The WDR Big Band Cologne has been collaborating with wonderful jazz artists based in the United States for years, providing settings that tend to draw out new colors and wide dimensions from already-dazzling musicians. Storytellers features the band playing arrangements by Vince Mendoza that support Luciana Souza singing a set of brilliant songs by Brazilian artists, including greats such as Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Souza is from Sao Paulo but has been based in the U.S. for years, releasing recordings that fuse Brazilian music, jazz, contemporary pop standards, poetry, and original art song in a variety of formats. Storytellers is the first time her artistry has been set against a large lush band, but the contrast is not vast. Though listeners may be used to hearing her gentle and reedy voice float through arrangements for solo guitar, small band, and even fusion groups, the WDR Big Band provides a setting no less sympathetic or subtle. Though there are tracks with rhythmic jump and drive, most of Storytellers is devoted to cushions of pastel beauty, from which Souza emerges as the lead voice.
Jobim’s “Matita Pere” uses all of WDR’s colors, but they are deployed with painterly nuance. Whistling high tones ring, low brass, and piano gently pulse, and muted horns fill in middle harmonies. Souza sings the story with a whispered care, sitting in the middle of her range, setting up the band to play a composed fantasia that contrasts high and low sonorities with the barest percussion. In its second portion, the arrangement takes off at more of a gallop as Souza’s singing hits more like a drum and a soprano saxophone solo snakes across the landscape—before the languid feeling melts back in.
The gauzy beauty of “Beatriz” is established by a combination of electric piano, cello, and slow-swirling woodwinds and muted brass. Souza’s vocal, a series of questions, is gentle but rises into strong, tensile notes that serve to make her voice seem equal to the full band. “Chora Coracao” is a similar impressionist fantasia—moody and haunting in its mixture of more traditional orchestral color and moments when pianist Rainer Böhm whispers through the arrangement with improvised counterpoint. Mendoza has written Souza’s wordless vocal line into the arrangement here and on many other tracks—where, even in a brief section, she is as compelling as the tenor sax or muted trumpet solo.
On two tracks, Souza only sings wordlessly. “Varanda” gives her a staircase-like melody to climb, upward and downward, in rhythmic play with the band as well as in a quiet middle interlude. “Choro #3” similarly uses the precision of Souza’s intonation in unison with muted brass and flute against a supple dance rhythm. A thrilling clarinet solo heightens the power of the band on the latter tune, even as it remains nimble and light, never plodding, always skipping.
The performances that punch a bit harder help keep Storytellers from lapsing into the monotony of too much loveliness. “Baiao a Tempo” swings and grooves without words, simply a rousing composition and arrangement with a highlight trombone solo. “Se Acontecer” has a Brazilian lope paired with a backbeat, and Souza responds with a vocal rife with attitude. The band sounds a bit more like a great rhythm section with a punch-power horn section, and the formula is a relief, with Souza again joining the woodwinds as the brass struts and smacks around their melody. “Mar de Copacabana” is a more traditional bossa nova, fast and clipping along rather than swaying, that puts everything together. It makes you want to dance with thrilling jazz solos, wordless vocals and lyrics, irresistible propulsion, and an airy arrangement that makes the big band seem like a fleet small band.
The best tracks focus our ears on the songs rather than the brilliance of Mendoza’s settings. The closing track, “Sim ou Nau”, feels uncluttered and conversational, with the rosy colors of the Fender Rhodes piano and woodwinds promoting the vocal like a great arrangement from the 1960s, tons of space allowing us to hear the burbling brook of the guitar and keyboard rubbing up against bass and drums. Even better, “Meu Pai” achieves maximum relaxation and intricacy at the same time: an acoustic guitar solo sharing space with a layered arrangement that seems like sleight of hand as Souza’s singing carries the day.
Storytellers benefits from repeated listenings. There is a great deal of depth to it, but it is a subtle depth that can sound—at first—a bit like a classic singer-plus-orchestra date from a generation or two ago. The very balance that is its strength keeps it from making a single strong impression. Because Souza’s voice is so thoughtfully woven into most of the arrangements, many of the performances can sound like landscapes without a central figure. Sure, you can put this lovely music on behind whatever you are doing, but it takes shape when you allow it to hold your attention and then shape it. Even if your Portuguese is rusty, these are story songs, each one. The intertwined melodies and pulses of rhythm will carry you along if you are willing to take the ride.
Luciana Souza, as ever, is no shouter or testifier who grabs the foreground. She is that spellbinding voice, sinuous and cool, ready to take your hand and pull you gently into the music. In Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band, she has partners who understand that it’s important she beguile rather than batter.