Claudia Acuna Dazzles In Rochester, NY

Jason Crane By

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Claudia Acuña
The Lodge at Woodcliff
Rochester, NY
May 11, 2006

Claudia Acuña proved last night that music works best when it makes an emotional connection. Her band had all the chops that any group needs to skillfully navigate the music, but it was her ability to play on the audience's empathy that put the music over the top.

Claudia Acuña and her band played a two-night stand at the beautiful Lodge at Woodcliff, located on a wooded hilltop in the Rochester suburb of Perinton. The performance space at the lodge has windows on three sides that overlook a tree-covered valley. A gentle rain was falling throughout last night's show, and the rain-soaked dusk added a magical quality to the first set.

Acuña has released three albums under her own name—Wind from the South and Rhythm of Life on Verve, and Luna on MaxJazz. She's constantly evolving as an artist—a fact born out on the albums and in her live shows.

Last night, Acuña gave the audience a sneak preview of what's to come, filling the first set with new music that hasn't been recorded. Most of the lyrics were in Acuña's native Spanish, because, she said, "that's where my journey is taking me. During the set, and throughout the show, Acuña showed her skill at connecting with the crowd by reciting each song's lyrics in English like a poem, sometimes with backing by the band.

As always, Jason Lindner provided his muscular and witty piano playing. For a guy who can bang out a montuno with the best of them, Linder also showed why his big ears and subtle harmonic shifts make him a perfect match for Acuña's sometime ethereal, sometimes driving vocals. Lindner's own music is must-hear material, too. The rest of the band members were making their first appearance in Rochester: guitarist Juancho Herrera, drummer YaYo Serka and bassist Omar Avital.

This band is a very different creature from the John Benitez/Gene Jackson ensemble that grooved the crowd all night long during Acuña's first appearance in Rochester four years ago. Where the Linder/Benitez/Jackson group was about straight-ahead latin grooves and funk as deep as the earth, this band is more subtle and nuanced, though no less exciting.

The standout moment of the night was "Esta Tarde Vi Llover from Luna. It's apparently not a number the band regularly performs these days, as evidenced by Linder's guiding Avital through the first verse. That said, the freshness of the song leant itself to a jam at the end that found Acuña's voice soaring over the band and swooping down into the crowd, the members of which broke out in a collective smile that was almost tangible in its electricity.

Also moving was Acuña's version of John Lennon's "Imagine, introduced with a plea to some of the lounge's louder patrons to respect the music. "Maybe if we acted more like this song, the world wouldn't be in the shape it's in today, Acuña said.

The night ended with a version of "Historias, another poignant track from Luna.

During the set break, Acuña talked about recording project she'd just participated in with a four-piece band including cello and Anat Cohen on clarinet. (Linder also plays on Cohen's debut CD, Place & Time.) No word though on a release date or label.

One of the non-musical highlights of the show was watching Acuña swap stories with Rochester legend Gap Mangione (brother of Chuck). Mangione told a story about walking into a coffee shop in Monterey and seeing Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison and Clark Terry sharing a table. Acuña responded with a sweet story about one of her meetings with Abbey Lincoln, whom she openly acknowledges as a musical influence. (In fact, last night's first set began with Lincoln's composition "The Music Is The Magic. )

Claudia Acuña has been to Rochester four times—twice at Woodcliff, once at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, and once as a guest of the Penfield Music Commission Project. She's built a large fan base, and last night's performance made it easy to see why.

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