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Luciana Souza: The Voice of Jazz

Grammy winner, exceptional singer, and audacious composer Luciana Souza is one of the most remarkable performers in contemporary jazz. In honor of her presence at the Panama Jazz Festival 2018, we take advantage of her visit to the Isthmus to learn more about her career and her work.

 Text and Photos: Roberto Quintero

Luciana Souza has a genius for singing. Hailing from São Paulo (Brazil), she is the daughter of singer-songwriter Walter Santos and poet-lyricist Tereza Souza, two bossa nova icons from the São Paulo scene. Thanks to the music she absorbed practically from birth, the 51-year-old performer started singing in early childhood. At the age of just twenty, she embarked on a one-way trip to the United States in hopes of becoming a professional musician. She landed in Boston, where she earned a B.A. in Jazz Composition at Berklee College of Music and an M.A. in Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music.

The product of a fortuitous combination of talent and academics, not to mention the excellent relationships she forged with musicians from around the world during her years in Boston, singer and composer Luciana Souza is recognized as one of the most significant voices in contemporary jazz. It is obvious why the Jazz Journalists Association has twice named Luciana Souza Female Vocalist of the Year. As a band leader, she has released eleven outstanding albums, including Brazilian Duos, North and South, Duos II, Tide, Duos III, and The Book of Chet, which have received favorable reviews and multiple nominations and awards.

Luciana Souza is one of the guests of honor at the Panama Jazz Festival 2018. We make good use of the occasion to talk with her and find out more about her beginnings, her Brazilian roots, and the music she likes, and to better understand the creative processes behind some of her most important albums.

You started singing at the age of three. How did that come about? 

My mom and dad are musicians and they used to compose jingles to earn money. Since I wasn’t in school yet at age 3, I spent all my time with them. I remember lying down under the piano and listening to everything from there. So, I just naturally started singing jingles at a very young age. They might have been doing an ad for sweets or a doll, for example, and they needed a young girl’s voice. And I had a good memory for songs from early on. But my parents didn’t just say, “She’s going to be a singer.” It happened in a natural, uncontrived way in our family. In fact, all of my siblings were drawn into music: my brother plays the piano and my sister plays ukulele. And now all of us have careers in music.

When did you know you were going to focus on a career in music? 

It was a complicated decision. My parents didn’t want us to be professional musicians, because as musicians themselves, they knew how difficult the profession is. It’s not an easy career, especially in Brazil. They wanted us to be doctors, lawyers, or anything but musicians. But my dad knew that I was truly obsessed with music, and I think he also understood that I had a talent for singing. It turned out that my brother —two years older than me— went to Berklee College of Music to study film scoring. He called me and said: “You have to come here; this place is amazing and people really take things seriously.” That was in 1985. He helped me by explaining everything I needed to do to apply for a scholarship; I was awarded a scholarship and went to study at that school.

When you decided to study music and make it your career, was it a problem that your parents had objections and fears?

No. But they did want me to earn a degree; that was very important to them. My father never studied; he was a natural musician who played by ear. They considered it important to encourage us to study and that we finish school. I’m very grateful for that, because I attended two very good schools where I not only learned a lot, but I also had great teachers and forged important relationships with people from around the world. That would not have happened if I had remained in Brazil. I could have had a really good career in music there, of course, but I would have been doing the same thing other people were doing. I wanted something more. I wanted jazz.

That’s evident in your first two albums, An Answer to Your Silence and The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs. Both show a very experimental side, far from your Brazilian roots. 

They’re very avant-garde albums with wild compositions; it was a more intellectual quest. They answer to my need to explore different aspects of music, to dip my toes into jazz and say: “I’m not just going to do Brazilian stuff.” I had an open mind and I was also afraid that my life would be limited to, “She’s from Brazil, she does Brazilian music.” Of course, I don’t want to reject my Brazilianness; I am Brazilian. But I also want to embrace other things. I was really afraid of being pigeon-holed in Brazil. I don’t have that feeling anymore. I’m 50 now and I’ve made a lot of music. I feel free to do only Brazilian music if I feel like it. I’ve been exploring other things for a long time, opening doors rather than closing them.

You also recorded an album with songs by Chet Baker. Why did you feel the urge to sing and record his music? And his music is wonderful. 

My father used to listen to Chet Baker a lot, and I don’t know, I love to stay in touch with things that make me feel good. Connecting with this music is like having a friend visit you and continuously show you things. For me, when Chet sings or plays —especially when he sings— it’s so profound that everything else seems to fade away. And at the same time, there’s something very basic: he sings like a child. He has really good pitch and he takes the notes head on. I like a direct approach to the notes; it’s like poetry that is direct, that moves you and touches you deeply. The purity of his voice makes you pay attention to the lyrics, it lets you understand the beauty of the feeling behind the poetry of the words. It’s a learning experience for me. And well, I wanted to make an album of only ballads. It was interesting, since I got a lot of criticism from people in the U.S. and around the world. They said, “Why only ballads? You’re going to put me to sleep.” But there is something profound in these songs; for me, singing these songs is like meditating. It’s something more introspective, meditative even.

Which musicians do you identify with from Brazil’s vast musical universe? Who has influenced you? 

Since I was born in 1966, I grew up listening to João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Ellis Regina, Chico Buarque, and Milton Nascimento, who have been very important in my life. I feel very fortunate to have been born in Brazil. And more so at that particular time, when the quality of the music played on the radio was amazing, with fantastic melodies and harmonies, and beautiful poetry. They’re all geniuses. And it’s a great learning experience for me to observe how their musical careers have evolved.