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With her album of duets, Claudia Acuña breathes new life into the Latin American songbook

Claudia Acuña
c/o the artist
Claudia Acuña

Born and raised in Chile, the singer and songwriter Claudia Acuña first arrived in New York City in 1995 and paid her dues on the jazz scene there for more than five years. Signed to Verve, Acuña released her debut album Wind From The South in 2000 and over the next two decades would go on to record a half dozen more albums for Verve, MaxJazz, Zoho and Marsalis Music. Her latest recording, Duo, released on the Ropeadope label, features Acuña singing a mix of South and Central American folk songs and standards, a Chick Corea tune (“Crystal Silence”) and an original composition. Each cut features one of seven different instrumentalists—bassist Christian McBride, violinist Regina Carter, guitarist Russell Malone, and pianists Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Carolina Cavache and Arturo O’Farrill. The sparse instrumentation provides an open platform for her exquisite vocals. Wanting to honor her upbringing and the legacy of Latin American songwriters, she sings all but two tunes in Spanish.

Acuña talked with me about the album and how it reflects her own past and present.

Watch our conversation here:

Claudia Acuna with Lee Mergner

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner:   The first and obvious question is: Why an album all of duets?

Claudia Acuña: It's a form that I did record on my first album. I did one track with the bass player on that album. And, even doing gigs when I first started, a lot of them were duets. Because I recorded this in the pandemic in the summer, I felt I wanted that type of vulnerability and intimacy that in a way we were all forced to face due to what we've been experiencing. I just felt like I wanted two people with a common topic to have a conversation.

The conversations are with an amazing collection of musicians. Christian McBride and the pianists Kenny Barron, Carolina Calvache, Fred Hersch and Arturo O’Farrill.  And Russell Malone, the great guitar player, as well as Regina Carter on violin. How did you choose these special collaborators?

I went for the stars, like my kid would say. I fulfilled a dream in a way of calling and trying to reach out to people that I admire, that I respect, that I have dear friendships with. People that I've never done any musical work with, but we are friends too. And people that lived also here in the New York or Brooklyn area, because I wanted also to do it in person. I didn't want them to send me a track and then I'd do it here. I wanted really to have that feeling, that energy when you are in person.

How did you choose the songs? You have an interesting collection of beautiful music. Was it your choice or did you ask them what they wanted to do?  

No, it was my choice because I wanted to bring these people that I love and admire and respect to my world of what I call the Latin American standards. All of them are passed from generation to generation. They are songs that you connect with a memory of yourself maybe, but also you can look back to your mother, your grandparents, and people like that.

Talk about some of those songs.

People that know me and have known my music, know that I've always included musicians and composers from Chile. For example, I recorded with maestro Kenny Barron a song called “Medianoche,” written by Patricio Manns. That's a song that is very dear to my heart. I sing it live with Inti-Illimani. And with Horacio Salinas, who is an incredible musician and a singer that I admire.

Listen to “Medianoche” featuring Kenny Barron:

Claudia Acuna singing "Medianoche" with Kenny Barron

I recorded “Verdad Amarga” with Russell, which is written by Consuelo Velázquez, who is also an incredible musician and pianist and who wrote “Bésame Mucho,” She's a woman and it's a song among others that she wrote that I remember my grandmother singing along with the radio. I have so many memories with some of these songs.

Except for Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence,” all the songs are sung in Spanish. It’s something you've always done, but not to this extent. I was at the Sarah Vaughan vocal competition a couple weeks ago. Four out of the five finalists were very much international. But the interesting thing is that Lucia, who was from Mexico, sang a standard, then did a Charlie Parker tune, and then she did “What A Difference a Day Makes” and explained that it was originally a Mexican tune.

I recorded that song on my En Este Momento album. Like I said, I call them the Latin American standards. Usually in all the albums, I have two or three songs that I sing in Spanish. But this one is all in Spanish, except for “Crystal Silence” and the last song [“Yo”] a composition by me that has a little bit of Spanish and a little bit of English.

Lucia sang the first part in English and then did it as a sort of bolero, in keeping with what she had grown up with, playing music with her family, and, and then sang the rest in Spanish. It just felt real and authentic. One of the things I wondered is whether you think that it's been a barrier or hindrance for you singing so much in Spanish, because Americans are so ethnocentric.

I don't know. What do you think?

I think maybe yes, because Americans expect everyone to speak English.

I think probably yes. I probably felt it even more 10 or 20 years ago when I first arrived, because there were not that many musicians or singers or women from South America or Central America. And today we are talking about how the winner of the Sarah Vaughan Competition is a young lady from Mexico. So things have moved, changed a little bit and I think it’s the work that we all have been doing. I want to be authentic. I do this because I love it and I'm very proud also of who I am and where I come from. Jazz has been the music that has embraced and welcomed so many of us from so many different parts of the world. Latin music, especially Cuban music and Brazilian music has taken a very strong position in this music since forties. Now we see a generation of people like me that came in the ’90s. I'm from Chile. I could not come from a more foreign place. I love the spectrum of the music. The landscape has more diversity and everything is becoming more united. It’s beautiful.

