Luciana Souza is a Grammy-winning Brazilian vocalist and songwriter whose music blurs the boundaries between the various strains of traditional and popular music from her homeland, jazz, and modern classical music. Her dusky voice bears a gauzy resemblance to Joni Mitchell's. (Interestingly, she married Mitchell's ex-husband, producer and bassist Larry Klein, in 2006). She is equally at home delivering Antonio Carlos Jobim's haunting "Waters of March," composer Osvaldo Golijov's oratorio Oceana, guitarist Lionel Loueke's fleet "A.M.," improvising on Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along with You Very Well," duetting on a pop song with James Taylor, or delivering one of her own emotive ballads. She has recorded and performed with an astonishing variety of musicians, including her uncle Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Lacy, John Patitucci, Joey Calderazzo, and Oscar Castro-Neves. Her strong suit is her chameleon-like ability to act as a piece in a larger musical palette, singing wordlessly with full expressive vigor (2015's Speaking in Tongues); leading a small jazz ensemble (2009's Tide), or delivering Brazilian standards in a duo setting accompanied only by a guitarist (Brazilian Duos I-III). She is also a founding member of Moss, an a cappella vocal group with Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan, and Kate McGarry. Souza is arresting on record and in concert simply because she works from inside the music, peeling its secrets away a layer at a time.
She was born in São Paulo in 1966, the daughter of bossa nova guitarist and composer Walter Santos and poet Tereza Souza. She began her professional career at age three, singing jingles for radio and television commercials. As a child, she recorded extensively with her father and other artists, thanks to the convenience of her parents' studio. She studied formally at conservatory and in school. After four years at Unicamp University in Brazil, she attended and graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 1988 with a degree in jazz composition. In 1991, she was elected Discovery of the Year by APCA for her work with Pascoal. The next year, she toured with the Zimbo Trio. In 1994 she earned a Master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, where she has subsequently taught and performed. In 1995, she was nominated for Outstanding Latin Act and, the next year, Outstanding Jazz Vocalist at the Boston Music Awards.
Souza co-produced (with George Schuller) and released her debut album, An Answer to Your Silence, on NYC Records in 1998. It included material by Chico Buarque, her father, George & Ira Gershwin, and Jobim, alongside seven of her own songs. Her concert performances also earned notice from the Village Voice, the New York Times, and several jazz publications. Her sophomore outing, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs (for her once and future label Sunnyside Records in 2000), scored fifth place in The New York Times' The Year in Pop and Jazz: The Critics' Choice list. The honor also greeted 2002's Brazilian Duos (where her voice was paired with one of three all-star Brazilian guitarists in a program of her country's standards). She received her first Grammy nomination for the recording which peaked at number 15 on the World Music albums chart. She produced her follow-up in 2003's Norte e Sul, leading an all-star jazz ensemble that included Scott Colley, Donny McCaslin, and Edward Simon. Its all-covers program included iconic jazz and Brazilian tunes. She took the record on tour and played music festivals in the United States, Brazil, and Europe. The following year she released Neruda, whose ten songs were derived from ten poems of the author's that she translated and then composed music for. Duos II appeared in 2005 and hit number 14 on the World Albums chart and scored her a nomination for Jazz Vocalist of the Year from the Jazz Journalist's Association.
After a year of touring she collaborated with Golijov on Oceana; it was released with two other works in 2007. Her Verve debut, New Bossa Nova, appeared the same year. Produced by Klein, it melded Brazilian rhythms onto adult contemporary folk-pop songs from Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Becker and Fagen, Sting, Brian Wilson, Taylor, and featured three duets with Matt Moran. It peaked at number ten on the Jazz Albums chart. The Mitchell trace in Souza's voice drew the attention of Herbie Hancock, who enlisted her for the Grammy-winning, chart-topping River: The Joni Letters. She toured with Hancock's band in support. In 2009, Souza released Tide, her second collaboration with Klein (who wrote all but four of the album's tracks especially for Souza) and listed her accompanists as keyboardist Larry Goldings, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarists Larry Koonse and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and Klein on bass. It placed at number 15 on the World Albums list. It was followed by Duos III in 2012, nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album at that year's Grammy Awards. That same year, she released the evocative The Book of Chet. The band featured guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist David Piltch, and drummer Jay Bellerose. The program consisted of less than obvious standards that were interpreted by Baker. The set was nominated for best Jazz Vocal Album at the following year's Grammy Awards, and peaked at eight on the Jazz Albums chart. The singer was also nominated for another Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award by the JJA. After a tour and taking time off to give birth to a child, Souza returned to recording with 2015's Klein-produced Speaking in Tongues. She was backed by an international cast with whom she’d never worked before: Beninese guitarist and vocalist Loueke, Swiss harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret, Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati, and Texas drummer Kendrick Scott. They crafted seven wordless poems: four by Souza, one by Loueke, one by Scott (with Mike Moreno), and one by Gary Versace, into elegant musical tapestries. Two more tracks contained lyrics from poems by Leonard Cohen that Souza set to music, underscoring the album's effect. While the album didn't chart, it made numerous critics' year-end lists and is considered one of her very best efforts. In 2017, Souza collaborated with Boston-based orchestra A Far Cry on The Blue Hour. Jointly composed by Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw, The Blue Hour was an evening-length song cycle for voice and orchestra that was set on the poem "On Earth," from Carolyn Forché's book of poetry Blue Hour. After performances in New England and elsewhere, Souza re-entered the studio and turned back to her roots. The Klein-produced sessions marked a full return to poetry and writing her own words. She set four masterpieces — one by Cohen, and one each by Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Christina Rossetti — alongside three of her own poems. Backed by guitarist Chico Pinheiro with Colley on bass, the finished set was titled The Book of Longing (after Cohen's poetry collection of the same name) and released in August of 2018. Two years later, Souza teamed with Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band for the album Storytellers. The set, her tenth for Sunnyside, included newly arranged interpretations of songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chico Pinheiro, Edu Lobo, Chico Buarque, Guinga, Djavan, Ivan Lins, and Gilberto Gil. She recorded some of the songs earlier in her career, but when she combined Mendoza's sensitive, intuitive knack for orchestral coloring with texture, they reflected her mature artistic persona and discipline. ~ Thom Jurek