Claudia Acuña is a Chilean-born American jazz vocalist with a dynamic range and an emotionally incisive delivery. Following her dynamic debut on the NY scene in the 1990’s she recorded five albums as a leader, and then stepped away for a decade to raise her son and restore her power. Returning refreshed in 2019, Acuña delivered the Latin Grammy nominated album Turning Pages, representing reclamation, recovery, and documenting a major creative leap. She has begun to tour again, including a stirring performance backed by her all-Chilean trio at the 2022 Montclair Jazz Festival. Here she delivers an intimate album, DUO, with a select group of the greatest jazz artists of our times with pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Christian McBride, and pianist Kenny Barron. Her other elite accompanists are violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone, pianist Carolina Calvache, and pianist Arturo O’Farrill. Acuña accompanies herself with a percussion instrument on “Yo,” her original, describing her relationship with Mother Earth. one track and sings a cappella on Corea’s “Crystal Silence.”
This is a different side of the artist than the one this writer witnessed just a few weeks ago in Montclair. While those performances emphasized the power of her voice and excitement of performing live for one of the first times since the pandemic shutdown, this album focuses on emotion, vulnerability, and vocal nuance. The format would be challenging for even the most experienced artists and Acuña proves more than up to the challenge across seven songs from composers hailing from Chile, Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico, and one from the great Chick Corea.
She begins singing in Spanish on “Medianoche,” (Midnight) written Patricio Manns and Horacio Salinas and accompanied by NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, the melody rising and falling dramatically through the piece. The unmistakable lyrical bass tones of Christian McBride introduce “Eclipse de Luna,”(Lunar Eclipse) from Margarida Lecuona as Acuña sings in remarkable clarity a touching romantic ballad in Spanish. Bell-like piano notes from Carolina Calvache support the vocalist on “Razon de Vivir,”(Reason to Live) from Victor Heredia, another emotionally intense tune. Through these three selections, it’s rather astounding how Acuña both soars above the delicate accompaniment but inspires each of her partners to match her dynamic intensity in their own solos. Pianist Fred Hersch delivers one of these best such solos on Maria Grever’s “Jurame,” which also exemplifies Acuña’s proficiency in dynamics and her remarkable range.
She transports us to Spain with the marvelous Victor Jara penned “Manifiesto,”(Manifesto) as NEA Jazz Master Regina Carter provided the simpatico accompaniment that only she can. Carter’s solo is breathtaking, and she serves as practically a second vocalist responding to Acuña’s verses. Russell Malone is the gentle supporter for the romantic flowing “Verdade Amarga” (Bitter Truth) from Agustin Lara while Arturo O’Farrill is her vigorous duet partner on Lara’s “Piensa en Mi,” (Think of Me) another tune with mesmerizing dynamic shifts. It’s rather stunning when we hear Acuña softly shift to a whisper, singing alone in English for “Crystal Silence,” emphasizing the mood of the title. The unusual instrument in “Yo” is a bombo lehuero, an Argentine drum that emits high-pitched sounds. The brief tune fades out, capping one of the more vibrantly rich vocal albums heard recently. This writer is not fluent in Spanish but that doesn’t matter. Maybe those fluent in the language would feel even more strongly.
Acuña’s early millennium work stamped her as a creative force, from 2002’s Rhythm of Life (Verve) and 2004’s Luna (MaxJazz) though 2008’s In These Shoes (Zoho Music) and 2009’s strikingly beautiful En Este Momento (Marsalis Music). Whether putting her spin on popular Latin American ballads, reimagining jazz standards from a South American perspective, or infusing Afro-Caribbean material with a wide rhythmic sensibility, Acuña makes an important statement here, revealing emotional and romantic nuances more fully realized than ever before. Look for this to earn Latin Grammy nominations.
- Jim Hynes