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Mexican jazz vocalist Magos Herrera may not be a household name among jazz audiences, but she certainly deserves to be. With the release of her seventh album as a leader, Distancia (Sunnyside, 2009) shows off not only her rich contralto voice but also an artist with expressive depth.
Distancia is an extraordinarily diverse album. Herrera sings in three languagesEnglish, Portuguese and Spanishand, in doing so, treads broken ground of Brazilian composers Antonio Carlos Jobim
, and Cuban composer César Portillo de la Luz. Herrera's own compositions, including "Reencuentro," "Tu Ojos" and "New Song," are also featured, and are full of life, passion and unforgettable melodies.
Despite the album's eclectic repertoire and various stylistic approaches, it is held firmly together by a stellar band, as drummer Alex Kautz navigates with ease between an Afro-Cuban triplet feel and a loping swing on "Alegría." On Herrera's "Staying Closer," Kautz serves as the singer's competent co-arranger. Underneath her glass-like vocals, Kautz cooks up a driving, syncopated fusion groove, kept at a rolling boil. The energy is contagious, propelling guitarist Lionel Loueke
. The quartet plays with a truly lovely sense of dynamic contour, and Herrera takes full expressive advantage with impassioned whispers and a grand dramatic climax. The song makes a quietly joyful close, giving Loueke and Herrera space for creative interplay.
The gems of the album come with Herrera's thoughtful reinterpretation of two classic Brazilian songs, both sung in her native Spanish. Jobim's "Inutil Paisaje" is rendered here as a contemplative ballad, but one propelled by modern reharmonization. Herrera's final reading in English proves that beauty can be found inside immense solitude. Herrera's arrangement of Nascimento's "Veracruz" transforms the Brazilian composer's samba into a loping lament in 5/4 time. Loueke delivers another intricate solo, but leaves ample room for interaction with bassist Ricky Rodriguez.
For Distancia, Herrera creates a repertoire of well-crafted arrangements, executed with energy and elegance by her quartet, but her use of the human voice boosted the ensemble to greater heights. "Reencuentros" opens the album and features Herrera imitating the bass line, then breaking into a playful improvisation over the 7/8 vamp. Sisters Ingrid and Jennifer Beaujean join in, as if to simulate a classic brass section throughout the song. Later, the three singers combine forces to expand the final chorus of "Tus Ojos" and add a funky postlude to "Veracruz."
As a Latin American female jazz singer, Herrera is often compared to fellow New Yorkers Luciana Souza