Is Luciana Souza on the verge of reinventing bossa nova? A careful look at The New Bossa Nova
(Verve, 2007), may well provide the answer to this question, as the Brazilian-born singer aims to present classic pop tunes with a bossa nova feeling. It's a kind of whispering, Luciana says; a whispering in a loud world.
AAJ: What is The New Bossa Nova? Is it imposing the bossa nova rhythm and feeling to major pop songs?
Luciana Souza: What we tried to do with this record, was to utilize the medium of bossa nova to enable listeners to hear the poetry of a cross-section of great songwriters in a new way. Many of the songs that we did have been so imprinted upon people in the context of their original recordings, that the meaning of the poetry can become blurred by the iconic nature of the recordings. We hoped to use the minimalist bossa nova aesthetic to provide a landscape within which the poetry can have a renewed meaning and intensity. Bossa nova is a contemplative medium. Hopefully people will take time out of their busy lives, pour themselves a drink, and dive into these beautiful poems.
AAJ: How did you select the twelve songs to this new album? Was it an easy process?
LS: Larry Klein (who produced the record, and is my husband) and I started with songwriters who had influenced me, such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan. The difficulty was to keep the list short. We wanted the collection to represent some of the highpoints in pop songwriting of the last fifty years. We wanted to illustrate the fact that songwriting, at its highest level, is the new poetry.
At the time that it first emerged in Brazil, bossa nova was pop music. Because of the prevalence of bad songwriting in contemporary pop music, people forget that during the emergence of most of the important stylistic innovations in music history, the composers, whether they are Jobim, Beethoven, or Randy Newman, are working in a "popular" medium. We gathered a large group of songs and gradually started eliminating the ones that did not feel right for me to sing.
AAJ: There is a common line to all the songs you picked: they all deal with what you call "the many manifestations of love." What message are you trying to send to the public?
LS: We thought that love would be a great theme to build the song cycle around. It is, after all, the most mysterious and driving theme in our existence as a species. It is the one element in our lives that will always be both a question and an answer. It certainly has always been the most discussed theme in poetry since people began putting words together. What is a more important theme to meditate upon in the world that we live in now?
AAJ: Do you have any favorite songs among them?
LS: Every song is equally important in its own way. They are like twelve views of a picture. There are two newly written songs that were written for this record. One provided the element of jealousy to the picture; the other provided the element of sensual love to it. Each song discusses a different facet of love. Lust, loss, jealousy, nostalgia, friendship, and existential love. We also felt that we needed to include a link to the great Brazilian bossa nova compositions, so we decided to try to find a fresh way of presenting Jobim's great song, "The Waters Of March." This served as both a link to the past and a kind of summation of the discussion of love. It is a masterful song about transcendent love; the kind of ineffable love that we call God.
AAJ: Is it possible to adapt virtually any song to a bossa nova frame?
LS: We searched for songs that could readily be adapted. There were many criteria; the harmonic material, the melody, the scan of the poetry, all of this came into play in feeling how a song could be re-interpreted through the lens of bossa nova. Most of all, we wanted to re-examine songs that could take on a new life in this meditative form.
AAJ: In this album you sing as if you are floating above the songs and almost whispering them. That's a huge contrast with all the noise that comes from the world nowadays...
LS: Most of my recordings have dealt with that somewhat. My love for poetry comes from my need for introspection. Solitude is a necessary part of the artist's life. I think only in silence can I hear my true voice, and perhaps get closer to the essential humanity within me. At this point, it is impossible to shock people, or get them to focus on anything by virtue of it being louder. Quiet is the new loud.
AAJ: What is bossa nova to someone who like you was born amidst it? Is it more than just a musical genre? What is the essence of its aesthetics?
LS: To me, the prevailing characteristic of bossa nova is the meditative quality of the music. In the quietness that is suggested, there is this beautiful space that allows for thought and feeling from the listener and the players. To me, growing up with parents who are bossa nova writers, it meant always trying to sing and play in a way that was connected to my heart. Trying to eliminate the technical ego from the process, and singing and playing from the deepest part of my heart. Trying to defeat the urge that we all have to try to impress.
AAJ: While you were born with deep roots in bossa nova you were also listening to jazz and singers like Joni Mitchell in your youth. What was the door that opened you to this different music?
LS: I think I was very fortunate to have grown up in Brazil during a time where there were less records being released, and there was much less competing for one's attention. Consequently, when an artist like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, or Steely Dan put a record out, it was an important event in our lives. It was an opportunity to sit down and immerse ourselves in the world of a great poet. Brazil is a country that has its eyes and ears open to the world, while still keeping a strong sense of its own identity. I am also the youngest of many kids, so I was exposed to a lot of different music by my siblings, as well as my parents, who were musicians and songwriters. Our house was a gathering place for many of the great upcoming Brazilian artists of that time.
