Jazz Notes Intel: The Truth Chapter with Vocalist Extraordinaire Luciana Souza; Pianist Uri Caine Celebrating Pioneer Civil Rights Hero Octavius Catto; Singer Roseanna Vitro; and Clarinetist Andy Biskin
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, September 4, 2018
After three years ruminating on her next project, the elegant Grammy Awards vocalist winner Luciana Souza has returned with not one, but two recordings—her beautifully reflective album of poetry that she set to music, The Book of Longing (her ninth album for Sunnyside Records), and an alchemic collaboration with the Los Angeles-based jazz collective Yellowjackets (17 Grammy nominations for its 30 albums) on Raising Our Voice (Mack Avenue Records).
At the heart of both projects, the Brazil-born, L.A replant Souza says, is the belief that truth as our moral barometer has been tilted in these times the wrong way. As regards her new solo work, which calls out for inner peace, she says, “It is truth because the music and lyrics are telling about life. It feels like morally we’re in a pit as all we’ve tried to build is being deconstructed right in front of us. I’m hoping the music I make will bring in some stillness in the midst, a time to be honest, to rest, to go inward.”
The spare and pensive The Book of Longing is a captivating song cycle of poems Souza wrote along with four darkened gems by iconic troubadour Leonard Cohen from his 2006 poetry collection, Book of Longing (hence her paying tribute to him with her title). “Leonard’s poems are so direct,” she says. “They’re not high-brow. They’re very much in place as to what he wanted to express.”
Souza also delivers the winter-of-your-love mediation by Edna St. Vincent Millay “Alms”; the most hopeful tune of the pack, Emily Dickenson’s night-vision poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”; and a sober look to the future in Christina Rosetti’s “Remember.” That’s the album finale, but Souza says that it links right back to where the recording started in the same key with her original melodic beauty “These Things,” musing about “the roads that took us nowhere/or somewhere/I don’t know how to get back to you”).
The music is played by the stellar trio of guitarist Chico Pinheiro and bassist Scott Colley, both of whom deliver sumptuous support that goes beyond the basics of rhythm. Souza added in percussion in an overdub. “I’ve used fewer instruments than previously,” she says. “I love music that grooves, but I wanted to get deeper into the passionate, to unzip it. The music is comforting but also is dark. But I don’t fear it; I’m not afraid to go to that place because it can heal.” With an unpretentious sense of vulnerability, she confronts the challenges of personal politics on her original “Tonight”:
We were not meant to last at all
You laid the blame, I took the fall
You rose so high I lost my sight
The storm will see us through tonight
“This a story of the leading to the end,” she says. “It’s a relationship of sorts, a completed cycle. Believe me, in my life I have known the turbulent times with family, friends, so I’m not hesitant to go there. There’s the sadness and reflection, but that‘s where the growth comes. If you’re closed off to that, nothing can get through the brokenness.”
As for delving into poetry in the day of fast YouTube and Spotify hits, Souza says, “Poetry requires an act of concentration. Poetry opens you to other parts of your brain and can offer new revelations.” Produced by her husband Larry Klein, The Book of Longing is a masterwork by Souza, who has said, “The greatest truths can be expressed silently.”
While The Book of Longing was a project that was long in incubation, Souza’s involvement with the Yellowjackets started off as a one-shot add-on of her wonderful wordless vocals on a couple of songs that led to her collaboration with the electro-acoustic quartet on more than half the album’s tracks. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer says, “Luciana altered the equation in the band. She added the seasoning. She’s a fantastic musician. She brought a lot to the table.”
With Raising Our Voice, the Jackets are making a blatant call out against the present dysfunction of the U.S. leadership. Founding member and keyboardist Russ Ferrante says, “We’re making a statement. We’re adding our voice to the resist movements. We felt it was time to bring the truth.”
With support from Souza’s vocals, Ferrante contributes the moving, introspective tune “Mutuality,” based on the Martin Luther King Jr. speech, “Network of Mutuality.” The harmony goes through every key (minor and major). “This is a good example of making a statement but on a subtle side,” he says. “It really connects to the title of the album, which has a political slant. It’s about waking up to see what’s going on. We take everything for granted. A lot of musicians get in their own bubbles of charts and harmony, but don’t connect to the world we live in. We need to be less preoccupied and see the urgency of making music as a resistance.”
Souza adds, “Raising Our Voice is about artistry being an act of resistance. We didn’t talk much in the studio about all that’s going on now, but we were aware of being bombarded by all the violence and social media and the disrespectful, amoral times we’re living in.”
