckmann, and Lauren Kinhan. Six of her ten records have been nominated for Grammys, and she was featured on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning homage to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, which was coproduced by Souza’s husband, jazz bassist and producer Larry Klein. Her reputation for impeccable pitch, fluid improvisation, and stellar musicianship has led to her appearances in projects by some of the most creative composers working today, from pianist Danilo Perez and big band leader Maria Schneider to bassist John Patitucci, singer Bobby McFerrin, and classical composer Osvaldo Golijov. She has also pursued a deep interest in poetry, setting to music poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, and E. E. Cummings.
I sat down with Souza on the eve of her residency at New England Conservatory, for a wide-ranging discussion that included her upcoming Celebrity Series Boston concert and one of her dearest occupations, teaching. What follows is an edited and condensed version of that talk.
Arts Fuse: I was looking at the program for the concert that you’re doing at New England Conservatory with the students, and it struck me that this is a sort of “This Is Your Life” moment—or a big part of your life—because there are songs from six of your ten CDs, and your collaboration in the vocal group Moss. Looking back over all that material, does it trigger any reflections on your career so far?
Luciana Souza: I think more than the repertoire is the idea of coming back here. I didn’t realize it had been twenty years since I had gone to school here! My great teacher [NEC professor] Dominique Eade and Ken [Schaphorst, head of NEC’s Department of Jazz Studies] invited me. When Ken said “Let’s do a concert called ‘the music of Luciana Souza,’” I said to him, “Are you kidding me?” [Laughs] There’s no such thing as the music of Luciana Souza—the music of Elvis Costello I can see, or even my husband, the music of someone who has a big body of work. I guess I have one, but I don’t think that way; I think of those things as songs, and some are more successful and some are not, and some records are more successful than others—not in terms of how much they sold, but what was my intent, and did I achieve it, the relationship I have with the music, in terms of recording and capturing what I thought that music should convey. So Ken told me what kinds of ensembles he had and I just picked—if it’s the vocal ensemble, I definitely want to do the Moss thing, and then the quintet, and duos. I reflected more on the ensembles than on the songs themselves, and more than looking at the records. Some stuff sounds dated to me, but it’s more about the way they were recorded than what the writing was like. I think the writing is still vital, it still sounds like me.
AF: What about your approach to choosing the songs, and thinking about mixing the Brazilian classics that you do and your own jazz compositions?
LS: Once he said “the music of Luciana Souza” I just thought, what could be diverse enough and have enough contrast for the students, and then a bit of an overview of what I do as a vocalist. I sing songs of other people, I set poetry to music—even though I sent some to them, I don’t think that we’re doing any of my settings. They picked what was suitable to the students and the ensembles and the time they had to rehearse. So in that way it was more of Ken’s and the students’ choosing. I was really thinking about the vocalists, and then if they’re going to incorporate musicians, what rhythms would be interesting. I chose a variety of rhythms and grooves so we can discuss those, because I think it goes hand-in-hand with the other classes I’m going to teach, the Brazilian thing and then the vocal thing.
AF: It was great to see so many of your own compositions on the program—many up-tempo, mixing jazz and Brazilian rhythms and wordless vocals and improvisation, and your own English lyrics. Your most recent recordings have focused on interpretations of classic Brazilian gems, and then the pop classics on New Bossa Nova, and the Chet Baker, which is all American jazz standards. You did cowrite some really nice things on Tide, but they feel like they’re more in a singer/songwriter vein than jazz—not that I like to put things in pigeonholes either, but it’s a different feel from some of the material you composed earlier, which maybe came out of being closer to your time in school and your composition degree. But on some of the more recent records, there’s a little less improvisation and the wordless vocals. I just wondered if that earlier style is a path you’re not as interested in pursuing these days, or something that you’ll come back to.
