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Claudia Acuña: Rhythm of Life

Claudia AcuÑa
Rhythm of Life

With mainstream jazz yet again struggling for sales there is almost a cynical logic to this release. Verve are the most commercially astute of the labels devoted to orthodox jazz. Therefore they will be well aware that what has still been shifting in bulk are albums of standards by pretty female vocalists and various forms of Latin jazz. What a gift to LiPuma’s outfit then is Ms. Acuña. She is South American, suitably photogenic and has come up with a project equally divided between familiar favourites (“Nature Boy”, “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, etc.) and Latin numbers. Too good to be true? Too manipulative to be genuine?

Well, cynics beware. This is a fine record. Fine enough perhaps for Verve to worry a little.Rhythm of Life is more of a full-on jazz album than the marketing people might like. Anyone expecting an easy listening plus a dash of exotica affair will be disappointed. There is passion and fire in Acuña’s voice and the musicians around her are from the top improvisational drawer. Ignore the Krall comparisons, think a harder (and perhaps harsher) edged Diane Reeves and you will be in the right territory.

In fact, the set is dedicated to Reeves, who has acted as a mentor for Acuña. There are key differences between the two, though. No George Duke fusion flavours for Acuña, and the Chilean has a less flowing, more aggressive approach to her material. She can get all late night and sultry on the ballads (with Reeves’ accompanist Billy Childs adding his usual poise and grace). However the general mood is calientewith a distinct tendency towards the crescendo as dominant musical tactic. The results are sometimes a little over-cooked and tending to the theatrical but the advantage is that unlike so many jazz vocal sets Rhythm of Life, despite its weak title, is never predictable or insipid.

The opening cut exemplifies most of these qualities. Rogers and Hart’s “My Romance” loses any obvious sentimentality and is turned into something more forceful and declamatory. The outcome will not please everyone, and will seem strident to some ears. Yet the song is substantially refurbished and refreshed by this treatment and the lyrics emerge newly alive and meaningful. Acuña invests (almost over-invests) them with a striking urgency. Similarly, her take on “Nature Boy”, surely one of the oddest popular songs of the 20th century, owes nothing to Cole and only a little to Sarah Vaughn in an arrangement that moves from a slow, sonorous opening to an intense and very noisy climax. The repeated chorus chants There Was a Boy are perhaps excessive but make an overly familiar piece individuated and startlingly memorable.

The level of playing is hard to fault. They say you can judge a jazz singer by the calibre of the sidemen queuing up to play with him or her. In that case, look no further than bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Credentials come no higher. Keyboard duties are shared between Childs and the more flamboyant Jason Lindner and both make telling contributions. Special praise must go to the percussion of the Latino Quintero and the strings of the Loma Mar Quartet. Both groupings add considerable colour and depth to proceedings.

A quick run through of the songs finds an orthodox but rather awkward reading of “More Than You Know” and a fairly uninteresting version of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born”. These are the only two weak points on the album and as the former is reprieved by solid blowing from Sherman Irby (alto) and Axi Liebovitch (trombone) the lapse is hardly fatal. The ballad “I Fall in Love . . .” won’t be anyone’s favourite rendition of that perfect song but is efficiently acceptable. That leaves her own bouncy Bossa Nova “Nowhere to Go” (charming but slight) and the Spanish numbers.

These are the highlights of the session and I would encourage Acuña to devote more of her next record (which will be her third) to Latin material. “Ay Mariposa”, “Volver a Diecisiete”, and Nascimento’s sublime “Maria Maria” are as vibrant, expressive and convincing as any jazz/Latin offerings around. The singer does seem more at ease with the material, but it may be simply that the instrumentation itself and orchestration is so rich in rhythm and melody. Plenty for both jazz and Latin camps to get their teeth into and not a cliché in sight.

This is a varied set and a satisfactory one. I think the weight of American standards is a little too onerous, despite the best efforts of all and sundry, but they will draw the more Latin-suspicious to a very distinctive if occasionally abrasive vocalist. Claudia Acuña is building a big reputation as a live performer and on the strength of her showing here is soon going to be a major player in the well-populated world of Northern-based South American jazz. She will need heavy radio play to render mainstream audiences completely comfortable with her style and the complexity of some of the music. Those already attuned to matters Latino and jazzy should welcome her with open arms.