Every so often, the right song meets the right singer at the right time, producing a transcendent performance that marries them forever. Think “Come Fly with Me” and here comes Frank Sinatra. “Strange Fruit”—Billy Holiday. “Respect”—Aretha Franklin.
With the release of her latest CD, The New Bossa Nova (Verve), Brazilian-born, Grammy-nominated vocalist Luciana Souza (pronounced So-za) has found one of those rare marriages with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March.” Though the song dates from 1972, just a few years after Souza’s birth, and has been recorded by scores of vocalists and instrumentalists, it takes only one listen to her performance to understand it was written for her.
“It took me 40 years to sing this song,” she says. Albuquerque audiences will hear the warm, lyrical, articulate wisdom of those years Thursday night at the Outpost.
Bossa nova—born in Brazil more than 40 years ago out of samba rhythms, with cool American jazz standing as godfather—“was the soundtrack of my life,” says Souza, daughter of bossa innovators Walter Santos and Tereza Souza.
“Music is usually a very communal experience in Brazil,” she says. “If you think of samba and carnival, it’s music that’s partying. It’s louder music, it’s faster, it’s music that invites you to dance.”
Bossa nova, influenced in part by new recording techniques, turned the volume way down. “People are playing guitar in a very acoustic way in a rhythm that emulates the Brazilian tambourine in the samba,” says Souza. “But you can sing softer, and you can really pay attention to the lyrics.
“To me, it’s music that invites reflection, invites stillness,” she says. “Instead of being a collective experience, it’s a really personal experience.”
While The New Bossa Nova does contain one genuine Jobim bossa and two originals written for the project, the other nine tracks feature compositions from Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen/Sharon Robinson, Sting, Elliott Smith, Walter Becker/Donald Fagen, Randy Newman, Michael McDonald and Brian Wilson/Tony Asher.
All of them share one characteristic that attracted Souza: the poetic quality of the lyrics. Poetry fueled two earlier Souza CDs, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs and Neruda, and the lyrics on The New Bossa Nova keyed open a door to the personal, unpretentious bossa quality that she wanted to explore.
“These folks can write poetry that’s just as exquisite as Bishop and Neruda,” she says, “but it’s just in song form.”
As tuned to poetry as Souza is, English lyrics can pose a challenge. “This is not my native language, so I have a discovery in terms of getting a poem, because it doesn’t come easy for me,” she says. “And then singing these words also doesn’t come easy for me because I have an accent, because I have to refine what I’m trying to do."
“But also I want to sound effortless, and I want to sound natural, and I want to sound like myself—beyond anything, I want to sound like Luciana because that’s what I’m giving people. It’s really me. It’s a challenging process and a difficult one,” she says. “I think I earn something at the end for myself.”
Listeners are rewarded with passionate interpretations charged with an intelligence that liberates singer and song.
In the recording studio, says Souza, she and the musicians came together “almost in a space of prayer. ‘Let’s discover this song together.’” The same spirit rules her live performances.
“All I ask for before I go on stage ... is to be able to be a blank slate,” says Souza. “I know the words I’m singing. I know the players are going to play the chords. How can we then look for getting lost in that space and finding it? These days that’s what I’m looking for the most.”