LS: I just came back to it, going forward, with this [new] group with [guitarist] Lionel Loueke and [harmonica player] Gregoire Maret. For these guys I’m writing music that’s wordless again. I think you’re right, I was closer to school and it was more intellectual for a long time; music was more of a process of discovering and combining elements, and digging into things that I was curious about. And I think I got some of that out of my system—as much as I’ve gotten Jobim out of my system by recording pretty much everything I wanted to record of his. It’s like I’ve sung it enough and I’ve done it enough, and it feels like I’ve paid tribute to it and I’ve had to exorcise it out of my body. When I was in school, both undergrad and graduate, I was very curious about odd meters and hybrid chords, and much more complex stuff than I’m interested in now. And I became much more interested in triads than in 7th chords because in bossa nova I started already with a lot of tensions, with chords with 11ths and 13ths. It was different than a classical musician who would start with Gregorian chant and counterpoint and then go to four voices. It’s like we do it backwards in jazz, in a way. We learn functional harmony and it’s already with tensions and 7th chords.
I think I came to poetry later in life, because I was more interested in music, in melody and harmony and that complexity, that relationship. Not that I didn’t have any relationship to poetry—my mother of course was a poet. But I think finding my comfort zone in English and in poetry was in being able to go between those two languages and not having to apologize. There’s a lot of apology that has to happen for people who sing in a different language—you’re always out of phase, you don’t belong. And so I came to what you’re calling a more singer/songwriter thing only later—I think pretty much on Tide. Not because I was married to Larry, really, because that wasn’t the case, I was coming to it anyway. Because I didn’t have to apologize anymore.
AF: Most of those songs on Tide you cowrote with Larry and with David Batteau. What was that process like?
LS: I wrote all the music and I put it on a CD for them, and I told them what it was about. Maybe I’d have part of the lyric written, part of the chorus. And then they would just kind of take over and do it rather quickly, because they write very well together, they’re friends, so it’s more of a conversation. I’m not good at collaborating with people. Even in Moss, everything we wrote together we wrote in pieces. I wrote a song and I gave it to Peter [Eldridge], Peter wrote a section and gave it to Lauren [Kinhan], and Lauren wrote a lyric.
AF: It’s not like sitting around a table together, it’s more like passing things off.
LS: Passing the ball–here’s something I started, why don’t you finish it. And with Larry it’s more about me not really ever having done that, sitting in a room. I can collaborate with people playing music, but not writing music. I don’t know if I’m shy, or it’s just that I’ve never really tried it, so I don’t have that habit. And pragmatically, I was with our son, and so it wasn’t like we could both sit in a room and leisurely write; it was more “OK, you go write, I’ll take care of the baby”—especially at that time, he was only four months old when we did Tide in December of ’08.
AF: Can you tell me a little about the Brazilian music lecture you’re giving on Monday? I was curious about how you narrow down such a broad topic.
LS: Usually what I try to do is a very short historic overview of Brazil—discovered by, this is why we speak Portuguese, this is what they found when they got there, this is why we have the music we have, because of slavery. Then I go straight into music. And I can only do what I call a graph of Brazilian music, giving people a few things to relate to, and they can go on and research. Of course I talk about choro, play a couple of examples, and we dissect and find out what it’s made of, how it evolved to samba, samba to bossa. And then behind it all I talk about baião, which was rural. My way of talking about the music is—if I were to talk about jazz, what would I talk about? I can’t talk about Miles and not talk about Coltrane, you know what I mean? You can’t make choices, really. But you can talk about what improvisation means, what the relationship in a jazz trio is and what the soloist is doing, about interactions. You can talk about elements of jazz and say “Go through your life and go listen to everything you can.” So in Brazilian music I talk about how to listen to it—how are the rhythms built from the foundation, which is always on percussion, so you go from the bottom to the top. Then I go through the instruments, give them some pointers on what’s important in terms of what I call the “grid,” which is the smallest possible subdivision. I play a couple of examples, I ask questions, people tell me what they’re hearing, we notate, and then they have, OK, so the skeleton of samba is this, the skeleton of chorinho is this, and the skeleton of bossa is this, and baião. Then they go home and listen to stuff. Especially nowadays; before I used to have handouts. Nowadays I don’t even do handouts because people just go online and they search.
