Words have always mattered to Luciana Souza as much as music. The Brazilian singer and composer—whose father was a bossa nova guitarist and songwriter, and whose mother was a poet—is that rare jazz artist who has always been equally comfortable in both worlds.
In The Book of Longing (Sunnyside), her 12th album and first in three years, everything emanates from the written word. Souza’s point of departure is Leonard Cohen’s 2006 book of sacred and profane poetry of the same name, from which she sets four poems of longing and loss to spare, hypnotic music. Other songs are based on similarly melancholy poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, and Christina Rossetti and three by Souza herself. She wrote and arranged the music with two sensitive and creative musicians in mind: Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro and American bassist Scott Colley, with Souza adding percussion.
Earlier in her career, Souza created albums inspired by the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda; she has also set poems by e.e. cummings, Gary Snyder, and Octavio Paz to music. Then, on her well-received 2015 album Speaking in Tongues, she sang mostly wordless vocals with an international quartet of musicians, functioning as a fifth instrument. Even on that album, however, she included settings of two Cohen poems.
“I never really left words,” she says by phone from her Los Angeles home. “I’m in a moment in my life when poetry is important. Introspection has always been important to me … I chose poems that are very simple, direct and evocative. There’s no hidden meaning, I’m not trying to trick anybody, it’s all clear. I think we need that kind of clarity and truth right now.”
The music, now contemplative and spare, now simmering, sometimes gives way to emotional solos by Pinheiro and Colley. Elements of folk music and singer/songwriter tradition combine with jazz harmonies and, always, Souza’s Brazilian soul, expressed equally in her gentle pulse and her quietly intense singing, with no recourse to sambas or explicit bossa nova rhythms required.
“The idea is really for the words to come out and speak,” she says. “I wanted something sparse. I wrote all this music on the piano, but I know the guitar [and] always have that sound in my head. When I wrote the arrangements I was thinking about the guitar and its range… I thought, oh, Chico can do this arpeggio, or this little motif here that’s comfortable on the guitar.”
She had the sound of Pinheiro and Colley in her head when writing the tunes, she explains: “Chico is a phenomenal jazz musician, but he’s still Brazilian in his phrasing and in his language. And I wanted a bass player of the caliber of Scott. I have played with him for years, so there’s a lot of trust. He’s fearless, generous, and will try anything.”
It was essential that both accompanists were attuned to poetry. “Chico’s a storyteller,” Souza says. “He writes lyrics and has written beautiful songs in Portuguese. And Scott also writes his own poetry. They’re people who value that and are not afraid to play jazz in a supportive way to words… These two guys wanted to read the poetry and to understand it. They each contribute, in their sparse way, to the overall story.”
Ever since Souza and Pinheiro first met at Berklee, where he was a student and she taught, the singer had been one of Pinheiro’s heroes. “We always meant to work together,” he recalls. “Finally she called me and said, ‘I have this project, and the only guy I can think of for it is you.’ And I said of course! Luciana is not just a terrific singer, but an artist who knows exactly what she wants.” After she sent Pinheiro piano demos of the songs, they met in New York, rehearsed the music once with Colley, then performed much of it before a captivated audience at the Winter Jazzfest in January 2018. The album was produced by Souza’s husband, Larry Klein, whom Pinheiro praises for his “positive energy.”
Souza acknowledges that she’s drawn to laments. “I mean, I also like dancing and festivities, and when I play live, I play up-tempo tunes, too. But these days… I have a need for quiet thinking and reflection. The mood is not sad and somber, necessarily, but it is quiet and introspective. I live in that space, and I like that space.
“For me,” she adds, “refinement in singing and playing and language is paramount. We live in a society now where people don’t care about how they express themselves, and language of every kind is abused and destroyed. There’s such a lack of protocol, of decorum, of decency, of respect, really, that I find the act of reading or writing poetry, or setting poetry to music, almost resistance.”
Despite the ease with which Souza’s music crosses genres, it remains essentially Brazilian. “Everything I do is informed by Brazil, whether it’s the rhythm, the sensibility, the harmonic language, or the use of guitar. I’ve changed tremendously since my early work, but the core of my values about music and art has remained the same… it was formed way back when I was a child, listening to my mother, flipping through her [poetry] books. I’ve always been channeling the same thing: to go to people’s ears and whisper, ‘Come listen to this.’”