Maria Marquez is expanding the parameters of Latin jazz. With her luminous, cellolike timbre and supple rhythmic phrasing, the vocalist has painstakingly built her repertoire out of classic Latin American ballads, Brazilian standards and a vast treasure trove of tunes from her native Venezuela-songs largely unknown in the U.S. and obscure even in the rest of South America. Her breathtaking self-produced album Princesa de la Naturaleza (Nature's Princess), originally released on her own label in 2003, gained widespread notice in 2004 when it was reissued by Adventure.
It's tempting to describe Princesa as Marquez's breakthrough, but her debut release, 1999's mesmerizing Once Cuentos de Amor (Eleven Love Stories), made numerous top 10 lists after it was picked up for international distribution by Palm Pictures. On Princesa, Marquez assembled a program composed mostly by women, ranging from boleros and folkloric Venezuelan songs to Cuban cha cha chas and Sephardic laments, material perfectly suited for her arresting, ardently sensual voice.
The lush, meticulously produced album sustains a hypnotic mood that keys on John Santos' intricately layered percussion work. "I wanted a percussion ensemble to tie the songs together," Marquez says from her home in Napa, Calif. "I gave John the basic ideas, and left it up to him how to do it. He brought more than 100 instruments into the studio and, layer by layer, he knew what to do for each section. I wanted a concept where each piece is like a landscape or a painting. Each theme has its own inner life."
While Marquez started her career in Caracas, she married young and moved to Los Angeles. When she and her husband separated, Marquez decided to throw herself back into music, eventually earning a degree at the Berklee College of Music, where she studied composition, arranging and film scoring. She moved to the Bay Area in the mid-'80s and quickly attracted attention at the third San Francisco Jazz Festival with the Brazilian band Voz de Samba. Recognition beyond the esteem of her colleagues was slow to come, however, and she spent the next decade pouring her energy into an array of bands, such as the Venezuelan-steeped Trio Altamira and the all-women world fusion ensemble Wild Mango, while also collaborating widely with Santos and the brilliant Cuban pianist Omar Sosa.
Whatever context Marquez performs in, her voice is unmistakable, luxuriant, husky and achingly soulful, as if Nina Simone had been raised in the Caribbean.