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Claudia Villela: Into the Fire, and Out Again

On her sixth record in 25 years, the Brazilian-born vocalist is taking more risks than ever

Claudia Villela
Claudia Villela (photo: RR Jones)

It’s tempting to describe Claudia Villela as a musician’s musician, considering that some of her most ardent fans and supporters are also her most illustrious colleagues; Pat Metheny has sung Villela’s praises, as have Kenny Werner, Vitor Gonçalves, Béla Fleck, and Jaques Morelenbaum. But it’s a double-edged superlative that implies an artist is better appreciated by her peers than regular listeners, which isn’t the case at all with Villela. The Brazilian-born vocalist, pianist, percussionist, and composer makes music of rare sophistication and beauty, and it’s as a performer that her transcendent gifts are most manifest, whether she’s spinning a new piece on stage with a fellow improviser or elaborating on an intricate setting for her poetic lyrics in Portuguese.

“You give her any musical idea, and Claudia completes it in a way that’s very beautiful,” says guitarist Romero Lubambo, who recently performed several concerts with Villela before recording a forthcoming duo album. “I can play any rhythm or sequence of chords and she’ll be on top of the music, creating a melody that makes sense. There are not a lot of people who can do that, but we did that. We’d just start playing and make the whole song in front of the audience.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.