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Venissa Santi: Big Stuff: Afro Cuban Holiday

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Many American jazz singers have explored Afro-Cuban grooves, though few with the authenticity of Venissa Santi. She began embracing her Cuban heritage while teaching at Philadelphia’s Asociacion de Musicos Latino Americanos, subsequently releasing the rumba- and bolero-fueled Bienvenida in 2009.

Santi’s sophomore disc, inspired by her participation in a Billie Holiday salute that featured her alongside Kurt Elling, Sheila Jordan, Lizz Wright and Claudia Acuña, is a bracing Afro-Cuban exploration of the Holiday catalog. Though her phrasing occasionally echoes Holiday’s, she carves a far different stylistic path, favoring a misty coolness that plays superbly against the often-fiery arrangements conceived by percussionist François Zayas.

Opening with a loose guaguancó take on “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Santi ups the heat with a sizzling tumba reading of the title tune. Her makuta-styled “My Man,” percolating with jagged urgency, makes way for a “Strange Fruit” reimagined as a muted bolero. “Trav’lin’ Light” can be interpreted darkly or lightly with equal effectiveness; Santi opts for the latter, transforming it into a free-spirited danzón. African palo influences shape her thundering “Stormy Weather,” offset by a sultry “You Better Go Now.”

The least familiar track is Jack Reardon’s “Involved Again,” a song that Holiday adored but never got to record. It proves to be Santi’s pièce de résistance, a masterful blend of woe and longing.

Originally Published