By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
The evening’s moderator steps onstage. He tells us that three years ago the Soraya , a magnificent Center for the Performing Arts, started a jazz club on its premise. Located in “the Valley” of Los Angeles, at 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge, California, on the campus of California State University Northridge (CSUN), this huge theatrical facility simulated a smaller area inside the building that features an evening of intimate jazz. It’s my first time visiting this architecturally beautiful, all glass, building. This is the ninth year of the award-winning Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center. The 1,700-seat theatre was designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. It was recently cited by the Los Angeles Times as “a growing hub for live music, dance, drama and other cultural events.” Tonight, the small room they’ve created seats about 250 people. Several patrons swarm around the wine-tasting table and there’s a full bar available just outside the jazz room. There is table seating upfront and theater seating in the rear.
The evening’s featured artist is Luciana Souza. She is a Brazilian vocalist with Sao Paulo roots. She took the stage with two other musicians who she introduced. Ms. Souza told us she met Scott Colley (bassist) in New York and fell in love with his playing. “He is an architect of our music,” she gushed. Next, she introduced Chico Pinheiro, a guitarist also from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Luciana and Chico met at Berklee College of music and Souza told us he is a great storyteller on his instrument and a very popular instrumentalist in Brazil. She went on to say that poetry deepens our humanness. “It’s always fertile ground,” Luciana asserted. That’s why she adopted some of the poetry of Leonard Cohn and set his prose to music. She spoke the words of Cohn over the silence in the packed auditorium. Then, her two-man band began to play. First Scott Colley’s bass set the tempo. Ms. Souza, standing before a snare drum and a single cymbal began gently stroking the cymbal with her brushes. She tilted her head back and began to sing. Enter Chico Pinheiro on guitar. Our concert has begun.
The second tune was more energetic with tempo changes from hot, Latin rhythms reduced fluidly to a sultry ballad. Souza plays her percussion instruments effortlessly, tossing the Portuguese language into the mix on the fade of this song. Her vocal notes fall like shiny pebbles onto a rushing musical stream. At the conclusion of this song, the applause is generous, as she tunes her tambourine in preparation for their third song. Scott opens with a deep, bass solo introduction, setting the mood and tempo. It’s a happy tune that makes me want to dance. I wish Ms. Souza had told us the titles of the songs they played. She mentioned a few along the way, but not many.
“Being from Brazil means a wealth of music we get to drink,” she spoke to the attentive audience. Speaking of drinks, we sat there sipping our wine, enjoying the music with beverages sponsored by WINC, an online wine distributor. Luciana Souza told us one composer she loves is Milton Nascimento. She explained, he was born in a hilly state inside Brazil, lush with mountains and she tells us his music is open and elevated like his countryside. On this tune, she features the poetry of Charles Simic, a Serbian/American poet and former co-poetry editor of the Paris Review.
Continuing, Scott pulls out his bow and the bass trembles in a beautiful way. There are no words on this tune. Souza scats her way atop the music, making warm sounds like tropical bird calls and mountain winds. She is consistently singing and playing percussion, which is impressive. However, I do wish her percussion had been more dynamic, instead of just the whisper of rhythm. It was teasingly pleasing. A few bursts of percussion to vibrantly support these amazing musicians would have escalated her production and elevated her percussive playing. Her voice, however, is a lovely instrument and one of the songs she sang was very much a ‘saudade’ ballad that hauntingly floats across Chico’s beautiful guitar background. It’s almost a blues. On this song, the improvisation between guitar and bass is palpable and excites everyone at my table. Luciana Souza sings long, legato lines, holding the final notes of her phrasing tenderly, as though they are her babies. She swings on the end of this tune and scats. On this song, I finally hear some energy in her percussive playing.
Luciana Souza adds a small taste of activism to her program on her second set. She tells us, “we are living in strange times. I couldn’t vote in Brazil for a while when the military took over. So, I have seen some things,” she shared and then sang:
“These are the roads we travel. I don’t know how to get back to you. … These are the wars we fight. These are the tears we shed. … I don’t know how to get back to you.” Scott Colley, during his bass solo, is brilliant and her voice is like a soft blanket that gently covers his booming bass sound. His instrument bleeds through, accenting the lyrical content.
“These are the duties of the heart. These are the books we read. These are the roads less travelled. I don’t know how to get back to you,” she sings, floating on a second-soprano cloud across a misty, emotional stage.
I long for a program insert, in the main Performing Arts Booklet, that listed tune titles. I enjoyed her patter between songs, describing her beloved Brazil and sharing spoken word or stories about the poets, but I wish she had told us the titles of her repertoire as she celebrated “The Book of Longing” (her latest CD release) that tributes poets like Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christina Rossetti with original music.