PORTLAND—If you were hoping for a red-hot Latina performance at the Portland Jazz Festival’s opener Thursday, you didn’t get it.
You got more. You got different. You got Luciana Souza for 90-plus minutes of pure-voiced singing that earned her four Grammy nominations and a reputation for making poetry of jazz and music of poetry.
The Brazilian-born Souza, educated at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and New England Conservatory of Music, is far more than chanteuse. She is songwriter, poet, scat genius, and brilliantly understated interpreter of Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and the bossa nova guys including her father Walter Santos and fellow Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim. Her range reaches to James Taylor and Brian Wilson though she stuck more to South American roots for this gig. Her samba rhythms and phrasing are unmistakably Brazilian despite her 25 years of absorbing American music.
Who needs a drummer with her around? She brushed a hand-held drum pad, fingered the tambourine and played the triangle while she sang in Portuguese or English. Still, the vibe was more minimalist than flashy.
Virtuoso guitarist Larry Koonse, who collaborated on her recent CD, “Tide,” accompanied her along with Toronto-born bassist David Piltch, with whom Souza had never before worked. Piltch, who sided with Blood, Sweat and Tears in his teenage days and such singers as k.d. Lang and Madeleine Peyroux later, is a dynamic player. OK. He was excellent and a helluva showboat, but maybe Souza could have taken a chance on one of Portland’s top-notch bassists.
After one rehearsal, the three sounded as if they’d known each others’ riffs and idiosyncrasies for a lifetime, or at least for a few shows or studio sessions. Nothing more was needed but better acoustics at the Hilton, but then again, what’s new?
Among the night’s sizzlers was Souza’s rendition of “Down to You” from Joni Mitchell’s 1974 “Court and Spark” album, a huge influence on Souza as a young musician. (Souza, by the way, is married to music producer Larry Klein, Mitchell’s former husband.) The two women have a lyric and poetic connection you can’t miss, though Souza’s mellow mezzo doesn’t sear like Mitchell’s soprano.
Other favorites were the lively “Pato,” a snappy tune about a duck sung in Portuguese, and nods to love songs and standards, including “The Very Thought of You” and Ella-influenced “All Too Soon.” Paul Simon’s “Amulet” (with no real words) and a story/tune about a 104-year-old blind Brazilian man who died of a heart attack as he smelled a beautiful woman coming closer, added to the generally light-hearted mix.
To end the show, Souza sang (in English) “The Waters of March,” a Jobim masterpiece filled with gorgeous words. If you missed everything before this one, the evening would have been worth it.