Regardless of the language a particular song's lyrics are sung in, music is a universal language. And that holds true for Claudia Acuna, a Chilean-born singer who mixes Latin rhythms and jazz on her debut album, En Este Momento. Branford Marsalis, amazingly talented jazz saxophonist and band leader, produced her album on his own label, Marsalis Music. And based on the quality of its music, I understand why he took a chance on her.
The album covers several Spanish-language classics such as "La Mentira," written by Alvaro Carillo Alarcon, and three songs by Victor Jara ("El Cigarrito", "Te Recuerdo Amanda", and "El Derecho De Vivir En Paz"), who has been labeled as the Bob Dylan of Chile. But she doesn't just do Spanish-language songs on the CD; she also sings in English on "That's What They Say." That said, the Spanish language has always been full of grace and passion to me, and it doesn't prevent this amazingly talented singer/songwriter from of communicating such emotions.
I've listened to a lot of jazz, but it's rare to hear Latin influences so easily woven into the jazz landscape. Acuna's voice rises to beautiful heights, blending her expressive South American roots with jazz traditions. And you can hear the nearly effortless collaboration between her and the musicians: Jason Lindner on piano, Juancho Herrera on guitar and mandolin, Omer Avital on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums and percussion. In addition, Edgar "Yayo" Serko plays cajon, bombo leguero, and palmos, and Marsalis even plays soprano saxophone on the album.
Though I appreciate the talents required to sing in one language — let alone two — I found "That's What They Say" to be the weakest song on the album. To me, Acuna switching between Spanish and English distracted me from the emotional component of the song, which starts beautifully but dissolves amidst the language changes.
That said, the rest of the album stands strong and proud. My favorites include "Vuelvo Al Sur" and "La Mentira (Se Te Olvida)," which to me really let Acuna's voice shine within simple arrangements. "Vuelvo Al Sur" features Acuna and a simple acoustic guitar melody, where "La Mentira" just builds with a romantic rise from the beginning to the end along with the amazing arrangement involving the full band.
It's obvious that Acuna revels in the freedom of jazz and personal expression. But she also stays true to her background here, honoring the integrity and vision of other musical leaders of South America. Some of the composers featured on the album have paid the ultimate price for their integrity or are in constant fear for their lives. And though Acuna knows this history, she picked these songs for her own reasons, not for history lessons. "I pick songs with stories that I can relate to, and after they have spoken to me I hear things of my own that I want to add," she says.
And to have Branford Marsalis involved on the album was another boon for her. She thought working with Marsalis was a "wonderful process" because, rather than wanting to change her music, he embraced and wanted to help shape it. Some producers want to put their own stamp on the music they help with, but Marsalis is a musician first and a producer second, which helped inform this record.
If you're looking for a different flavor of jazz for your collection and enjoy Latin sensibilities, I can heartily recommend En Este Momento by Claudia Acuna. Be sure to check it out at your local music store or online.