Like the world in general, the jazz world has become a more diverse and interconnected place in recent years, thanks in part to an influx of artists from other countries that has invigorated the American scene. The ensemble of Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuña is indicative of this cross-cultural phenomenon, espousing a philosophy that demands our willingness to dispense with familiar categories as we glory in the unit’s artistry.
“When I discovered jazz, I could not believe the freedom that its greatest singers found in every song, a freedom that does not exist in any other music,” Acuña explains. “At the same time, I have always promised myself to pay tribute to who I am. I often tell the story of realizing that, if Dizzy Gillespie could embrace Afro-Cuban music so strongly while remaining himself, I could do the same.”
The members of Acuña’s band share her determination. “I’ve known [bassist] Omer Avital, [drummer] Clarence Penn and [pianist/musical director] Jason Lindner for 10 years, while [guitarist] Juancho Herrera has proven to be just as strong a collaborator in the two years we’ve worked together,” she notes. “We share a hunger to develop our own voices and to grow. And I think that I can speak for everyone when I say that time has allowed us to develop and discover, to apply our curiosity to both the music we grew up with and the music we have learned from others. We are a generation that finds ourselves in the same city - in one painting, as it were - without worrying about remaining as ‘pure’ as possible. We are more concerned with taking our influences and learning, then teaching.”
Together, they have fashioned a distinct identity in which each member plays a part. “Music is like a conversation, in that you are not the only one participating,” Acuña emphasizes. “Even when Jason or I bring an arrangement to the group, being free to be led somewhere else is an important part of the development of each song.”
Acuña is responsible for choosing the material, and is composing more frequently as well. Her concern for lyrical content, whether delivered in Spanish or English, only intensifies the universality of her music. “Words are written for a reason, and even if we just use a melody without the lyrics, the verbal images are key to our interpretive motivation. I pick songs with stories that I can relate to, and when they speak to me I find myself hearing things that I want to put into the music. Call me individual, or dramatic, or crazy, or all of the above, but I’m incapable of singing a song as it was originally presented.”
This improvisational credo informs every track in the present program, which ranges from songs Acuña learned as a child such as “La Mentira” and “Cuando Vuelva a Tu Lado” (the latter better known to English-speaking listeners as “What a Difference a Day Makes”) to more recent passions including “Sueño Contigo,” by the Uruguayan singer/percussionist Ruben Rada. The material also includes classics from Argentina, Cuba and Mexico, plus three titles by Victor Jara, the poet, singer and political activist killed by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973 described by Acuña as “like Bob Dylan to many Chileans.”
There are also two of the singer’s own creations, reflecting the confidence she has gained as a composer. “Tulum,” with her melody and lyrics plus music by Herrera, was created after visiting the ancient city on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and spending several days on the beach, in a shelter with no electricity. “I wanted to be totally disconnected from the everyday world,” she says of her inspiration, “and Tulum showed me the magic of life and how the simplest things often have the most meaning.”
Perhaps most indicative of the album as a whole, with its blend of Spanish and English lyrics and its strong social message, is “That’s What They Say,” a collaboration between Acuña and Lindner. “That song was inspired by the early days of the Iraq war, and by my work as a spokesperson for the children’s organization World Vision Chile. The song is a question to God, and after Jason gave me the chords and a groove the lyrics came out like a flood of water - some in English, some in Spanish. It is a sad song, an angry song, a simple song.”
While previous recordings by Acuña have focused more on standards and the English language, En Este Momento stands as the truest reflection of both her and her band to date. “I still sing standards, the ones that retain meaning for me,” she offers, “but now is the right moment to put forth what is really me.” Her progress, and that of her colleagues, makes the moment not just right but ideal.