While not from Brazil, vocalist Kevyn Lettau has established herself as a sultry singer who can handle Brazillian jazz’s language and difficult chord changes well. Born in Germany, Lettau moved to San Diego at 17 years old. After teaming with guitarist Peter Sprague, the duo performed at local venues until they were discovered by Brazilian maestro Sergio Mendes in 1984. He took the budding singer under his wing, making her part of his touring band. Another mentor, Al Jarreau, also hired her for his backing group. These experiences led to her own career, beginning in 1990 with her debut self-titled album. Her blend of jazz and pop, carried by her wispy voice, earned her some notice among jazz audiences. But her followup, Braziljazz, brought her to basics: only Sprague and percussionist Michael Shapiro accompanied her, and what resulted is an enjoyable journey through jazz and bossa nova.
Starting with “Words and Music,” the trio sets the stage for the rest of the album; in other words, Braziljazz is about focusing on only the essential elements of great jazz. Sprague’s guitar work particularly shines here, allowing him to show off his complicated yet tuneful playing style. Lettau’s vocals wrap around the rapid tempo and guitar. Similarly, “New Meaning” allows each member of the trio to solo; overall, the song beautifully showcases how Lettau can subtly manipulate her voice. Co-written by Sprague and Lettau, the lyrics are clearly meant to create a general romantic mood rather than to tell a story. When she sings the lyrics “I found magic moments denied/Take me to your quiet side/Honest eyes, with innocence and pride,” her honeyed vocals linger on every syllable, perfectly complimenting the beautiful chord changes.
Another highlight, “You Said,” shows Shapiro using his full range of percussion skills, creating an intricate Latin rhythm but never overpowering Lettau or Sprague. The lyrics, which slightly mimic the unusual imagery and tempo present in “Waters of March,” are both playful and a study in contrasts: “In the rain, I see sun, you won’t/You laugh, I don’t/Tell me where do we meet?” The lovely ballad “Fruta Madura” features Lettau singing in Portuguese. Here Sprague and Shipiro use very subtle instrumentation, allowing the beautiful language to take center stage. At times, musicians demonstrate more artistic skill by doing less. The same can be said for “Secret Code,” another sensual ballad.
In addition to the Brazilian material, Braziljazz contains the standard “Honeysuckle Rose,” although at a faster tempo than Lena Horne’s version. It’s quite a departure from the rest of the album in tone, but it showcases Lettau’s scatting ability and fluency in more traditional jazz.
After Braziljazz, Lettau signed with the JVC music label, thus beginning her major label career. However, Braziljazz shows Lettau at her best, and is another example of a buried treasure by an underrated vocalist. While you’re at it, also track down her self-titled album from 1990, which contains an enjoyable mix of jazz and pop.