Luciana Souza Wows Packed House

Amazing chops and genuine humility.

Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI became a veritable United Nations on March 17 when the Brazilian songbird Luciana Souza led a band featuring West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and Texas-born drummer Kendrick Scott alongside Swiss players Gregoire Maret and Massimo Biolcati, who were on chromatic harmonica and double bass, respectively.

Featuring material from her brand-new release, "Speaking in Tongues," Souza’s concert began with Louke conjuring bizarre vocal clicking sounds from his larynx in tandem with wild melodic explorations on the guitar, yielding ultimately to the intoxicating blend of wordless vocals and chromatic harmonica. Scott kept his groove paramount with an endless series of small gestures and dynamic storytelling as Louke and Maret unleashed wicked solos into the night.

Souza’s supreme musicality was always at the forefront, especially on "Nightingale," which combined a seldom heard Leonard Cohen poem with her lithe vocals and hypnotic thumb-piano --along with Biolcati’s groaning whole notes and the sensitive swirl of Scott’s brushes.

All through the night I was floored by Souza’s flawless intonation, uncanny range, and all around limber acuity, which frequently partnered in ripplng orbits with Maret’s sinewy axe, and on "Roses Don’t Speak," that instrument reached into the heavens with a monstrous solo of incredible depth against the sparse accompaniment of Scott’s bare-hands-on-knees. It was a transcendent moment.

Another highlight came during "Children of Ghandi," a tour-de-force that opened with Louke’s two-handed tapping/slapping/plucking and angelic vocals leading into an irresistible Caribbean groove where Souza induced the crowd into an infectious sing-a-long that actually continued to carry the tune.

Souza did not announce the title of a Brazilian piece that reminded me a lot of Jobim’s "Dindi," but it featured an opening bass solo by Biolcati so soulful that I could have sworn Charlie Haden was in the house. Again, the leader’s rich contralto wove a sensual pattern into the fabric of the night.

After an undeniably earned standing ovation, Souza and group returned to the stage to deliver a misty-eyed, pensive reading of "He Was Too Good to Be True," where all of her gifts once again coalesced -- revealing clarity, emotional honesty and a truly gracious stage presence.

Another knock-out performance from the folks at Athenaeum Jazz.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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