CLAUDIA VILLELA TRIO
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Claudia Villela contains multitudes. More than a virtuosic improviser, the Brazilian vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist is a conjurer who channels the music’s deepest emotional roots. In a career spanning more than three decades, she’s recorded with many of jazz’s most adventurous improvisers, from Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner to Michael Brecker and Toninho Horta. “Ms. Villela turns her towering voice into a cello, or skitters through percussive scatting against a fast, rippling two-hand invention on the keyboard, or sings poems in Portuguese,” Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times.
A precious addition to her slim discography, her new album Encantada Live offers the widest view yet of a singularly boundless artist. A collection of live tracks recorded in a variety of settings with an array of Villela’s longtime collaborators, Encantada captures her musical imagination at its most vivid and arresting, alternating between intimate duets and exquisitely textured small combos. Unleashing a sumptuous flow of sounds with impromptu lyrics and ravishing melodic flights, Villela evokes ineffable spirits and earthy delights, beatific visions and verdant landscapes. It’s music to dream by, created by a fearless sonic explorer on a perpetual search for beauty.
“It’s like when you’re being photographed and you don’t know it: this was an album I wasn’t posing for at all,” Villela says. “There are no fixes. It’s about the gestalt with these musicians, and the magic that took place in those moments, totally improvising and in my element. I remember the goose bumps, and not being so aware of myself.”
In many ways Encantada is the work of an artist literally rising from the ashes. On a visit to her family in Rio in December 2017 she awoke to discover her apartment ablaze, a fire ignited by an electrical short circuit. She barely escaped, suffering some 2nd-degree burns and smoke inhalation, but she lost countless family treasures and the masters of an album that was nearly complete. Like many musicians, Villela is intensely self-critical about her own work, but the brush with disaster left her determined to open up the spigot.
“I want to put everything out,” she says. “I’m not going to hold it back. This is a cathartic album. It portrays what I want to do and what I want to be. I lost so much, all my photographs, recordings I’d been working on for two years. It left with me with a deeper recognition of the preciousness of time. It’s time to really live in the moment and move on.”
Encantada opens and closes with her freely improvised encounters with Santa Fe acoustic guitar wizard Bruce Dunlap, capturing Villela’s vast aural palette and her gift for crafting lyrics on the fly. The album’s centerpiece is “Minas,” another chapter in her singular partnership with Kenny Werner. Recorded live in Seattle, it’s an evolving soundscape that bursts with melodic invention, a 14-minute sojourn that unfolds like a journey through the spectacular topology and folklore of Minas Gerais, where her mother was born.
Featuring a septet with the extraordinary Brazilian pianist Jasnan Daya Singh (formerly Weber Iago, formerly Weber Drummond), three pieces come from a performance at the Jazz at Filoli series in the Bay Area community of Woodside. “Viola Fora de Moda” finds Villela soaring as an inspired interpreter of MPB master Edu Lobo, who hailed the recording with a hearty “Brava!” saying it was a perfect interpretation of his song.
“Taina” opens with an atmospheric, freely improvised passage, references Nascimento, and showcases the formidable band, with a particularly incisive guitar solo by Ricardo Peixoto. (“Taina,” also the name of Villela’s label, means “the first light in the darkness” in the Tupi-Guarani language.) And forró master Alex Madureira’s “Cumeno com Cuentro” features Villela in full horn mode, her wordless scat solo as agile and rhythmically advanced as any saxophonist.
She recorded the haunting ballad “Negra” and the sumptuously lyrical “Jangada” at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, clearly feeling at ease in her hometown venue. The former is an intimate duet with guitarist Jeff Buenz, while the latter features Buenz, Villela on piano, veteran bassist Gary Brown, and highly responsive Brazilian-born drummer Celso Alberti, who also mastered the album. The brief, sublime wordless vocal on Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas #5” expands on the seminal musical language of composer Villa-Lobos, a universal idiom shared by Villela and Ricardo Peixoto.
