Claudia Acuña: El Arte del Duo


“With this album, I want to give a little glimpse of what’s coming, in my compositions, my melodies,” Acuña said.

(Photo: Tracey Yarard)

Singer-songwriter Claudia Acuña had thought about doing a duets album for a long time. The emotional exposure of the pared-down structure intrigued her. The concept behind the musical content excited her. And the first steps toward booking the sessions made her nervous.

“The pandemic gave me a sense of how fragile things can be, so I took a chance and started to make phone calls to some of my idols,” she said by telephone from her Brooklyn home. “I wanted a [certain] vulnerability on these songs that mean so much to me — the standards of South America.”

In September, the Chilean native released Duo, her sixth solo album as a leader and her Ropeadope debut. Of the record’s nine tracks, seven feature distinguished guest instrumentalists. Acuña was surprised, she said, when they all agreed to do the project.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been. After all, Acuña has been a leading Latina jazz vocalist here in the U.S. since the 1990s, a recording artist for several prestigious jazz labels since the 2000s and a Latin Grammy nominee for her last record, Turning Pages (Delfin), in 2019.

The list of prominent musicians with whom she’s shared world-reknown stages over the last 20-plus years is impressive — George Benson, Avishai Cohen, Tom Harrell, Antonio Hart, Joey Calderazzo, Arturo O’Farrill, Susie Ibarra, Jason Lindner and Guillermo Klein, to name a few.

But working in the studio one-to-one during a global health crisis — on very personally affecting material, no less — would be an undertaking of an entirely different order. Most of Acuña’s previous efforts were larger operations, with heavier rosters and more complex arrangements.

“I wanted to focus on the simplicity of the melodies, on reacting to what the other person is playing, on the connection that I have with these [musicians],” Acuña said.

One of her first calls was to pianist Kenny Barron, whom she had met at the West Village jazz club Sweet Basil in the 1990s.

At the time, she was new to the U.S., still familiarizing herself with the language and gaining a foothold as a singer on the New York scene.

“We both love food, and I’d be sitting at the end of the bar, talking about recipes in my broken English, in the presence of this icon,” Acuña recalled. “Through the years, we kept running into each other, and [once] we traveled together to Chile for a festival. So, I took a chance and asked him. It was a beautiful gift — he said yes. Now I call him El Rey.”

Acuña had “the king” in mind for “Medianoche,” a Spanish-language classic by Chilean songwriters Patricio Manns and Horacio Salinas. The wine-dark colors in Acuña’s voice and the shifting lights of Barron’s rubato over the keyboard bring favor to the somber ballad, which serves as the album opener.

Acuña also reached out to another connection from her early days in New York for “Eclipse de Luna,” a gentle bolero by Cuban composer Margarita Lecuona popularized by Brazilian legend João Gilberto. Acuña’s version has bassist Christian McBride turning out crisp riffs while the singer extemporizes musingly, in a pleasing departure from the usual moody understanding of the tune. The comfort between the two musicians is obvious, speaking, perhaps, to their long association.

“I met Christian soon after I arrived in this country, and he’s my friend,” she said. “[Even so], you can’t just call Christian for a gig — he’s one of the busiest musicians these days. But I picked up the phone to ask him, and before I could even finish, he said, ‘Of course. What are the dates?’”

Besides the Lecuona song, Acuña wanted to include compositions by other prolific Latina musicians who have gone largely unheralded in the U.S.

She turned to guitarist Russell Malone to help her interpret “Verdad Amarga,” by Consuelito Velázquez, the Mexican composer who wrote “Bésame Mucho.”

As with this long-beloved standard, Malone’s guitar accompaniment (inexplicably) only enhances the longing in “Verdad Amarga” — rendered on the album as a wistful conversation between two musicians who happen to be friends.

“I love that crazy, beautiful man. We have a very particular story,” Acuña said when asked about Malone’s participation in the recording. “We were on tour and got stuck together on 9/11 in Salt Lake City, [trying to] fly back to New York. Ever since then, it could be a whole year that we don’t talk, but when 9/11 comes, one of us will call the other. It’s because of that story that he’s so dear to me. I had to have him on this record.”

In choosing the album’s repertoire, Acuña also felt drawn to Maria Grever’s “Júrame,” an early 20th century hit that bears the same lilting melodicism as the Mexican-born composer’s later success, the Songbook favorite “What A Difference A Day Made.”

Acuña thought that pianist Fred Hersch would bring the requisite pathos to the rueful tune, but she had never worked with him. Thus, she was flattered to discover that Hersch not only knew her music, but appreciated it.

“I picked this song because I felt that, with the way he plays, it would be a nice rendition,” she said. “Fred commands when he plays, if I may say it. And he is so different from the other pianists on the record.”

Colombian pianist Carolina Calvache — who invited Acuña to sing on last year’s Vida Profundo (Sunnyside), a showcase for Calvache’s skill as a vocal arranger — delivers a powerful rendering of Argentine songwriter Victor Heredia’s “Razón de Vivir.” After an impressionistic intro, she hurtles toward the tune’s catharsis before returning to an effervescent figure in the outro; this dramatic motion frees Acuña to explore the unbearable sorrow in Heredia’s melody.

Acuña had also partnered with pianist Arturo O’Farrill on a Latin vocal album — 2008’s In These Shoes (Zoho), impressive in its musical scope and breadth of talent.

As on this previous collaboration, O’Farrill’s multifaceted approach to Latin jazz serves Acuña’s arresting vocals on “Piensa en Mi,” a popular ballad by Mexican composer Agustín Lara.

“It’s an intense song,” Acuña said. “And the way Arturo plays it, it’s like an orchestra.”

But for the Victor Jara song “Manifiesto,” Acuña wanted a simpler dialogue with violinist Regina Carter, who engaged in call-and-response as the singer interpreted the Chilean songwriter’s powerful lyrics. Intertwined, the two melodic lines present one of the most surprisingly moving performances on the record.

“Regina is my girl,” Acuña said. “We have known each other from the Verve years. I knew that I wanted to do this song with her. She is such a unique, beautiful woman, and that comes through in the way that she plays her instrument.”

Toward the end of the album, Acuña inserts the only songs with English-language lyrics, both of them solo vocal tracks. She sings the first, “Crystal Silence,” a capella, almost as a private message to its composer, pianist Chick Corea, who died in February 2021.

“I was heartbroken when Chick Corea passed away,” she said. “I had the privilege of meeting him before I got signed by Verve. He always had time, he remembered everything about you, and he always had something positive to say to support you. I’d dreamed of singing with him — but I never had the courage [to ask]. I decided that this would be my tribute to him, and instead of trying to replace him with an instrument, it would just be me.”

Acuña closes with the album’s only original, “Yo,” a bold composition with ethereal, overdubbed vocal harmonies, eerie whispers and the bombo lehuero beating like a heart behind Acuña’s assertive solo line — a statement of intent, it seems.

“With this album, I want to give a little glimpse of what’s coming, in my compositions, my melodies,” Acuña said. “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m just going to do my music the way I feel it.” DB

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