Luciana Souza: Meet the New Bossa

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Luciana Souza
By Kwaku Alston
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Luciana Souza
By Kwaku Alston

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The words Luciana Souza and bossa nova fit beautifully into the same sentence, and equally so on the same recording.

And why not? Souza is, after all, the offspring of parents—poet Tereza Souza and singer/songwriter Walter Santos—who were on-the-scene participants in Brazil during the music’s birthing years in the ’50s. She was raised in a musical environment frequented by the likes of Milton Nascimento, singer Leny Andrade and Hermeto Pascoal (who was also her godfather). And her impressive string of recordings, especially the two “Brazilian Duos” albums with guitarist Romero Lubambo, offers superb, insightful renderings of contemporary bossa nova.

But what if we add the words Larry Klein to that sentence, shoulder to shoulder with Luciana Souza and bossa nova? How’s the fit?

“Unlikely” is the first thought that comes to mind. Klein, a bassist and producer, may be best known for his work with Joni Mitchell—they were married from 1982 to 1994, and Klein produced or co-produced such important Mitchell albums as Wild Things Run Fast and Turbulent Indigo. He has also been a powerful studio presence via his work with, among others, Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin and Madeleine Peyroux. But bossa nova rarely, if ever, surfaced in those sessions.

Yet Luciana Souza’s latest album, The New Bossa Nova (Verve), is indeed produced by Larry Klein. How exactly did his name get into that sentence?

There is, of course, Klein’s production résumé, which includes enormously successful outings with singers such as those previously named. The second reason is that his visibility in the pop music world raises the potential for bringing Souza beyond the jazz, classical and Brazilian territories that have been her stomping grounds since the release of An Answer to Your Silence, her first album, in 1999. The third possible answer is that he and Souza were married on Aug. 20, 2006, making his musical liaison with Souza on The New Bossa Nova one of the more intriguing jazz record stories of the year.

Both Souza and Klein were eager to discuss that story in early October, a little more than a month after the CD’s release. Seated in the back room of Venice, Calif.’s Rose Café, a few blocks from Klein’s home and studio, it was fascinating to experience their differing qualities of intensity.

Souza, her clear skin and chiseled features glowing in the Southern California sun, presented a vision of calmness directly reflective of the contemplative qualities of The New Bossa Nova. Surprisingly, however, and in direct contrast, she spoke with a constant rush of words, images, ideas and feelings. Occasionally apologizing for her alleged difficulty in fully expressing her thoughts in English, she had no need to do so. Most native English speakers would be delighted to articulate their speech with such extraordinary, high-speed clarity.

Klein, on the other hand, was measured and carefully paced. His resonant voice, nearly stentorian at times, cut easily through the occasional overhead clatter of the LAX air traffic lanes. Respectful of the fact that the focus of the discussion was Souza’s album, he occasionally offered judicious opinions, more often serving as a supportive, loving mentor.

The genesis of the CD, Souza explained, reached back to her previous recordings with Sunnyside Records.

“It all began,” she said, “when [2005’s] Duos II got picked up by Universal outside of the U.S., and that started a relationship with the French part of Universal. Daniel Richard of Universal Jazz France came to me and said, ‘I put out your Duos record; I’d like to sign you.’ Well, my deal with Francois Zalacain at Sunnyside was really no deal. It was like a perfect marriage—we stay together while we love each other, and when we don’t I’ll just go somewhere else. So he completely blessed me going to Universal, and actually said, ‘If Universal U.S.’—which means Verve—‘doesn’t want whatever record you make for France, I’ll put it out.’”

The deal with Universal, with its potential for expanded distribution and promotion, was one of a number of serendipitous elements coming together last year. Equally significant, as it turned out, was the budding romantic relationship between Souza and Klein.

“Being with Larry,” continued Souza, “realizing I could have a dialogue with somebody who can talk about music contextually, the intricacies of it, just opened up an amazing possibility. And my inclination to say, ‘Let’s do it together’ or even start thinking about it, was that, here I am with someone who actually knows me, who knows how to listen to music, who can articulate what’s good, what works, what doesn’t work.”

“It actually had come up several times,” added Klein, “but always in a kind of joking fashion. Lu would say, ‘Like, when I do a record produced by Larry Klein,’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m there.’”

The element that clinched the deal showed up, spontaneously, during a vacation in Mexico.

