With her Verve debut, Wind From the South, vocalist Claudia Acuña ignited a bold new spark in the worldwide jazz community. The critically-acclaimed album was the culmination of early years singing in her native Chile, where she was first introduced to jazz, followed by several years of tirelessly sitting in on jam sessions and performing at various clubs in New York City. She also gained invaluable experience through mentorships with such luminaries as Abbey Lincoln, Chick Corea, and Dianne Reeves. Two years later, she returns with her second breathtakingly beautiful musical odyssey, Rhythm of Life.
On this aptly-titled album, Acuña continues to explore the unique bilingual territory she has made her own with innovative reinventions of American and Spanish language standards, creating a compelling fusion of Latin rhythms and jazz sensibilities. "Life has different rhythms and everything changes every day. Music represents my life and this album represents a lot of my feelings and experiences." In the time since her debut, Acuña has been touring extensively, appearing in major music venues and festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Acuña's touring has brought her artistry to a new level: her sensuous alto has become richer, more nuanced, abandoned and assured, as have her interpretive powers.
Her passionate and uninhibited delivery has garnered high praise and accolades both from fans and the press. Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times raves, " . . . she has mastered the essential elements of jazz with startling effectiveness," while the New York Times writes, ". . . her voice has a strong, unglossy musicality." The Washington Post declares that her voice is one of "considerable power, agility, and poise," and New York Newsday describes her sound as "the voice of an angel." Billboard Magazine applauded her powerful individuality stating that "Acuña makes a statement of universality that is uniquely her own."
Acuña's artistry and that of the musicians with whom she collaborated create an evocative and captivating album. At times the album feels as though one is peering into the pages of Acuña's personal diary. "I wanted to extend the possibility of documenting part of my life with the people that are part of my life. This is how I tell my story, even the songs I didn't write. That's how I want people to get to know me, through my music." Acuña co-produced the album with pianist/arranger Billy Childs who is known for his work with Dianne Reeves. It was in fact Reeves, a mentor and a friend, who introduced the two. Considered a "musician's vocalist," Claudia surrounds herself with highly skilled artists, thriving on a creatively charged atmosphere and the refreshingly original arrangements that result. Her honey-rich voice weaves through the pulsating energy of the ensemble.
The band on Rhythm of Life is a veritable United Nations of exceptional talents. Anchoring the group are English-born bassist Dave Holland and American rhythm master Jeff "Tain" Watts. "Dave is one of my idols and heroes. I love his sound. He is so humble, so giving, so patient, and more than anything, has such an incredible integrity and love for music. I met Jeff the same year that I moved to New York. I heard him play and he became one of my favorite drummers and a friend. I always dreamed of working with him."
Jason Lindner, Claudia's regular pianist and frequent collaborator since her early days at Smalls jazz club in New York, contributes several arrangements that bear his unique stamp of hybridized Latin jazz harmonies. "Jason is my musical partner and an immensely important part of my journey." Israeli trombonist/flautist Avi Liebovich, Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero, American harpist Sara Cutler, and the San Francisco-based Loma Mar String Quartet round out the set, adding layers of tropical rhythm and color to the arrangements.
From the album's opening cut, a fluid Latin rendition of the classic "My Romance," the listener is immediately drawn into Acuña's world. Her sensuous interpretation of Cuban songwriter Pedro Luis Ferrer's lament "Ay Mariposa," is full of yearning and hope. "It's a very poetic song in Spanish that speaks about the suffering in the world, but also the freedom and beauty in the world. It talks about the importance of expressing everything that you are, including things we don't want to see sometimes."
Acuña shines on the album's ballads. "A Child Is Born" captures the beauty and mystery of a newborn entering the world. The lilting vocal arrangement embodies the innocence of new life and hints, perhaps, at the future loss of that innocence. "Babies are so fragile, trusting, and warm, and I wanted to capture that feeling." Acuña then turns the heat up a notch on such classics as the Nat "King" Cole hit "Nature Boy." The dark, slow-churning arrangement by Lindner swells to a deliciously gritty montuno at the end, giving percussionist Quintero the spotlight. "I had a chance to work with Luisito on two projects-George Benson and Danilo Pérez. He was my first-choice percussionist; he understands a lot of the South American rhythms, not just clave. He is amazing."
Her voice handsomely mingles with Billy Childs's delicate piano and the velvety, lush sound of the Loma Mar Quartet on a heartwrenching and masterfully sparse rendition of "I Fall in Love Too Easily." A charanga-infused arrangement of Chilean Violetta Parra's "Volver a los diecisiete" moves forward with a sense of withheld urgency, capturing the song's meaning about an older woman's pride in having lived a full life and reminiscing about the simpler days of her youth.
Acuña pulls us further into her realm with her original composition, "Nowhere to Go"-a patient, romantic, and melancholic reflection. Her passionate vocals soar on a buoyant, spirited rendition of the Milton Nascimento tune "Maria Maria," a selection she chose in honor of her mother. Sung in Spanish, "This song is a celebration of a woman, Maria, who represents all women. She's strong, delicate like a flower, deep like the ocean, and she is an incredible gift to the world. I never wrote a song for my mom, but if I had, I would have written something like this song," says Acuña.
The album closes with an explosive version of "More Than You Know," showcasing the fiery rhythmic versatility of "Tain" and featuring the soulful sax solo of Sherman Irby. Acuña comments, "Sherman has such a sweet, chocolate sound. Warm and strong, and perfect for that arrangement. I didn't want to do this as a ballad. I wanted something strong and upbeat, something that would really illustrate the spirit of the lyrics."
"There was so much love and respect in the making of this record, and I feel so honored and blessed. I'm a girl from Chile, and I don't forget that. It was a beautiful and very special gift that brought us all together." Sultry, vivacious, fiery, tender, radiantly vulnerable and passionate, Rhythm of Life is a new chapter in the evolution of the undeniable musical force that is Claudia Acuña.