Growing up around the great Chilean music in your home and community, how and when were you introduced to jazz?

I think now that I can chronologically see things. I was introduced to jazz, but I had no idea that this music was called jazz. The way I was introduced was by two things. We had our first black and white TV, and at the time TV was very controlled by the state. They played a lot of musicals. My mother loved them. There I met and heard for the first time people like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, and I was fascinated by that. Then with the radio you could, at certain hours, put an antenna outside of your window and you can get signals from other parts. You would never know from where. But I was very attracted to find music that now I know is jazz, blues and R&B. It was not what I would listen to at home, which was folk music, folklore, tangos. My dad loved tangos.

You made that journey from there to New York City. It's a big step for even people from maybe Pittsburgh or wherever to move to New York. What led you to take that leap of faith?  You didn't come here to go to school, right?

I wanted to go to school. It's funny you mentioned that because this week, the music world and this country lost Irene Cara, the singer and actress who sang the song from Flashdance. But I knew her through that TV show Fame. For a generation from many parts of the world, we grew up with that show. For me that was a dream to come to New York and go to a high school with a performing arts program. Something that I didn't grow up with. I came here with the idea and dream to go to school, but I couldn't afford it. I gave my auditions. I had that experience, which was really good. I'm very thankful to those teachers who really encouraged me and advised me to go to this jam session or that club. I also went to the workshop of Barry Harris.

You must have done Cleopatra’s Needle back then.

Yes, in fact, the first time I sang in this country, it was there. Pat O'Leary and Teri Thornton were doing a duo gig. I went there and she invited me to sit in. I couldn't hardly speak English, but I did know “Angel Eyes” in b-Flat. She was so sweet and kind.

You paid your dues on the scene, but eventually you got a record deal with Verve, which was a big deal back then. How did that come about?

I was doing work like babysitting. I started as a dishwasher and then I went to the coat check at The Blue Note. I had to get there at the time because I'm like, “I can get the cash, but also then I can see the music for free.” I met and saw so many people there that I'm so grateful. I was also trying to sit in the jam sessions there, but a person that used to work there at the time did not like that I would leave my position as a coat check to jump on stage. And they fired me. It’s funny because then 10 years later I was there as a headliner on a double bill with Terence Blanchard, and there was one of those moments where after all this struggle and everything, it was like, “Wow, who would've thought that?”

It sounds like a movie.

Oh, I got so many stories, but now that you are asking me how things happened, it brought me that memory. I don't know, I never thought about the idea of a record. It was so foreign to me. I don't come from a music family, per se. My parents have never left the country. At that time when I moved here was my first time leaving and going out of my country. I know people like Russ Musto and a few other people like Harry Whitaker at Smalls were key in exposing and giving some of us of that generation a place to do the music. And also for me as a woman, it was very interesting, the momentum that I was able to create. But I thought it was a joke when someone told me that Verve wanted to sign me.

Was it Richard Seidel back then?

Yes, Richard came to a gig that I was doing at the time at Sweet Basil’s. There was Jason Lindner on piano, Avishai Cohen on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums. I think I had a trombone player at the time, but I can’t remember if it was Ari Leibovitch or Steve Davis. Richard comes and I thought it was a joke. I had to apologize afterwards. I entered a world that for me was completely new. I had no idea what I was walking into.

Back then they would put money into these records. It was a different game.  And that’s gone now.

Yeah, that's gone. And that's a different conversation. Because of course it was a completely different time and I almost feel like the generation that got signed at the time were the last ones that experienced that old school way of the record labels and how they used to function. Very different from the way things are today, especially for artists like me and many others, who are independent.

I think almost everybody's independent. As you know, you have to do so much yourself. That's one of the things that younger musicians coming into it don’t know. You’re going to have to do a lot yourself because there’s not going to be some high-powered manager like the late Mary Ann Topper who is going to make you a star.

Yeah, it's definitely a different world. For me, the way things have shifted, I think it's going so fast and I'm just trying to stay focused and maintain the inspiration. I used to be that new generation and now I'm in a different place and I see things differently. I just hope that we all continue to have the opportunity to do what we've been doing for all these years. The music or the voice that takes us to do a project. Even when you write something or when you decide to use a theme or dedicate it to something or to someone, it's a lot of work to put out behind that. And I hope that, regardless of how all this is moving, there’s still space for all of us to continue being able to do our work.

What sort of music are you listening to now?  Not your own, but other types of music.

Well, I can't listen to myself. After I finish the record, then mix and master it, I'm done. Maybe here and there, I will listen to something from 10 years ago.

How does that sound to you now?

It's a great exercise. I think also I have a different appreciation and I remember moments. It’s like looking at a picture right here, and you know exactly what was going on in that moment.

A musical picture.

I've been listening to a lot of Nancy Wilson the past couple of days for whatever reason. That album she did with Cannonball Adderley. I'm a mom now, so I have to deal some time with the things that he wants to listen to, like Kate Bush and Lizzo. I like her a lot. I was listening to Pablo Milanes, a singer from Cuba that just passed away. His songs, beyond Cuba and the people of Cuba, moved and inspired so many people.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”