AF: And they can hear everything. You can even find Noel Rosa on a YouTube video, and Pixinguinha, or any of those early samba and choro composers.
LS: Exactly. So what I do is, for each rhythm or genre I give a couple of names and I say start with these guys and go listen. For some people it’s very basic, but the students can take something out of it, the teachers can take something out of it for teaching in the future.
AF: If you listen to your three Duos albums, you see the history right there. Not all of it, but you have the choro and the baião and the sambas.
LS: Yes. That’s something I always wanted to do is to include baião, because a lot of popular singers don’t sing that style. It’s tough to sing because it’s fast, and a lot of the themes are masculine, because they were written by men.
AF: What do you cover in “Expanding the Singer’s Vocabulary”?
LS: For that master class I don’t sing at all. I have people come up and sing, and then through their singing there’s always some great stuff you can extract, and you can complement and build on and point out. I primarily talk about the things I work on myself.
AF: Is it more technical?
LS: It’s technical, but it’s really about musicianship for singers—for example, from counting off, to walking on stage, to adjusting the mike. They’re good things for people to know. The last question I ask before I leave the stage after a sound check is, “Where am I going to walk in? Am I stage left or right? Where’s my path? Can you tape it?” I mean, I’m literally thinking about all these things, because it’s going to affect the performance, and I have to know where I’m walking in, who’s going to walk first, okay we take a bow. And of course, it looks spontaneous, though we have actually kind of rehearsed it.
Then I go through very musical things. I talk about a process that I use with rhythm. Because I’ve had to learn about jazz, and I’m still learning about jazz and still singing in jazz, I do something very methodical. I go through every part of the measure, starting a phrase. I start it on 1, I start it on the end of 1, I start it on 2, and at the end of 2. I get the singers to talk about phrasing in a way that’s very methodical. I also talk about how to learn a melody in terms of solfège and look at the architecture of a melody, what’s the composer telling you in that melody, how it relates to the lyric; if you put the emphasis of the lyric on different words, what do you get. I have to do this because it’s not my language, and people who learn Portuguese should do that too, and they probably do. If you emphasize a different syllable you can make a word sound right or wrong. I call this doing your homework—through one song you can learn pretty much everything you need to learn. Then we analyze the harmony.
But even though I touch a lot on theory when I’m studying, when I teach and also in my own experience with singing, what I find is that singers are taught wrong. We are taught the same way musicians are taught, and it’s a completely different beast. Unless you are a piano player and a really good one, or have learned clarinet or flute in your past life before you started singing, you have no relationship to notes—to fingering; it’s all completely abstract. So you have to imagine intervals, and you have to imagine scales going over the chord changes as they’re going by pretty fast, because you can’t push buttons. So instead of teaching vertical improvisation to people, which means going through all the chords and writing the scales and studying the scales vertically like a horn player would, I like to teach horizontally. We do voice-leadings through all the chords, really meditating on each chord and learning what the melodic relationship is, what the composer gave you as a gift, and how that relates to improvising, how you can always have the melody as a foundation for your improvisation.
And then whatever else shows up at the time. It might be that the piano player is comping a certain way, and I may suggest a different kind of comping, and how that changes the phrasing for the singer, and vice versa. Are you really listening to how she’s phrasing, look at how she’s starting always on the end of 2, how can you support that. And the bass player, are you playing too many pedals, and are you suspending everything so much that she feels so floaty. Who’s staying home? It’s not just the job of the drummer to keep time. So we talk about these things—about space. I don’t know what they’re going to sing, so usually I have to wing it—see what they’re bringing. I usually emphasize warming up, which people don’t do.
AF: Do you practice every day?
