“Oh, you have a dog! Oh. I want a dog so bad,” vocalist Claudia Acuña says after hearing the household canine on the other end of the phone, Rocky, barking at a passing pickup.
Learning that Rocky is a black Lab / Shepherd cross, she instantly snaps, “I hate you,” and dissolves into giggles. “Labradors are one of my favorites.”
Acuña’s heart sits close to the surface, and if it’s touched, her heart leaps up into her luscious alto—where it resides throughout her latest CD, En Este Momento (Marsalis Records).
Whether singing about the scars of love, a solitary visit to a Yucatán beach or the hidden face of God, Acuña wears her sensitive heart on her vocal cords, as you can hear this Thursday at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, where she’ll be joined by Jon Cowherd (piano), Juancho Herrera (guitar), Omer Avital (bass) and Antonio Escapa (drums).
Born in Santiago, Chile, and raised for most of her young life in Concepción (the country’s second-largest city), Acuña was drawn to music early. The family’s old radio sometimes locked onto signals from other parts of the world, which is how she first heard jazz. Even before she knew its name, the music fascinated her with a freedom that complemented her own.
“Jazz music gave me the opportunity to be that free, but I believe also it comes from my heart and my spirit,” she says.
Her voice quickly found work by moving to Santiago in 1991. It was there that she learned more about the New York jazz world, and in 1995, she up and moved to the Big Apple.
“Even though I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had a lot of dreams, and I still have,” says Acuña. “I’ve always thought that I don’t want to live my life asking myself, What if? So I took the chance. I worked really hard. I’m a gifted person. I’m very blessed to have a passion and a talent, but a lot of determination and hard work and dedication and respect and faith—you know—and some angels.”
By 1999, Acuña’s angels had signed her to Verve, for which she released two well-received CDs mining the American songbook, followed by another success for MAXJAZZ that moved more to Latin rhythms. She’s been working with one jazz star after another, too: Wynton Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Arturo O’Farrill and Danilo Perez, among others.
With her debut for Marsalis Records, she’s focused on a personal sound, singing primarily Latin American songs she’s known from her youth, plus two originals. Because of its introspective quality, En Este Momento gives up the gifts of its fragrant sensuality only to attentive listening. In her song “Tulum,” written with Herrera, you can hear the sound of her soul rediscovering “that magic that I thought I had lost. In fact, it was always there, only a little sleepy,” she says. You can soar with her on Alvaro Carrillo’s love song “La Mentira,” ache with longing on Astor Piazzolla’s “Vuelvo al Sur” and steel yourself for a righteous struggle on Victor Jara’s “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz.”
Acuña, who’s had little formal musical schooling, admits to having been intimidated by the thought of working with label owner and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who produced the record and makes a guest appearance. But working with him turned out to be a positive experience. “He’s very smart, he’s very accomplished, he’s a great musician ... and he’s an artist. He gave me the freedom but the structure that I needed to grow and deliver this moment in my life musically,” she says. She hopes to work with him again. “I felt like a door got open in the process.”