As a child in Rio, singer Claudia Villela fell asleep to the sounds of a nearby samba school, and awoke to her mother’s singing and her father’s harmonica playing. “My singing is the sum of all the music I’ve heard, from Brazilian baroque to bossa nova to free jazz.” Her self-taught, five-octave range was fully formed when she arrived in the U.S. to refine her jazz chops under the tutelage of Sheila Jordan and Ray Brown. The result is a startling and intuitive musical sensibility that goes beyond samba and boss: She channels visionaries like Egberto Gismonti and Milton Nascimento. Says Bela Fleck: “I was blown away by Claudia’s ability and musicality. She is pure music.” This special performance will include Claudia playing piano and percussion on her own original compositions as well as several Brazilian classics!
Claudia Villela’s voice gets all the attention, and it’s easy to understand why. Her glorious five-octave instrument is one of the wonders of jazz, lithe and startlingly beautiful in every register. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, she sings mostly in Portuguese, interpreting lyrics with keen emotional insight and supple rhythmic command. A supremely inventive scat singer, she has honed a vivid vocabulary of sounds that can evoke the hollow thump of a tabla drum, the muted trumpet of Miles Davis, the insistent twang of a berimbau, the ethereal call of a flute, or the distortion-laden Stratocaster licks of Jimi Hendrix. But it’s a serious mistake to let her gorgeous voice overshadow her other musical talents. Based in the Santa Cruz area since the mid-1980s, Villela has evolved into an expressive pianist and percussionist and an ingenious composer and lyricist with an astonishing body of original material, as well as a repertoire of jewels from the Brazilian songbook.
Inspired by Brazilian songwriters, composers, and multi-instrumentalists such as Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal, and Milton Nascimento, Villela draws on a vast range of Brazilian traditions, from samba and bossa nova to the carnival groove partido alto, and baião, a highly syncopated northeastern song form popularized by Luiz Gonzaga in the mid-1940s. For tonight’s performance, she’s joined by a cast of highly sympathetic collaborators, including guitarist Jeff Buenz, bassist Gary Brown, and drummer/percussionist Celso Alberti (all three of whom have toured and recorded widely with legendary Brazilian musicians Airto and Flora Purim).
“I’m revisiting some favorite songs, and there are a lot of new compositions too,” says Villela, who has been a scarce presence on the Bay Area scene in recent years due to her travels back to Brazil. “The news is that I’m playing more piano, which is very challenging. I’ve been a singer for longer than a pianist. It’s a process that keeps unfolding. I keep reaching out and learn how to put myself in situations to go with the flow.”
While growing up in Rio, Villela literally soaked up music from the air, falling asleep at night to the sounds wafting over from the samba school behind her grandmother’s house. Singing professionally as a teenager, she performed at college festivals and worked as a back-up singer. At the same time, she was strongly drawn to medicine, and eventually decided to merge her two passions, graduating with a degree in music therapy from the Brazilian Conservatory of Music in 1983. Just as her singing career was starting to take off, she made the difficult decision to follow her fiance to California. Villela started singing with the Stanford University Chorus, and then joined the De Anza College Jazz Singers. Eventually she won a scholarship that enabled her to study with the great jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan at the Manhattan School of Music. As Villela sees it, her music therapy background gave her the flexibility to make the musical transition from Rio to the Bay Area.
“I was open to these situations because when you work with patients, it’s not about the music, the form, the perfection,” she said. “It’s about expression and liberation and getting to another level.”
Her music therapy training also plays a big role in her concerts. For Villela, performing is far more than entertainment, it’s a powerful tool that changes both the audience and the artists. Developing a distinctive synthesis of jazz and Brazilian musical forms, she began attracting attention from musical heavyweights like tenor sax titan Michael Brecker, bass virtuoso Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S) and revered Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta, who all play on her captivating, hard-to-find 1996 album Supernova. The same year, her breathtaking album Asa Verde earned her a nomination for Jazz Singer of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD).
Despite the critical acclaim, Villela had trouble breaking out of the Bay Area scene, at least until the 2003 release of her masterpiece InverseUniverse (Adventure Music), a program of dazzling original pieces created with her longtime collaborator, Rio-born guitarist Ricardo Peixoto. The exquisite harmonica contributions of guest star Toots Thielemans fulfilled Villela’s ambition of working with jazz’s foremost aficionado of Brazilian music. After making a compelling case for herself as an inspired composer, she delivered a breathtaking session of spontaneous invention with the lavishly praised 2004 duo session featuring piano guru Kenny Werner, DreamTales (Adventure Music). Werner admitted to skepticism when Villela approached him about going into the studio without any songs prepared, but came away from the session a believer.
“I don’t think I’ve had that experience with a singer,” Werner said. “I remember listening to it and going under that spell. She sent the tape out to a bunch of people and when I ran into Pat Metheny he said ‘I love that thing you guys did.’ It’s really stream-of-consciousness music.”
In recent years, Villela’s international reputation as a performer and composer has continued to grow through appearances at the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals and clubs. In the fall of 2008, she received a high profile commission from New York University commissioned to set poems by several Latin American poets to music. Her performance with acclaimed Brazilian singer and composer Dori Caymmi was broadcast nationally as part of National Public Radio’s “JazzSet.” Overdue to record again, she’s introducing some new pieces tonight before she heads back into the studio.