LS: Pretty much. I like to say I practice every day because I won’t, so then if I say seven days a week, maybe I get five. I mean, it’s my bread and butter. And if I’m on the road, I have to do it.
AF: I was going to ask you how you learned to do the kind of wordless vocals you do, and then I read in another interview that you were already singing to “Chorinho pra ele” by your godfather, the great composer Hermeto Pascoal, when you were a child. Did you do that kind of thing as a kid?
LS: Yeah—but it didn’t have a name, it was just singing a melody. Because if you don’t know the words to something in Brazil you would just sing it. I think most people in Brazil are very comfortable la-la-la-ing a song.
AF: So you think that comes from the Brazilian thing.
LS: Oh, absolutely, and it comes from Milton [Nascimento] breaking in the middle of a song doing an instrumental interlude with the voice, using the voice as a cello, or as a flute. I grew up with that. I’m not doing anything special, I’m just really—
AF: You’re being Brazilian.
LS: Exactly! It’s just there, it’s a gift.
AF: I guess it’s a little different from scatting, which is improvising over changes; this is more like singing a melody
LS: And finding a language, finding the gestalt of the melody. [Singer and Berklee professor] Lisa Thorson did some work on scatting and improvisation, and I remember talking to her quite a bit about it. She said, “You double a lot of instruments, you do it so well, singing in unison. How do you practice that kind of stuff?” So I was telling her that when I think of a melody [sings a six-note melody quickly, then each note slowly], I look at how it’s shaped—are the notes slurred, are they articulated, what’s the distance between this interval, what’s the best thing to do there, who’s playing it. Is it a trumpet player who’s tonguing everything? Is it a Brazilian-sounding thing, so are the vowels different? Is it American?
AF: So some of it is improvisation, some of it is written
LS: Some is written, so I get to practice it a lot.
AF: Do you always use the same vowels, the same sounds?
LS: Pretty much, yeah—for different instruments. For horn players—depending on who’s playing, if it’s [George] Garzone it’s one thing, if it’s Chris Potter, it’s something else, because they have different sounds—like Chris is tonguing all the time, he’s rearticulating the notes, Garzone is much more fluid and slurring and connecting the notes; then I will sing different syllables. It really is—and I’ve heard Bobby McFerrin say this in an interview too—it’s really a repetition. There’s nothing in music that is not—practicing is repetition, technique is repetition. It’s training your ear, training your muscles, training your tongue, training your breath, and it requires thousands of hours. But it’s about comfort. So when people say, “Oh you do it, it sounds [so effortless],” it’s because I’ve done it forever. And that’s one of the things I also stress a lot to students, that it’s familiarity. Students know that.
AF: I read that when you do your own recordings, you try to record live in the studio. Is that still true?
LS: Oh, I do. The last two records [The Book of Chet and Duos III] were completely live. I went to Brazil and recorded with Marco [Pereira] there, and Toninho [Horta]. I try to record live because I think it’s what I do best. I think I have to believe that it’s the real thing in order to go into the place that I need to go. I feel my commitment is there, because I do so much live. I like singing live; I try to sing well live, I try to prepare myself for the audience, for that room. And I care a great deal about singing live, because I think that’s the experience of jazz. Even if I’m singing Brazilian music.
And I’m often asked that question—do you really think you’re a jazz singer even though you’re singing Portuguese? People say, you’ve got Grammy nominations as a jazz singer, singing Portuguese, in Brazilian music. How is that jazz? And I say, well, it’s the approach, it’s the musicians that are with me, it’s spontaneous, there’s a lot of listening that goes on. It is improvised in the sense that we know the song, we know the frame, we start and end hopefully together. I think there’s always this question with singers, you know—is it jazz? If you’re singing, is it jazz? And sometimes it’s a legitimate question to have. But I’ve learned in my forty-seven years now, I’m much more forgiving. I used to be much more black and white, this is jazz, this is not, and putting [up] these walls. And as I’ve lived, I’ve become, first of all, more forgiving of myself and other people, too, but just more embracing.
