In the opening seconds of Dreamtales (Adventure), the new recording by vocalist Claudia Villela and pianist Kenny Werner, she’s heard saying, “Let’s go for it.” The two had no set songs and no previously agreed-upon structure or strategy; they just started playing to see what would happen.
“I’m a composer, and I like to set up things, write lyrics and all,” Villela says by phone from her home near Santa Cruz, Calif. “But I feel more human, more magical and more connected in an improvised setting. We turned on the microphones and stopped when it was over. It was like silk.”
Villela’s collaboration with the veteran pianist came about by accident. She attended a concert by Werner and Toots Thielemans with the aim of recruiting the Belgian harmonica great to participate in the large group sessions she was organizing for her 2003 recording, Inverse Universe (Adventure). When she heard Werner, she was moved to tears. Then Villela read the pianist’s book Effortless Mastery, and she decided to pursue the collaboration.
The aptly titled Dreamtales is an hour-long medley of moods and styles powered by Villela’s spooky five-octave range and Werner’s otherworldly accompaniment. While the album is improvised, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” creeps in toward the end on a piece Werner and Villela named “Tom’s Waters.” Villela said that the song came up in the natural course of their musical dialogue. “I knew that I didn’t want to do any specific songs,” she says, “but I didn’t want to stop them from coming up either.”
“This is real improvised music,” Villela stresses. “Too often I go to concerts-I won’t name any names-that are supposed to be improvised and I hear the same lines from albums back in the ’80s. That is not really improvisation.”
Villela grew up in Brazil surrounded by musical elders. Her parents gave her a pianola, an accordionlike instrument, when she was one year old. She went on to get a degree in music therapy from the Brazilian Conservatory in 1983. She moved to California a year later and became involved with the Stanford University Chorus and the De Anza College Jazz Singers. She also won a brief fellowship to go to New York and study with Sheila Jordan.
Villela and her musical partner Ricardo Peixoto have been active in the northern California music scene, playing regularly at Yoshi’s in Oakland and at Kuumba Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. However, Villela says that much of her attention has been focused on raising her teenage daughters. While that took her away from the music scene, she’s not worried. “I’ll be making music until I’m very old,” she laughs.