Back to Brazil

When Luciana Souza takes the stage, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer projects a power both hypnotic and jarring. In the voice of Souza -- a slender brunette in her late thirties -- resides the subtle refinement of a classically trained singer cut with the passion of a child raised by legendary bossa nova songwriters.

Her latest release, Duos II, is a deeply personal, live-in-the-studio album that finds Souza once again returning to her Brazilian roots. The same uncanny technical virtuosity and willingness to delve into her personal history that informs her live show permeates the disc. Most of the songs are ones she grew up listening to, and the exquisitely spare arrangements -- her vocals with the sole accompaniment of guitar players -- only add to the intimacy of the CD.

"The guitar/voice duo is something very liberating," says Souza. "Your voice is naked, with nothing around to help, and the result is a stronger expression of yourself in each song."

Souza was born in São Paulo, Brazil, to legendary songwriters Walter Santos and Tereza Souza. As a member of João Gilberto's early Fifties ensemble, Santos was a pioneer who participated in one of the first recordings in the genre's history, 1958's "No More Blues," while Tereza Souza scored a string of hits during bossa nova's heyday. But Luciana's parents weren't the only ones who contributed to her musical education. Her baptismal godfather is the multimedia maestro Hermeto Paschoal, and Brazilian legends such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Cartola, Vinicius de Moraes, Nara Leão, and Milton Nascimento frequented her childhood home.

The songstress first came to the United States as a teenager in 1986 to study at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating, she temporarily returned to Brazil, where she taught for five years at São Paulo's Unicamp. But she was soon back in the U.S. and teaching at Berklee. For the past three years she has taught at the Manhattan School of Music.

Although Souza hails from one of the most celebrated families in Brazil, she has rarely recognized that country in her music. Initially she believed this separation was necessary for her career. She didn't want to become one more stereotypical "ethnic performer."

"I never really set out a strategy for my career," Souza says. "My label is in the U.S., and I do my work here because this is my home, where I have settled. I have never set out to reach out [to] homesick Brazilians in my shows or recordings."

On her first album, 1999's The Answer to Your Silence, Souza explored the jazzy sounds around her at the time. She quickly followed up that album with 2000's The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs, which reinterpreted the verse of American poet Elizabeth Bishop and placed fifth in the New York Times critics' choice for 2000. Not until the 2001 release of her first Duos album did Souza begin to fully embrace her Brazilian heritage. Much like her recent CD, the original Duos featured reinterpretations of classic Brazilian songs. The disc was an unqualified success, earning critical acclaim and even a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Album. But ever careful not to fall into the trap of stereotypical renditions, she next released the equally acclaimed Neruda, a jazz-oriented album celebrating the centennial of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda with ten songs reinterpreting Neruda's tender, amorous poems.

As a result of her conscientious attempts to downplay her background, Souza's concerts have few Brazilians in the audience. Drop her name around the expat community and not many have even heard of the singer. Her fans are primarily composed of American jazz enthusiasts, Europeans, and especially the Japanese.

"I have noticed some resentment from Brazilians that my sound is too Americanized," she admits. "I would love to perform more frequently in Brazil, but touring there is just too complicated and costly at present."

That acrimony might wane after her current album. With Duos II Souza merits inclusion in a distinguished list of Brazilian talents -- including percussionist Airto Moreira, producer/pianist Eumir Deodato, and pianist Eliane Elias -- who made their names in other genres before embracing their native music. Duos II pays tribute to many of Brazil's most famous samba composers and includes compositions by crossover jazz/samba pianist Ivan Lins, Jobim, Nelson Cavaquinho, and many others.

Souza believes her critical and commercial successes have allowed her to return to her roots without the fear of being categorized. And though she is wary of being labeled strictly a Brazilian musician, she cannot resist the pull of her homeland. "I wanted to record an album with the music I grew up to," she simply states.

But Souza does more than pay tribute to the greatest songwriters of her country. Like the most accomplished vocalist, she bends and molds the covers into deeply personal statements. One of Duos' highlights is the poignant Chico Buarque song "Trocando em Miúdos" (which roughly translates as "To Make a Long Story Short"). Souza's voice portrays a mixture of sadness and relief as she comes to terms with a romantic breakup: "Aquela aliança, você pode empenhar, ou derreter..../As devo dizer que não vou lhe dar o enorme prazer de me ver chorar..../Devolva o Neruda que você me tomou/Eu nunca leu...." (You can either melt or pawn our wedding rings..../But I should say I will not give you the pleasure of seeing me cry..../Give me back the Neruda you borrowed but never read.... )

"I was married for fifteen years," Souza says, "and anyone who has gone through the end of a relationship can understand the sheer descriptive [power] of those words."

Another highlight of the album is "Muita Bobeira" ("A Lot of Foolishness"), a samba Souza wrote in her teens. Guitarist Romero Lubambo delivers a maddening succession of chords that gives this simple number a sophisticated, jazzy feel. And Souza delves further into her personal history on the outstanding "Você" ("You"), a previously unreleased song by her parents in which Guilherme Monteiro's effects-filled electric guitar creates a dreamlike, psychedelic vibe.

"I wanted to give this song a somewhat surreal feel," Souza says. "I wanted the recording to have this guitar sustain, and an almost dreamy effect to it."

This interweaving of national pride and personal investment has made Duos II one of Souza's strongest albums to date. But fans of the CD are advised to savor the moment, because there's no telling what direction this adventuresome and endlessly talented performer will go next.

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Ernest Barteldes