The Quiet Truths of Luciana Souza
Sometimes, the greatest truths can be expressed silently. The Brazilian born jazz singer Luciana Souza is a highly celebrated vocalist, who also communicates beautifully without words.
Luciana Souza is a celebrated jazz vocalist known for her powerful, emotive voice and her work across musical genres.
Born in 1966 in São Paulo, Brazil, Souza made her first recording at age 3, and recorded hundreds of radio station jingles by the time she was 16. She studied jazz composition at Berklee College of Music and earned a master’s at the New England Conservatory.
Souza has performed and recorded with many prominent musicians, including Paul Simon and Bobby McFerrin. She released her first album, An Answer to Your Silence, in 1998, and received her first of seven Grammy nominations for her 2002 album Brazilian Duos. Her 2007 release The New Bossa Nova adapted pop standards by such artists as James Taylor and the Beach Boys to Brazilian rhythm. The same year, she won a Grammy with Herbie Hancock for his collection of Joni Mitchell covers.
Souza has also performed as a soloist, premiering numerous contemporary classical works and featuring with the New York Philharmonic,the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the chamber music ensemble A Far Cry, among other groups.
Luciana Souza has reinterpreted Chet Baker, set James Taylor and Brian Wilson to bossa nova rhythms, made music from the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda, and sung tributes to Joni Mitchell. But the condition this Grammy-winning jazz vocalist seeks above all involves not a single note.
Luciana Souza: For me, I have to think forward and I have to stay in the moment. And it’s very hard to empty yourself so I try to be as quiet as I can. Silence is supreme to me. I like not to be listening.
It’s within this deep repose that Souza thinks back on the Brazilian childhood that shaped her, on her life today with music producer Larry Klein and their son, and ahead toward the new. A few years ago, Souza’s reflections on the connective power of sound led her towards the creation of Speaking in Tongues, an album in which all five musicians hail from different countries and traditions, and yet speak a single, evocative language: music. Souza adopts scat syllables, wordless vocalizations, for much of the album. Still, her intentions, her emotions, ring clear. The daughter of a musician father and poet mother, Souza’s Brazilian roots taught her, she says, just how physical music can be.
Souza: Music, to Brazilians, has to be something, I think, physical, you know? So the dancing, but also the touching, the connecting, music has to be central. It has to be something that I could whisper in your ear, or shout it. It has to come close to you. And I think that’s why we dance so close to each other. And that’s why we’re so okay with our bodies and the way, at least I think, we still are.
Souza says that in her, at least, this comfort with closeness, established from a young age, is an unchangeable part of who she is.
Souza: I had a long marriage before this current marriage, and I would go home for the holidays and I would sleep in my mother’s bed with her. You know, I’m in my thirties and people are like, “Are you crazy?” But I love her pillow, I love the way it smelled, and I love her, and I, you know. We still had this deep physical connection. With my dad, I would lay down next to him and watch a movie and just be completely enmeshed with him, you know, as an adult. You don’t see that.
Musicians, Souza says, must make themselves vulnerable. It’s a standard she seeks for her own work, a standard that she admits is hard to attain.
Souza: But I’m not interested in impressing. I mean, I want to make an impression on you. When I put my, you know, if I make an impression on my skin, that it marks, right? You feel something. I want that from you, as an audience member, but primarily from myself. I want to impress myself when I sing. But not impress myself as, “Oh, she can sing circles around whatever, that note, or roll it, or hold it for…” But to really make an impression, like, “You will feel something.” That’s what I want, and that’s what I think these composers can do with their music, which is really, really incredible.
Luciana Souza’s 2017 collaboration, a song-cycle called The Blue Hour, was commissioned by the Grammy-nominated chamber orchestra, A Far Cry. The lyrics are fashioned from the Carolyn Forché poem, “On Earth.” The performance requires Souza to create a whole out of fragments. It puts her where she likes to be: right on the very edge of uncertainty and silence.
(Souza singing from The Blue Hour):
Between here and here
Between hidden points in the soul
Between saying and said
Souza: It’s a long work of lifting this massive poem from the page. And it’s about a life that’s come to an end, and you’re sort of going through these images. And they’re random. There’s no narration, there’s no narrative, there’s no real passage of time, but there are things that have happened in this life, so it’s as if you’re looking through a box of photographs and recalling things. But it’s brilliant, and I’m just puzzled every time I sing it, and I’ve only done it a few times. It just keeps coming, revealing itself and showing things, you know, illuminating things to me. And then it hides other things, and I go looking for it, and then it’s gone because with music it’s all gone, right? You can’t hold on to it.
(Souza singing from The Blue Hour):
Biting are the fears
Black storms of dreams
But rose in love
Blossoms yet again inside us
Both windows open
To whatever may happen
The art of lifting poetry from the page is familiar territory for Souza, who has discovered in her favorite poets, e e cummings, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Browning, Elizabeth Bishop, and Leonard Cohen, essential common ground. Each poet, for Souza, holds unique attractions.
Souza: I think they all speak about love, and I can’t sing of anything except love, whether it’s love for people, romantic love, or love for nature, love for love, and the idea that love is healing, or it’s the only thing that we should care about, really, as we go through this planet, as we walk around as lost souls. I think it’s really… That’s what we crave. That’s what we need. That’s what’s going to carry through your life, is how you loved, how well you loved, and make that a verb, right? It is to love someone, and how you do that to everyone that you meet, everyone you encounter, everyone you can connect with. Whether you’re in a hotel and you see the maid or the doorman, the taxi driver, the Uber guy, everyone. Everyone. You can change the world by just being kind and loving.
Souza will, she says, continue to experiment, and at times, she will fail.
Souza: I mean, I’ve hurt people. I’ve made bad things and bad choices. I’ve done that, of course, yeah. But I’ve given myself second chances and I’ve thought, I mean, just like in music, I mean, I sing, and it ain’t perfect. It’s not gonna be… you know, that note that I imagined was gonna come out with this much here, and I could hold this long, and oh, the violin player stopped playing, I’m “Ah!” you know. It’s all going through my head as I’m going. But I forgive myself and the next day, I learn. I’m studying, and I’m still continuing. That’s what I’m hoping.
But music, like life, is an amazing, forgiving thing, says Souza. Songs can be sung again, arguments can turn, harmony can finally settle in.
Hello my love, and my love, goodbye
Here it is
Here it is