“I’ve seen whales, dolphins. I really needed to be near water,” says Chilean-born singer Claudia Acuña from her Hawaiian retreat. “I’ve been under a lot of pressure recently and not taken a vacation in seven years. The up and down that musicians go through in this country is something I wasn’t used to.”
However tired she is, Acuña comes alive discussing Rhythm of Life (Verve), the follow-up to her acclaimed 2000 debut, Wind From the South. She and pianist Billy Childs produced the CD, which presents a hemispheric songbook of popular music from Tin Pan Alley, Chilean “new song,” Brazilian pop, Puerto Rican folk, a rendition of “Nature Boy” and a lone original, “Nowhere to Go.”
Three of the pieces—”Ay Mariposa,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Volver a los Diecisiete”—feature the strings of the Loma Mar Quartet, and musicians throughout the CD include Childs and Jason Lindner, who split the piano chair, trombonist Avi Leibovich, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and the stand-up bass of Dave Holland, one of Acuña’s heroes. “He’s one of the most important jazz musicians today. Getting to know him, he’s so humble with a beautiful heart. Real people. When I reach that level of experience I want to have that type of respect for the music I’m making. Getting to know him is a gift.”
With all the technical facilities in place—solid intonation, powerful delivery, flexible chops—Acuña has continually refined her craft since moving to New York City from Santiago, Chile, in 1995. She survived washing dishes and sitting in on jam sessions until she became the coat-check girl at the Blue Note and got a regular gig at Smalls. Mentors like Betty Carter helped her with the nuance of jazz interpretation but it’s real-life experiences that have given her music soul, as her composition “Nowhere to Go” shows.
“Sometimes we feel lost. Life isn’t easy. For me I’m very far away from my family and the people I love,” Acuña says. “But I’m a troubadour who travels from town to town singing. But I look and find inspiration in a lot of things: a smile, a sunny day, gentleness, someone being nice, passion. Inspiration is all around us in simple things, but sitting staring out into the sea is the best medicine.”