AAJ: And now you are basically a jazz vocalist. You were awarded Female Jazz Singer of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2005, named Top Rising Star Female Vocalist in Down Beat's 2004 Critics Poll and three of your seven albums were nominated for Grammy Awards, not to mention that you teach at the Manhattan School of Music. People who are not familiar with your career may think that all this success happened overnight, but it didn't, did it?
LS: I am a vocalist and a musician. I no longer see the need to categorize music in regard to it being jazz, pop, or classical. The lines have blurred in our world. In order to create vital music, I believe that one has to transcend boundaries. That is what people who are creating exciting music in this time, or any era are doing. Stravinsky wasn't adhering to the rules of fitting into a genre, nor was Miles. Music that is made by category is ready for the reliquary. I have had many opportunities to sing with and learn from different artists. My musical life started in Brazil in my childhood, and continued through the schools I went to, the recordings I have made with different people, the classes I have taught, the many times I stepped onstage with different musicians in different projects. It has been a life full of the generosity of others, and I am so grateful.
AAJ: What advice would you provide to the many aspiring musicians that come from all over the world to the US year-after-year expecting to succeed?
LS: The only thing I can suggest is patience. The music world is full of very talented people who don't get to enjoy the success they deserve. Make the music that you feel inside yourself. Don't make music for critics, for record company attention, or to sell. Make music that speaks to your heart. Try to assimilate the masters, and then learn to speak in your own voice.
AAJ: Talking about success, how did you come to work with [composer/arranger/bandleader] Maria Schneider and how challenging is it?
LS: I have always been a huge admirer of Maria's music. She is an exceptional person, and an extraordinary writer and orchestrator. As complex as her music is, it is also very vocal. She sings each horn line to herself as she is writing them. This is why her music sounds so human and so good.
AAJ: How was it like working with Herbie Hancock in his new CD where, again, you are singing a Joni Mitchell's song?
LS: It was wonderful. I have always loved the song "Amelia," and I'm sure that you can imagine that singing around Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock is a dream for any musician. I love the way Wayne and Herbie dialogue with each other and comment on the poetry. The foundation given by Dave Holland and Vinnie Colaiuta is also perfect for the telling of the story. I find Herbie's record sublime. And it was produced by my husband...
AAJ: There's and old saying that says, "No one is a prophet in his own land". How do Brazilians look at your work, specially The New Bossa Nova?
LS: The record has had a wonderful reception in Brazil. The quote that you cited is more of an apt description of the record's reception by some American jazz critics. Some people want you to remain in one place. I've always craved creative challenges, and needed to evolve in my music. I think that if they take the time to listen carefully, anyone who listens to this album will hear the subtle beauty that is present in the poetry, arrangements and playing.
AAJ: This is your first album for Universal, a major record label. What expectations do you have for this new partnership and where do you expect it to take you in the near future? Will you go back to poets like Neruda or new ones?
LS: I am very interested in seeing this record through. I am in no hurry to get started on anything else. I want to savor all of the opportunities given to me by this bigger label. I'd like to be able to travel and perform in countries where I have not done so yetthis is my first record to have worldwide distribution.
AAJ: In most interviews we never really get to talk about the artist so let's do it for a change! Who is Luciana Souza as a human being that lives as everybody surrounded by war, terrorism, greed and all these bad vibes?
LS: It is a challenge to make sense of these times, for everyone. I think most of us just want to be moral in our actions and honest in our work. It is more important than ever for artists to put timeless beauty into the world, regardless of trends and styles. We can effect great change in the world by being kind to the people in our own lives.
AAJ: I know you really like poetry. The question is, do you think there is still room for poetry in such a hectic and violent world like ours?
LS: Absolutely. There will always be a need for poetry, for songs, paintings, sculptures, dance, family, love... this is what makes us human. As Kafka said, "Art is the axe for the frozen sea within us."
Luciana Souza, The New Bossa Nova (Verve, 2007)
Luciana Souza, Duos II (Sunnyside, 2005)
Luciana Souza, Neruda (Sunnyside, 2004)
Luciana Souza, Brazilian Duos (Biscoito Fino, 2001)
Luciana Souza, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs (Sunnyside, 2000)
Luciana Souza, The Answer to Your Silence (NYC, 1999)
Courtesy of Verve Music Group.