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Roxana Amed Mixes Cultures on Ontology

Learn about the Argentine expat jazz singer/composer's new album

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Roxana Amed
Roxana Amed

Argentine expat jazz singer/composer Roxana Amed knows something about being a stranger in a strange land. She also knows how to adapt, meet like-minded musicians, and forge deep creative partnerships. Amed can, and does, sing anything, from Argentine classical music to Joni Mitchell, from Monk to the American Songbook. But she shies away from tango. “It’s too dark and dramatic for me,” she told me recently in a Zoom call from her Miami home. “It’s very Italian, a little too intense. And I am intense, as you can tell from the new album”—she’s referring to Ontology (Sony Latin), her seventh CD—“but I might still be too young for it.”

Amed, who has lived in Miami since 2013, has a foot in two worlds. Ontology, as the title implies, is a statement of her mixed identity, who she is, or at least who she believes herself to be now. Before moving to the U.S., the Buenos Aires-born Amed had become famous in her native country as both a mesmerizing singer with a wide vocal range and a songwriter whose albums reflected her grounding in Argentine folk, rock, and jazz. She also wrote songs for major Argentine pop artists, earned a master’s degree in Latin American literature, and became a voice teacher and jazz educator.

Befitting her complicated background, the 14 tracks of Ontology cover a lot of stylistic territory. Making it was, she said, “a search for my own essence as a musician and a vocalist. I had to explore every corner: the scat singing, the Spanish lyrics, the English lyrics, music that was not written to be sung, and music that was, like the songs I wrote … a combination of sources, classical, jazz, American, Argentinian.” 

In addition to four of her own songs, there are co-writes with two of her band members, pianist Martin Bejerano and saxophonist Mark Small, as well as composer/arranger Kendall Moore; two striking, challenging-to-sing pieces by Argentine classical composer Alberto Ginastera, one with new lyrics she fashioned and one in which she sings the melody wordlessly; and covers of “Blue in Green” (the Miles Davis/Bill Evans classic with Moore’s arrangement and Cassandra Wilson’s lyric) and Wayne Shorter’s “Virgo.”

“He’s a genius,” she said of Shorter. “I listen to a lot of people, but I keep going back to him, and I think, ‘How come this music sounds so good?’”

Amed’s own music can be meditative or fiery, often somber, sometimes incantatory. The Argentine classical influence, which seems to be part of her DNA, especially infuses her “Milonga por La Ausencia,” with its fast-paced, serpentine melody inspired by milongas, an Argentine folk style that’s the forerunner of modern tango. Her lyrics are lush with poetic evocations of the natural world, images of lovers and moonlight, and sometimes a hint of menace; they have a Spanish soulfulness, whether written in Spanish or English. 

“For the minutes when we perform, we are in love.”

Bejerano collaborated on four of the compositions. A veteran of Roy Haynes’ band who teaches at Miami’s Frost School of Music and has backed up his share of first-rate singers, he extols Amed’s breadth: “The emotional expressiveness I hear from Roxana is better than what I’ve heard from anyone else. It’s like Roy—he makes every single beat matter. It’s always like the last time he’s ever gonna play drums. And that’s what she does too. She pours 150 percent of her soul into every note.”  

Amed’s journey to a new life in the U.S. began in 2013, when she and her American husband moved to Miami so that he could take advantage of a career opportunity. She describes herself as feeling rootless at first, a sensation captured poignantly in “Tumbleweed,” the album’s first track, featuring her lyrics and Small’s music. Not knowing any local jazz musicians, Amed approached Small and Bejerano, both based in Miami, through their websites, then began hanging out at their gigs. 

The two eventually became part of Amed’s core group, which also includes bassist Edward Perez and drummer Ludwig Alfonso. After more than five years, they’ve achieved a feeling of cohesion that pervades the album. “For the minutes when we perform, we are in love,” Amed said. “And then we might not see each other for weeks. But in that time, love happens.” 

Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.