Born August 27, 1961 in Rio de Janeiro, Claudia Villela was weaned on music. As a child, she’d fall asleep at night listening to the sounds of a samba school practicing behind her grandmother’s home. She woke up to her mother singing lissom melodies with her father’s harmonica. “My music is the sum of all the sounds I’ve heard, from Brazilian macumba, to free form jazz, to European classical music,” Villela says. “It comes from all those memories.”
She started singing in college festivals around Rio at age 15, and before long found work as a studio musician, singing backup and improvising vocals for film soundtracks. She also started performing around the city, while developing a book of original songs featuring her lyrics and music. Initially planning to enroll in medical school, Villela decided to combine her two passions and earned a B.A. in music therapy from the Brazilian Conservatory of Music.
“I was always fascinated about the link between psychology and physiology and the healing aspect of music,” she says. Treating patients (including autistic children) with music made Villela realize the shamanic side of sound, a power she draws on in performance. “Intuition is so important. To this day, when I’m singing, I go to the emotion. I’m looking for real moments of connection.”
Relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1980s, Villela quickly immersed herself in the region’s thriving jazz scene, gaining valuable experience with the Down Beat-award winning De Anza College Jazz Singers. She won a number of scholarships, including one to study with NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan at the Manhattan School of Music, and with John Robert Dunlap of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Villela made her recording debut with 1994’s Grammy-nominated Asa Verde, an ambitious project featuring her original songs and arrangements (and one song co-written with Jasnan Daya Singh). Joined by a stellar cast of collaborators, including pianist Marcos Silva, reed expert Andy Connell, and guitarists Ray Obiedo, Ricardo Peixoto, and Carlos Oliveira, she followed up with 1998’s breakthrough Supernova, another project that focused on her original songs (including several co-written with Peixoto). Featuring jazz heavyweights like tenor sax star Michael Brecker, pianist Mark Soskin, bassist Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S), and legendary Brazilian guitarist/composer Toninho Horta, the album gained international attention and rapturous reviews.
Her collaboration with Peixoto reached a stunning creative cresecendo with 2001’s Inverse/Universe, an inticately arranged masterwork that opened up far-reaching harmonic and melodic horizons for Brazilian jazz. With contributions by harmonica legend Toots Thielemans (who famously partnered with Elis Regina) and saxophonist Bob Sheppard, Villela surrounded herself with similarly intrepid explorers.
With every album that she’s released, Villela has revealed a dazzling new twist of her kaleidoscopically creative musical world. On 2004’s Dreamtales, the breathtaking set of duo improvisations with piano master Kenny Werner, they went into the studio with no music and created a startlingly beautiful and cohesive set of spontaneous compositions. More than just keeping up with Werner, Villela soared through a six-hour session, exchanging ideas with the prodigious pianist and creating instantaneous songs. (A taste of their style of interplay is heard on the new album’s “Minas,” recorded at the Triple Door in Seattle.)
“We did this all day and it kept working,” Werner says. “I don’t think I’ve had that experience with a singer. I remember listening to it and going under that spell. She sent the tape out to a bunch of people and when I ran into Pat Metheny he said, ‘I love that thing you guys did.’ It’s really stream-of-consciousness music.”
Villela offered her first glimpse of her captivating concert persona on Live @ Kuumbwa 2004. On a performance originally broadcast by NPR, she stretches out on extended versions of her original songs with a superb quintet featuring the keyboardist Marcos Silva and the late, brilliant Dutch-born drummer Paul van Wageningen (one of the people to whom Encantada is dedicated). She’s built her international reputation with her enthralling performances at festivals, concert halls, and jazz clubs around the world.
Encantada expands the view of Villela from a glimpse into a full kaleidoscopic vision. While she’s performed on many of jazz’s greatest stages, she’s released only a precious few albums over the past 25 years. Encantada offers the most expansive look yet at one of the most insistently inventive and aurally alluring Brazilian jazz vocalists in the world. She’s promising that it’s the first of several to follow in quick succession. •
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