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SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: URI CAINE
“We’re going back and still dealing with the same problems,” says pianist/composer Uri Caine in a short break from recording his ambitious oratorio about the Philadelphia pre- and post- Civil War Philadelphia civil rights pioneer, educator and early hero of African-American baseball. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, on August 23 Caine was bringing to life the ten-chapter The Passion of Octavius Catto with a 72-piece orchestra at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music smack dab in the midst of the Hudson Yards construction zone. Release of the album will arrive in 2019.
In the afternoon session, Caine played fleet-fingered avant piano splashes, dissonant pounces and keyboard exclamation points as the 37-member chamber orchestra swirled with melodic strings, bolted with horn accents, flurried with rhythmic flow that was dotted by pockets of clopping percussion. Conducted by Philadelphia’s esteemed conductor André Rafael who threw himself into the music, the piece moved slowly, with the engineer meticulously stopping and starting sections that would be perfect for the final edition of the live-in-studio album.
Many commissions fall flat because of contrived, cerebral, unimaginative composition, but not so for Caine’s work of art, originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and debuted in 2014 at a free outdoor concert at Mann Center in Philadelphia in 2014 with 15,000 people attending. It teems with passion in celebrating one of our country’s largely unknown heroes of the early struggles for civil rights, black suffrage and integration. Caine read the 2010 Catto biography Tasting Freedom by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin. “Octavius Catto was the 19th century’s Martin Luther King Jr,” he said. “But he has been a forgotten figure in U.S. history.”
The 37-year-old Catto was assassinated in 1871 as he was voting in a mob-marred setting by a white Irish American opposed to the anti-reconstruction gains by blacks, including the 15th Amendment passed in 1869 that gave black men the freedom to vote. The murderer was never convicted of his crime. It wasn’t until 2017 that the city of Philadelphia officially recognized Catto by enacting a 12-foot bronze statue of him—the first monument in the city to honor an African American.
Joined by his jazz trio of bassist Mike Boone and drummer Clarence Penn, Caine’s music is a striking amalgam of classical, jazz, gospel and pop that he says is an attempt to be a statement against the political climate of dividing people. When asked if he thought perhaps The Passion of Octavius Catto might move the needle a little in this disjunction, he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “We can only hope.”
An uplifting component of the music is the inclusion of a 32-member gospel choir (for the New York session, 22 were from the city with 10 singers from Philadelphia). The star of this section is renowned soprano Barbara Walker. “Uri called me in January 2014 about starting rehearsals for this performance in June, but I didn’t think it was possible. But it came to fruition,” she said shortly before heading into the studio to sing her solo. “At first, I didn’t even know who Octavius Catto was. But with Uri’s work, we have to spread the word about our forgotten heroes. Octavius was a civil rights leader before his time.”
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THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
A civil rights leader of his time, jazz vocalist/vocalese improviser Jon Hendricks passed away late last year, but Grammy-nominated vocalist/storyteller Roseanna Vitro honors the master with her vital Skyline Records release, Tell Me the Truth, titled after his poignant ‘70s song attacking deceit that’s ripe for the backwards time we’re living in…She soulfully sings, “Truth’s disappearing till it’s out of sight” and “The people playing the game don’t know the score/They’re asleep and they show it,” among other lyrical jolts of integrity in a catchy jazz setting with her stellar Southern Roots Band…In her liners, Vitro explains how the song-rich album—with updated version of tunes from Mose Allison to the Everly Brothers to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Southern gospel—is her statement against her disdain of racism and inequality: “Each song in this collection is my Americana, my Truth”…Amen and hear it live at the new, intimate Birdland Theater September 13-15…Speaking of which, the legacy of American folk song culture collected by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax…a treasure trove of what has made our country a land of remarkable music…Having worked with Lomax in his twenties and becoming intimately conversant with the thousands of collected tunes, clarinetist/bass clarinetist Andy Biskin turns the page, translating folk melody into an imaginative jazz setting on his album 16 Tons: Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection (AnDorfinRecords)…He upholds the purity of the indelible melodies and he and his trumpet-trio and bassless 16 Tons quintet create an intriguing improvisational world for them to find new life…Like pianist Tigran Hamasyan opened a jazz window into his native Armenian folk tradition, Biskin has found the perfect fount for the wealth of roots music here…Highlights include the frolicking “Muscrat” (a children’s song), the sobering beauty of “Am I Born to Die?” (a hymn from the sacred harp shape-note tradition), the brilliantly arranged North Carolina folk tune “Tom Dooley” about infidelity, revenge and ultimately murder, and the chugging thrill ride through ”She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain”….In the liners, Biskin writes that Lomax “was a tireless advocate for what he, way before his time, termed cultural equity, giving all cultures an equal voice and promoting their diversity and preservation”… Do we need more of that today?….Indeed, may music save us.
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Cover: Luciana Souza; photo: Anna Webber.