AF: I think that jazz has kind of come to that as well.
LS: Well, with Miles [Davis], it’s always been there. It’s always evolved, and it’s always borrowed.
AF: It’s funny that it took so much time, in a way, for people to get from looking at what Miles did to actually accepting a broader interpretation of what jazz is. Now there’s all this conversation about expanding the repertoire and doing things that are more accessible, like what Robert Glasper’s doing, or what Esperanza Spalding does—being a little more crossover-ish.
LS: They’re doing what they love. They’re doing music, they’re not calling it anything. The problem is that we have to call it something, some of us. We feel like we have to, or people programming it or distributing it or producing it, they have to call it something. But I think the great musicians—the two you just mentioned are really creative people, they’re just creating. They’re not concerned about what it is, is it going to have singing or not. And I think that’s what Miles did, he kind of went forward.
AF: You’ve tended to be more project-oriented in your recordings, rather than having a regular band like some other singers, like Tierney Sutton or Kurt Elling, for example, who work with the same people. I wondered if that’s something you consciously decided at some point, or did it just come out of circumstances.
LS: I think it’s geography. But I’ve kept Romero [Lubambo] going for twenty years, and Marco [Pereira], on my three [Duos] records, so they’re constant. I had a working band when I was in New York and I was able to tour—Scott Colley was my bass player; still is, I just played with him not too long ago and I call him when I can. And [drummer] Clarence Penn. So if I think of a band it would be them, and [pianist] Edward Simon, who did a few records with me. But I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep a band going, because of the nature of my touring. Sometimes it’s too expensive to keep a band on the road. And also because I’ve moved around, from Boston to New York to L.A., and I’m still kind of connected to musicians on the East Coast more than the West Coast. But also, with being a mother, I’ve restricted my travel quite a bit because, you know, it’s good to be home to raise a baby. And I did a lot of work as a side-singer, too.
AF: You call it a “side-singer,” but some of those projects were wonderful contributions, really in some ways collaborations—with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci, for example.
LS: Yes, but it’s their music, and I come in like a hired person, so I like to call it a “side-singer.” I have to say, it has been one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me in my life. That’s where I’ve learned the most, with Maria Schneider, Osvaldo Golijov, with whoever has called me and I’ve said yes. Had I done just my music, I would not have been the singer and the musician that I am now because I would not have learned what I’ve learned from them. And the generosity—people pulled me up, saying, “Just come, it’s okay, you’re a singer, don’t worry, come.” I said yes to a lot of things and some things I said no to. That’s what made me different than every other singer of my generation, the fact that I was singing with other people, and all I can say is thank you. What I’ve learned from Danilo, what I learned from John, what I learned from Maria—those are the three people who kept me going for a while. And Ed Simon invited me, Dave Binney, Donny [McCaslin]—incredible that I got to do that. And Osvaldo—that opened a whole new world, and pushed me to become professional.
AF: And Herbie Hancock.
LS: And Herbie—but Herbie, I was sleeping with the producer [laughs], so it’s just more of a circumstance; that doesn’t count. But all the other stuff I think it was really incredible that they were so generous.
AF: When I’ve seen you here in Boston over the years, mostly it’s been with Romero, once with the addition of [percussionist] Cyro Baptista, and then with Ed Simon, but I haven’t really seen you with a larger band. I know you’re bringing a quintet for the Celebrity Series concert in January, and I wondered if you could talk about that. How did that group come together? Will you be recording with them? Is it new material?
LS: It’s all new; I’m playing one thing from Duos, I think one thing from Book of Chet—I probably will touch on those because those are the records I have for sale. But I wrote about six or seven new things; Lionel [Loueke] is bringing one, and Kendrick [Scott] is bringing one. I’ve never played with any of those musicians except Lionel, and Lionel only with Herbie. We did a couple of TV things together, in L.A.
AF: How did you decide on this group?
