In 2006, Brazilian-born jazz singer Luciana Souza moved to Los Angeles from New York City and left a void that hasn’t been filled.
During her eight years here, she became the singer for a new generation of firebrands eager to push the boundaries of the form in basement clubs like Small’s in the Village. They wanted her because Ms. Souza is the rarest of jazz singers: the anti-diva. You’ll hear no tired rehashes of My Funny Valentine from her. Ms. Souza’s sense of rhythm is flawless, which is not surprising given her Brazilian pedigree. She can sight-read “fly shit,” as jazz musicians so often say. And Ms. Souza’s ravishing alto is as complex and full-bodied in the lower register as it is when she reaches for the highest notes.
In other words, she could sing anything her peers threw at her and sing it so well that composers often dispensed with words all together and assigned her the kind of soaring melodies they write for saxophonists.
“She is really the only one I know of who can do that,” said Edward Simon, the gifted Venezuelan pianist with whom Ms. Souza has often collaborated.
But in 2005, everything changed. That was the year Ms. Souza, who might as well have stepped out of a Modigliani portrait with her mournful oval eyes that barely fit on her slender face, met Larry Klein, the Los Angeles-based record producer known for his work with vocalists like Madeleine Peyroux, Tracy Chapman and his ex-wife Joni Mitchell, all of whom appeal primarily to people who spend an inordinate amount of time in Starbucks. “He said, ‘I’d love to produce you,’” Ms. Souza recalled in a telephone interview with The Observer. “I said, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me?’”
She accepted Mr. Klein’s offer and got more than she bargained for. A year later, the singer married Mr. Klein and moved in with him in Los Angeles.
“He wasn’t moving to New York,” Ms. Souza said with a hint of regret. “So I had no choice.”
The two of them have a 10-month-old son, Noah, and an intimate musical collaboration. In 2007, Mr. Klein produced her sixth album, The New Bossa Nova, which features pop tunes by James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Sting and his ex-wife Ms. Mitchell over laid-back Brazilian beats.
On her seventh album, Tide, released in May, he also played bass and co-wrote 6 of the 10 songs in a similar vein.
The 43-year-old Ms. Souza, who returns to the New York area to perform at the Caramoor International Jazz Festival on Aug. 2, is aware not all her fans are enamored with her swerve to the middle of the road.
“People said, ‘The New Bossa Nova? Oh, it’s plastic. It’s L.A.,’” she told The Observer. “It’s not plastic. It’s just a bunch of songs that I grew up listening to and I love and I wanted to do, dressed up in this form. It’s a ballad record. That’s what people didn’t get!”
She is also eager to dispel the notion that her husband is trying to mold her into a jazz-influenced female pop singer like so many of the other artists to whom he plays Svengali.
“The idea that I am this fragile person who has been taken over by this man?” said Ms. Souza, struggling to keep her sense of humor. “We have a love affair. We adore each other. I had a baby with him. Of course, I trust him completely and unconditionally. But as a musician, I think I’ve proven to people—not just with my music but my life—that I’ve done whatever the hell I wanted. “
Ms. Souza wouldn’t be on the defensive if she hadn’t set the bar so high, not just for herself, but for every female jazz singer. The daughter of Bossa Nova singer Walter Santos, she was already recording advertising jingles penned by her dad at the age of 3. She learned the Brazilian songbook from her godfather, the legendary multi-instrumentalist Hermento Pascoal.
She began recording her own records soon after she arrived in New York in 1998, after she got her graduate degree in jazz studies at New England Conservatory in Boston. Her work included her own arrangements of songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and George Gershwin, and her daunting, influential Brazilian jazz originals.
I never gave myself permission to sing [pop] songs. Larry was the person who said you can sing anything you want to.
They are all fine, but the one that stands out is Neruda, a haunting collection of her compositions written to the words of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, translated into English. Ms. Souza’s melodies are so pure, and her alto is so clear and unaffected; to listen to this record is almost like mainlining Mr. Neruda’s meditations on love, art and his complicated inner life.
Ms. Souza got her love of verse from her mother, the late Tereza Souza, a lyricist who filled a room in her home with poetry books and often left some around the house. Luciana would pick them up and carry them to the keyboard.
“I remember being 14 or 15 and sitting at the piano with a book open and doing the same thing I do now, just coming up with melodies for these lines that I like,” she said. “Now I’m smart enough to have a tape recorder next to the piano.”
The critics were smitten with Ms. Souza’s range and depth. In 2005, she was named female singer of the year by the Jazz Journalists Association. But she recorded for a small label, Sunnyside, and produced her own albums because she didn’t have the money to do otherwise.
“I was lucky to be able to afford musicians,” she said.
Around the time Ms. Souza met Mr. Klein, she signed with a major label, Universal Jazz France. Finally, Ms. Souza had money to spend in the studio. Mr. Klein encouraged her to record pop songs that she loved as a child and occasionally performed as an adult, ones she had been afraid to include on her Sunnyside albums.
“I never gave myself permission to sing those songs,” she said. “Larry was the person who said you can sing anything you want to. You are the artist. If this is what you want to do, we’ll do it beautifully.”