“The truth is,” continued Klein, “that I was delighted by the thought of doing something with Lu. One of the reasons that I started producing records, and also have my own studio, is so that I can do what stimulates me, and what I want to do, and spend as much time as I want to spend on it regardless, to a certain extent, of the budget. Then, while we were in Mexico, it just hit me. I actually leaned over and said, ‘It would be interesting to make a bossa nova record, but take undeniably great songwriting from this culture, from the North American tradition of pop song writing. Take some great examples of songs that lend themselves to it, and then recontextualize them with the bossa nova aesthetic.’”

Klein’s suggestion was a trigger, opening up a new expansion of a familiar interest for Souza, who saw the concept as another entrance into a world in which poetry and music live together in harmony. Two of her previous recordings—The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs and Neruda—only served to increase her interest, especially since, as she explained, it involved “the kind of poetry that we don’t really have in jazz.”

Equally important, the concept, enhanced by the names of some of the songwriters Klein mentioned—James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson—recalled music Souza knew as a child.

“It immediately called up an awareness of these great lyrics that I loved,” she said. “Even though the music came first. With James, for me, it wasn’t just great poetry—although I always felt that his poetry was so immediate—it was the musician in him, the voice. It attracted me even as a Brazilian child who didn’t know what the lyrics meant. It was like, ‘My God, that voice, the guitar playing, the harmonies.’ They sounded so American to me. And Randy Newman, the same thing. It’s like Copland, to me, of that level, of that magnitude.

“Then there’s Joni, with those great angular, oblique melodies, with the beautiful sound, and her vibrato. And then, after that, after the music, the poetry would come. But, living with Larry, he’d throw these songs at me, or he’d make a CD, or say, ‘Check these out.’ I’d listen and think, ‘Oh, my God, these lyrics are amazing.’ And that was the real impetus, to be drawn to these great songwriters by their music, but to stay primarily because of their great poetry.”

But Souza had never actually worked with a producer before. Although she’d made recordings directed by Maria Schneider, Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov and others, she’d never experienced the producer-as-auteur studio environment so common to pop music.

“You have to understand,” she said. “I had never worked with anybody. I didn’t know what working with somebody meant. I took charge, I arranged everything, I wrote everything. Most of my records were done absolutely live, one day, two days at the most. I once recorded a record with Danilo Perez where we stayed one whole week tracking. That was a big deal. At Sunnyside we never did anything like that. My whole focus has been on making myself a good musician—not just a singer, although of course trying to be a good singer, but also educating myself to be a good musician to serve the music.”

Having agreed on what the material of the CD would be, the question of the process of how it would be done, given Souza’s previous approach to recording, clearly had the potential for creating problems in the studio. But that, apparently, is not what happened.

“Lu wasn’t used to having someone there guiding things,” said Klein. “We were together esthetically on what we wanted to do. We wanted the music to sort of come out of the words, and for the poetry to be the focus. But that would involve dealing with the musicians. Most of the players we used were guys that Lu has worked with a lot back in New York. And they’re not, for the most part, used to really playing with singers. They’re not used to that kind of context of allowing the space for things to happen. I think that I’m relatively diplomatic in how I do it. But still, it was a bit of shock I think for Lu and for them … ”

“It was really a different proposition,” interrupted Souza. “Which was, ‘We’re really going to play these songs. Let’s play these songs.’ Because [in my earlier recordings] it was music that I had written and we were going to play it. And there it was, ‘Please bring as much of yourself into this as you can. Just be yourself,’ without me filtering it at all. Which is a great invitation for any musician. People want to express themselves. This time around it was, ‘Let’s play the song. Let’s service the music. Bring who you are, and that’s why you’re here. Do what you do—but always think about the song, not about your solo or how you sound or can you play fast.’”

Klein was quick to add that he made no effort to tell the musicians what to play. “A lot of times,” he explained, “all I was telling them was, ‘Listen to what she’s singing. Listen to the words.’”

“It was really more a process of removing things than fixing,” added Souza, “because of what these players can do. We know what Chris Potter can sound like—he’s a monster. And Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez. You don’t have to tell them what to play. Larry’s job was to say, ‘You can go further into not playing,’ or ‘Listen to what’s going on in the intro,’ shaping it.

“And also we had Romero [Lubambo], who was giving us the foundation of bossa nova. Basically you don’t need anything else once you have that guitar. And, especially in this idiom, this language, once you have that groove established, everything is there. And everybody could kind of relax, because of what Romero provided, so beautifully, so economically.”

Aside from a few tense moments when there was a difference of opinion between Souza and Klein about the best key for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March,” the CD’s final song, the studio process, according to Souza, “turned out beautifully.”

“And I think I can say,” she added, “that it was such a positive experience that I’d do it again, and pretty much every time now.”