LS: It was a conversation with my agent [Myles Weinstein], who represents both Gregoire [Maret], the harmonica player, and Lionel. And it wasn’t like “Oh, let me get them,” it was more like, “I’d love to do something with Lionel, is he approachable?” I knew he was a nice guy, obviously; he’s a lovely guy. And then Myles said, “I think he would love to, do you want his number, do you want his email?” So then I said, “Oh, you also represent Gregoire, and I’ve never worked with harmonica.” I’ve worked with clarinet and horns, every once in a while trumpet. Last year I did a concert with Proveta, who’s a Brazilian clarinet player. We brought him to Lincoln Center and I did two nights with him there. And trumpet, I’ve done a few records with Till Bronner. But I’ve never worked with harmonica, and I love Toots [Thielemans]—I love that sound and that combination with Brazilian music. So I wrote new things that are wordless and kind of rhythmic, groove-oriented. And Kendrick, the drummer, is great—I’ve never played with him. Massimo Biolcati is the bass player. He went to Berklee and he’s played a few gigs with me, but this was fifteen years ago, maybe more.
I was just thinking about a different sound, to push me to a different place and see what happens. We have maybe half a dozen concerts, and we have a couple of days of rehearsal now, and we’ll see what happens. I haven’t walked into a room without knowing people in a long time, so I’m excited. I finish here Wednesday night and Thursday I go to New York.
AF: It’s exciting that you’ll be bringing that group—it’s not something you’ve been working on for a long time. It’s fresh.
LS: It’s totally fresh, and it’s unpretentious in a way. Like you say “Are you going to record”—I have no idea. I don’t need to; if it’s good and we all feel good about it. I think they are probably hesitant, and curious, like “What does she want with us?” I think our first gig is in Alabama. It’s not really a tour, just two concerts here and two concerts there, really to test the waters.
AF: I assume you will continue incorporating Brazilian music into your work as you go on.
LS: Oh yeah, how could I not? I think I do feel—and I was just with Romero for two weeks in Europe—it’s not that we’ve arrived at something, but there’s such an empathy, it’s pretty amazing; we’re still singing the same songs. It reminds me of Bill Evans—and I’m not comparing myself to Bill Evans, but just the idea that he could go up and play the same songs and find new things. I really feel like Romero and I have arrived at that, in a way that I don’t have with anybody else. And again, that’s familiarity, that’s friendship, that’s doing it thousands of hours on the road, awake and not awake, drunk and not drunk [laughs], in every situation and circumstance, from Clovis, New Mexico, to Sapporo, Japan—we’ve done the entire planet. So I’ve done everything I wanted to do with him pretty much, but yet I’m looking through the keyhole and still, thinking, hmm, there’s something there. Is it the end of Duos? I think it is, of those records. If I were to do a duos record, what I’d love to do in Brazilian music would be to do different combinations, myself and accordion; myself and rabeca, the kind of violin/viola that they have in Brazil—it’s played quite out of tune, but beautifully; myself and bandolim, which is the Brazilian mandolin.
AF: With Hamilton de Holanda?
LS: Hamilton! Of course, are you kidding? I have a dream! So I have my people: I have [Toninho] Ferragutti on accordion, I have these cats in Brazil that I love, and I know it’s mutual, that I would love to work with—a couple of pianists. And so it would be a duos record, but with different instrumentation. That’s something I could see myself doing. And then I have a thousand projects that I want to do.
AF: Oh good—I have a suggestion for you. How about “The Book of Milton” [Nascimento]?
LS: I would love to. You know I sang a duet with him once for Till Bronner, on the CD called Rio. Yeah, are you kidding me? I’d love to.
AF: His songwriting is so rich. And I noticed that on the Duos you didn’t do any by him—you’ve got Djavan, Gilberto Gil, you’ve got Caetano Veloso, and other wonderful writers.
