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"Bossa nova is the language of my life," Brazilian bossa nova singer Luciana Souza says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. Her latest project, The New Bossa Nova (Verve), sees the 41-year-old reinterpreting contemporary songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Sting, and James Taylor in the genre her father helped pioneer.
With the record, Souza has come full circle to her roots. She grew up in São Paulo, where her father, Walter Santos, participated in the first recording session for a bossa tune in the late Fifties. Her mother was poet Tereza Souza, who was also a sometime composer.
But the album also marks a time of sweeping change in her personal life. She recently married bassist/producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell's ex-husband) and moved to Los Angeles after an extended period in New York City, where she had juggled her musical career with a teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music. She has also signed with Universal Music France (with distribution in the U.S. by Verve). It's a welcome change, she says, because her records will finally be marketed in her native country.
As for her concept for the disc, it's "not only about bossa nova as a beat, but for the meditative aesthetic that bossa nova has," Souza says. "In Brazil, bossa nova was born from the same collectivity that samba had, but with a calmer outlook in which people actually sit and listen to the music; it's not something to dance to. Historically the genre offers a possibility for the poetry to take center stage, so the lyrics in bossa nova are more contemplative, not narrative.
"The idea, then," she continues, "was to get all those great North American poets — and some British as well — that have written popular music in the last 50 years and give these songs a Brazilian feel." Souza explains the disc has more of a meditative approach than the more jazzy material of her earlier releases. She cites her take on the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," a tune that originally came out the year she was born: "The intention is to have people listen and take in the beauty of Brian Wilson's poetry, for instance."
The move to L.A. has also helped her change her perspective on life in the United States. "I always thought I was a part of the northeastern U.S., where I lived since I came to the U.S. at 18," Souza says. "It is interesting to come to California, where the temperature, the weather, is something that moves you. And then there is the visual space, with the constant blue sky every day and the fact that you spend much more time outdoors than you do in Manhattan. I feel a bigger rhythmical connection to Brazil in L.A. than I did in New York, and I ... wonder how my music will be shaped by this."
The recording sessions for The New Bossa Nova, though, were done in New York. "The musicians [on the CD] are professionals with whom I have worked for a long time — pianist Edward Simon has made two other recordings with me, and bassist Scott Koley and drummer Antonio Sanchez have performed with me many times over the years," she explains. "When I made the record, I had only been living [in L.A.] for four months, so it didn't make sense to record with California-based musicians, and there was that strong relationship I already had with those New York cats."
For her show in Miami, Souza will be backed by Keith Ganz on guitar, Matt Aronoff on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums. Souza describes the trio as "a very young group with no Brazilian background, but who listen to everything and contribute to the music differently; they are not limited solely by jazz." This versatility suits her fine, for her recent live sets consist not only of bossa tunes but also of material from her previous releases. "I always try to tell a little bit of my history, because many people who come to see me do not really know me — I am not exactly famous," she admits. "Many come out of word of mouth or curiosity, and I give them a bit of my musical path, which includes a little jazz, some Brazilian music, and some music from the new disc. [It] introduces them to my musical universe."