Then, turning to Klein with a warm smile, she added, “I don’t even dare go into the studio now without a pair of trusting ears and great counsel.”

At this point, one couldn’t help but wonder, amid all the enthusiasm, whether we might have been joined, at our little table at the Rose, by an 800-pound gorilla. Or, perhaps, even a brotherly pair of hirsute simians.

The first gorilla was the question of a possible shadow of Joni Mitchell hovering over the album. Souza is now married to Mitchell’s ex-husband; she recorded a Mitchell tune—“Amelia”—on Herbie Hancock’s CD (produced by Klein) of Mitchell songs, River: The Joni Letters. Add to that the fact that the first song on The New Bossa Nova—Mitchell’s “Down to You”—has been mentioned by more than one observer as a Mitchell-sounding interpretation.

But Souza was quick to demur.

“Oh, no. No shadow at all,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for her. I grew up on her music. My parents love her. My sister has every one of her records, with Larry on them, which is kind of funny. I went to my sister’s house and there was my husband on a record, with another woman. No, just kidding. People ask me if it’s weird, and I say, ‘It’s not weird at all.’ It’s a life that he had, and I had a life, too. I was married for 15 years. It had a purpose and it taught me so much and I cherish it. You go forward with your life and you carry your stuff with you in the healthiest and deepest possible way.”

Klein added that he in fact had been initially reluctant to ask Souza to perform on the Hancock album.

“I was reticent,” he said, “because of the obvious nepotistic implications of it. But we ended up with this track, ‘Amelia,’ and the only person I could think of who could navigate her way through it in the way that it needed to be done was Lu.”

Souza laughs in response. “And I was hesitant myself,” she added, “because it was like, ‘I’m sleeping with the producer, and here I am getting on Herbie Hancock’s record.’ But you know, say what people will, you can’t control these things.”

The second overweight but elusive gorilla at the table was the question of whether the partnership with Klein has taken Souza’s career, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, in a different, potentially more commercially oriented direction. Whatever one thinks of her performances on the CD, the project nonetheless seems to represent, even by Souza’s own commentary, a far more structured musical stage for an artist who, until now, has traveled a solo journey, primarily focused on savoring new creative territories, fully open to the spontaneous exploration of a constantly changing panorama of musical vistas.

In other words, does The New Bossa Nova, like Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room, risk undermining an established jazz identity by overreaching in search of a wider audience?

Souza’s response flashed, for the first time in our conversation, with a glimmer of annoyance.

“That’s not my concern,” she said. “It’s the concern of the record label. Take the most attractive pictures of me. PhotoShop them, if needed. Dress me beautifully. Take me to the best radio stations, do whatever it takes to make the record as commercially successful as possible. What we made was music. I was not concerned with, ‘Okay, I’m 40 years old, here, let me make it.’ I make a living as a teacher, I make a living as a singer, I make a living doing other people’s records. I’ve been a side singer forever in my life. I do enough that gives me so much joy and money.

“Of course I want to reach people. But this record doesn’t have any dance music. It doesn’t have any bubbly, Brazilian-flavored hot nights in Rio. It’s a record of introspection, a record of meditation.”

Asked a similar question, Miles Davis would never have answered with such a calm and reasoned response. (It probably wouldn’t have been anything more than a single, pungent word.) And the truth is, that if one respects an artist, one should also respect the twists and turns, even the detours and the cul-de-sacs, of their creative journey. Who would argue, today, that the vast commercial successes of Miles’ Bitches Brew or Hancock’s Head Hunters signaled bad turns in the progression of their art?

Souza would undoubtedly be the last to reference herself with such hallowed jazz company. But, nonetheless, the very fact that her six recordings have happily adventured through so much unusual territory should be reason enough to hear The New Bossa Nova with an open and receptive mind.

“I hope so,” said Souza. “Because I hope that what I’m giving people—whether it’s with Herbie or Maria Schneider or with The New Bossa Nova—is the deepest and most beautiful part of myself, even if the music is ugly or asks for a sound that’s ugly. That’s why I like singing, because it’s a new thing for me each time I go there. I’m a constant student. I listen, I research, I take lessons. Like João Gilberto, I want to practice, practice, practice, so that when I get to the stage, when I get to a recording, something else can happen. I want all my humanity, all of myself to come out. Not in a confessional way—‘Take the worst of me’—no, no, no. ‘Take the best of me.’

“All you can really hope for is that if you’re giving it your best shot, an honest shot, that’s what people will do. And I think in the music on this record, every song is sung and played in a way that was the best that we could offer it.”

Originally published in December 2007

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