LS: But you know, I was inspired by Milton, because I did do “Beijo Partido,” which is sung by Milton—it’s by Toninho [Horta]. I’m totally influenced by Milton—and influenced by [singers] Elizeth [Cardoso] and Elis [Regina]. Thank God my parents were musicians, because it was everywhere, it was everything. But it’s of another era. I see the singers now coming in Brazil, and it’s different now.
AF: Are there any newer, up and coming singers that you are particularly impressed with?
LS: I love Chico Pinheiro, and his wife, Luciana Alves—she’s a beautiful singer. They’re incredible. There’s a singer who used to sing with him, too—
AF: Tatiana Parra?
LS: Yes, beautiful. I like Vanessa da Mata very much. I still love Marisa [Monte], to me she’s still up and coming, even though she’s almost my age or probably my age.
AF: What about jazz singers, here?
LS: I love Becca Stevens. But I’m still listening to Kate [McGarry] and Theo [Bleckmann], and they’re my age.
AF: Kate’s last album, Girl Talk, was phenomenal.
LS: And she has a new one coming out now that’s beautiful, I think it’s going to come out Valentine’s Day.
AF: I saw her at Scullers, and her version of “The Man I Love,” it was like a short story.
LS: She’s incredible. In terms of phrasing and being in the song, I don’t know many people who can do what she does, except Nancy King, that kind of going in and just surrendering to the song, totally comfortable, fearless really. I adore her singing, and I can’t do what she does, I just can’t. And that’s what inspires me, knowing that somebody else is out there and doing that thing, and she’s such a sweetheart, too. Besides Becca, I don’t think I’ve listened to anything—maybe because I’m busy, singing more, taking care of my son, cooking, or whatever. The thing that I heard that really impressed me with Becca—she’s a great musician, and she sings really beautifully, and she writes really interesting stuff, and I think that points to something different.
AF: Have you listened to Gregory Porter?
LS: Oh yeah, he’s beautiful, he’s stunning, and deserves everything that’s happening to him so much. It’s great to hear a male voice; Kurt [Elling] has his place, and it’s amazing too, but it’s nice to see somebody else come.
AF: Any other poets you’re looking at?
LS: No, not for work, not that I’m setting to music, because my time is so limited. By the time I get to the piano and I can really just close the door and say okay, I’ve got an hour, there’s so much I need to do on the piano, and I have to practice, so to get to writing, I haven’t had time for poetry now, and poetry is really for me about time. It’s been busy, with travel, and when I’m on the road it’s kind of hard to go into writing mode because I’m busy with interviews or whatever.
AF: So you’re working and traveling a lot.
LS: Well, you know, I teach—what I’m doing here, and I did singing workshops in Europe. I was gone for 18 days, teaching in between singing; we did I think 10 concerts and the rest was teaching. I started alone, and then Romero met me in Amsterdam and then we went down to Turkey. I don’t think I can do poetry between flights, it requires more than that. But there’s a Brazilian poet that I love named Cora Coralina, from Goiás, a very unusual place to come from. And she wrote very simple, very direct poetry. And I set one of [Paulo] Leminski’s poems to music, “Chuva,” on Tide. He’s considered the sort of Mayakovsky of Brazil, a crazy, crazy poet. He’s somebody that I’m always, when I find something I like, I put a mark on a corner of a page to go back to. So he’s on my night table.
So, it’s always there, but to really sit down and commit to poetry—some of them have been failures, too, trying too hard to set stuff to music that perhaps couldn’t be, but I still needed to do it. I’ve tried Drummond [Carlos Drummond de Andrade]—Maria Schneider just set some Drummond to music for Dawn Upshaw to sing, and really did a great job. I tried Drummond for a while, and I love his poetry, and I have pretty much everything at home, but somehow it just hasn’t worked, I’m laboring too much. It needs to be music too, because, I like to say, it’s already a poem, so it doesn’t need me.
Evelyn Rosenthal is the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She is also a professional singer, specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, and has taught English and composition at Massachusetts community colleges. She writes about musical theater, books, and music for the Arts Fuse.