With the passing of Ntozake Shange, Jazz lost one of its most prolific interpreters, a poet, whose creative spirit lived deeply within the musical traditions she embraced throughout her life. Shange was part of a community of poets (Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Yusef Komunyaaka and Sonia Sanchez) that sang, stomped and wailed with words in ways that captured the cadence, melody, and improvisational elegance of Jazz.
Among today’s interpreters, Luciana Souza stands out as the current “Poet Laureate” of Jazz. Born to a poet and musician, Souza’s career has embraced classical and chamber music, as well as collaborations with a variety of artists from all over the world. Still, the centerpiece of Souza’s work is an undying love for Brazilian music, a passion she’s translated into a career that has upheld and redefined that culture's influence on Jazz.
Within this framework Souza has created a discography of remarkable albums by a series of tight knit groups grounded by her vocal, compositional, arranging and production talent. Regardless of the musical territory, Souza’s voice remains the compass that always finds the true north and south of the swing and sophistication that make up her signature take on everything from Jazz standards and Pop, to Folk and Bossa Nova.
But it’s in the quieter, contemplative spaces where poetry and music meet that her genius has blossomed into a unique gift to the world. Beginning with The Poems Of Elizabeth Bishop And Other Songs (2000), Souza has deftly folded poetry into many of her projects, including interpreting the words of Pablo Neruda (Neruda, 2004) and The Book of Longing, her latest effort that incorporates the work of poets Leonard Cohen, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St.Vincent Millay.
Souza recently returned to her alma mater for a performance at Berklee’s Performance Center, her fourth as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s prestigious concert series, celebrating its eightieth anniversary this year. Braving torrential rains, the audience was treated to hearing Souza in both a trio setting and with the Yellowjackets, the legendary multi-dimensional band that features her vocals on their latest release, Raising Our Voice.
Taking the stage with Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro and long time collaborator, bassist Scott Colley, Souza dedicated the evening to the “celebration of poetry and poems,” sharing Leonard Cohen’s description of the craft as something that “deepens the human” in all of us.
Opening with Cohen’s Paris, the trio created a spacious stereo field with Pinheiro’s precision paired perfectly with Colley’s earthen tone, rhythmically centered by Souza’s trap drum and percussion play. Weaving Brazilian classics with other cuts from The Book of Longing, the set was paced by poems Souza read from the works of Charles Simek, Bertolt Brecht, Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda.
With lush and poignant melodies, Souza finds simple and remarkably elegant ways to incorporate poetry with a vocabulary of tones that showcase an artist who has mastered the emotional contours of her craft. In her hands, poetry and music become the perfect backdrop to negotiate the precious lyrical spaces she invites you to explore.
Night Song, We Grow Accustomed to the Dark, and Remember came with arrangements where the sonic dimension of the trio transported one to a familiar place that reading great poetry provides. As is often the case with her albums, the song These Things processed a hauntingly beautiful refrain that you could seemingly listen to forever.
Joining the Yellowjackets on stage, Souza’s transformed herself into an additional instrument, supporting or supplementing the melodic or harmonic line of the song in play. Starting with Man from the North, the concert closed with a lively version of Bob Mintzer’s Why Is It, the lead cut from their 2011 release, Timeline.
From Cab Calloway to Jazzmeia Horn, the interpretation of language in Jazz has been a rich tradition shaping everything from the American songbook to how the music expresses a variety of cultural and political perspectives. In a time where the power of language is under constant assault, Luciana Souza reminds us that what we say, and how we say it, remains one of the most important things humans can do in the world.
Michael Ambrosino writes about music, culture, and technology and is the producer and host of Dialectics on 33third.org