Casting a sensually becalming spell with her ninth album, Lauren Henderson continues her ongoing exploration of her Latin American and Caribbean roots on La Bruja, a project that encompasses classic boleros and her pleasing Spanish-language originals. With spare arrangements and vocals that often seem to be tightly multitracked so that it sounds like two or three singers in close harmony, the music occupies a liminal space between hazy nostalgia and a wry contemporary perspective.
Henderson enters with a backward glance, covering two oft-recorded standards from the 1930s. John Chin’s piano provides ironic commentary on “Perfidia,” Mexican songwriter Alberto Domínguez’s quintessential self-pitying indictment of a departed lover, a bolero that has been an international hit for more than seven decades. More wistful than bitter in Henderson’s interpretation, Cuban songwriter María Teresa Vera’s “Veinte Años” sets the intoxicating spell in motion. The tune, revisited twice as a wordless duet with guitarist Nick Tannura, serves as a thread that sustains the album’s dreamy vibe. Her originals oscillate between subtle humor and earnest observation. Set to an insinuating son jarocho groove, the graceful title track celebrates the spiritual heritage carried by women denounced as witches through the centuries. Like her song “Fría,” a murmured plea to a distant lover, the mood keys on Joel Ross’ caressing vibes.
She’s particularly effective on Rafael Lopez’s Cuban standard “La Sitiera,” delivering the song with an optimistic lilt that sets it apart from Omara Portuondo’s lacerating version. Henderson closes the album with another 1930s standard, “Silencio.” Accompanied with requisite restraint by Chin, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Joe Dyson, the album’s core rhythm section, she sings Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández’s bolero as a hushed, late-night confession. In an idiom that often inspires emotive belting, Henderson turns down the volume and makes her own way.