Jazz vocalists don’t typically give me the same charge I get from jazz instrumentalists, but there are always a few exceptions to the rule. These are ones who break from the usual torch singer prescription of performing standards and/or in the standard way; you could call them avanteers, doing things in their own way. Those are some attributes that drew me to recent records by Maria Neckam, Neneh Cherry, Lucia Pulido and Tania Maria. The last of these two have one extra attribute going for them, and that’s their deft blend of exotic South American music forms that’s in their DNA with the American jazz that became part of their training.
There’s another such South American singer who falls into that profile, and that’s Venezuelan-born Maria Marquez.
Marquez is a relative newcomer in the States, her first album sold here Eleven Love Stories arrived in 2001 and has made only one other one since (2004′s Nature’s Princess, her Adventure Music debut). After this Tuesday, make that three; Tonada is coming.
The charms that come with Marquez’s music start with her voice, as you might expect. She’s been compared to Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson, which are apt comparisons, but I’d also add Tania Maria to that list of “sounds like,” due to her smoky, exotic purr. Singing all but one selection in Spanish makes it easier to perceive her voice as another instrument, since I can’t understand the lyrics, and in that way, it’s easier to appreciate it.
Tonada has more than Marquez’s vocals going for it, however. She and the album’s percussionist John Santos gathered many of the best musicians from around Marquez’s current Oakland, CA environs and made a record that is diverse, imaginative, traditional and very modern…but never completely departing from her Venezuelan roots. That’s because she is drawing most of the material from Venezuelan composers like Conny Mendez, Aldemaro Romero, Violet Parra, or even a few old, traditional songs from her homeland.
The “diverse” part comes in the form of the arrangements of these songs that doesn’t seem to favor one approach over another. Bobby Black’s pedal steel guitar is called upon for the numbers “Canción de Cuna” and “Entre Copa y Copa.” DJ Roger Mas’s turntables give the noire film styled-piece “Tonada” a bit of a chilling feel, not the vibe you’d normally get from these basic tools of the hip-hop trade. Ray Bonneville’s slide guitar gives “Wild Card” a Delta Blues shading to a jazz lounge number, highlighted by the rousing soul Hammond B3 solo by Rich Kuhns. Kuhns’ accordion gives an Italian flavor to “”Canción de Cuna” and accentuates the rustic feel of “Serenta.”
Often, it’s how Marquez and Santos puts it all together that makes these songs something much more than straightforward interpretations of old, traditional songs. “El Catire” might be one of those songs but you’d never know it from how it’s made into contemporary soul jazz with South American flavor, and has a sophisticated way the various motifs are strung together. That pedal steel guitar might bring the melancholy on “Entre Copa y Copa,” but the organ delivers the soul and the piano provides the elegance. That leaves Marquez to handle the passion. “Amazonas” is a Brazilian song, but there’s an Afro-Cuban rhythm with brass, funky electric bass and modern electric piano formulating the groove on this one. The organ provides an icy cool backdrop to Peter Barshay’s acoustic bass solo on “Volver a Los 17,” which is quickly followed by a Moog synth solo.
The “tradition” part comes to fore on the all-acoustic four pieces where Marquez is lightly accompanied by either the Venezuelan cuatro of Hernan Gamboa alone (“Dejame”) or the cuatro along with a clarinet and maybe another instrument or two. These spare, organic arrangements are where you can really appreciate not just Gamboa’s pretty four stringed guitar, but also the control and character in Marquez’s untouched voice.
But even when Maria Marquez is singing traditional songs, there is a fundamental comeliness that transcends time. It took nine years for her to follow up on her last album, and four of those were spent working on this one. It was time well spent; Tonada shows how reaching back to the rich, under-appreciated rich heritage of Venezuelan music can be pushed forward and made relevant in the 21st century.