Roxana Amed Mixes Multiple Latin Traditions


Amed’s album Unánime celebrates the work of contemporary and historic Latin composers.

(Photo: Claudio Napolitano)

How do Latin and jazz combine to produce Latin jazz? To help her decipher the code, the virtuosic Argentinian vocalist-composer-producer Roxana Amed — who earned two Latin Grammy nominations for Ontology, her 2021 U.S. recording debut — called in her troops.

Unánime, her stunning new Sony Latin release, celebrates the work of contemporary and historic Latin composers with an entire firmament of Latin stars. Among them: legendary Cuban pianist Jesús “Chucho” Valdés; Spanish flamenco guitar maestro Niño Josele; Venezuelan vocalist-songwriter-trumpeter Linda Briceño, the first-ever woman to win a Latin Grammy for Producer of the Year; and fellow Argentine Pedro Aznar, a fretless bass phenom and longtime Pat Metheny collaborator, who fused jazz with Argentine folk and rock.

At the center of the crossroads is Amed herself. She conceived, composed and sang on Unánime; assembled its far-flung cast; and was the project’s hands-on producer. She is, in short, an artist who knows how to “Make Things Happen,” like it said on the T-shirt she wore when being interviewed via Zoom.

“Latin jazz isn’t just samba or bossa nova,” Amed explained, speaking from her home in Miami, where she’s lived since 2013. “People from different Latin countries express their music in different ways with the freedom that jazz gives you. I wanted to have Cuban jazz, of course, but not doing salsa.” So Amed asked Chucho Valdés to interpret a work by the late 18th century Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes. “My personal perspective comes from South America,” she noted. “But everyone on the album had a chance to add other colors from their own tradition.”

Amed’s own tradition dates back to her childhood outside Buenos Aires. She started playing guitar and singing Argentinian songs with her father at the age of 4, when her mother also steered her to classical piano lessons “because I always had extra energy.”

As a Catholic school girl, Amed sang in multiple ensembles and took classical voice lessons. “It was a huge thing, I had to go downtown,” she recalled. “But it wasn’t my language.” Later, she hit a similar wall at the conservatory. “I was really frustrated because I didn’t want to be an opera singer or a classical pianist. And I had nowhere to go to learn.” So Amed learned on the job, doing gigs as a vocalist with different rock and pop bands. But it was only when she started singing jazz — “a style that came to me almost by accident” — that she found her true calling.

“Someone gave me a tape of Dee Dee Bridgewater singing ‘Round Midnight’ with the National Jazz Orchestra of Paris,” Amed recalled. “And everything was there. The classical training made sense. The openness of the range. The layers in the arrangement. It was perfect.”

After “listening to every recording I could get,” Amed started writing songs for other artists, which quickly evolved into “writing songs that I didn’t want to sell.” So she contacted Latin jazz trailblazer Aznar, and they instantly clicked. “Pedro loved my work, and we became collaborators and friends,” she said. Eighteen years after Aznar produced her 2004 debut, Limbo, “I invited him to represent the voice of Argentine music on the new album.” Amed also came full circle with other longtime collaborators to create Unánime, which means “one soul.”

During a lively conversation between two kindred spirits who share a passion for tuxedo cats and Jorge Luis Borges, Amed discussed the genesis of Unánime from her studio, where she’d just finished teaching a voice lesson for an appreciative feline audience. “My cat loves to be here while I’m singing,” she said, and lifted her tux, Rooney, up to the screen. “He knows it’s a sacred space. People are singing, people are breathing.”

I can hear the influence of your classical training in the album. And you chose to work with composers, it wasn’t just music off the streets.

I’m a very passionate person, but I like to use my mind. I’m still trying to find a more accurate version of my soul in the music I make. I’m getting closer but I have to go deeper.

The pictures you paint with your voice are already deeply soulful. “Flamenco Sketches” takes us to an after-hours session in Andalusia on the wings of Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain. And your flamenco-scatting is one of the Latin jazziest moments on the album.

I like what we did with that piece. It’s not easy to sing flamenco, and finding people to play and do the clapping was a challenge. But the great Niño Josele agreed to play guitar, which he recorded in Madrid, and Kendall Moore, who wrote the arrangement, had just won a Latin Grammy when we recorded that.

“A Veces No Siempre,” the Peruvian piece, talks about how you always want to return to the music of your country, which seems like a primary theme.

Absolutely. [Bassist] Edward Perez went to Peru just to learn Peruvian music. And while he was there he told another musician, “I love this music, but I will always miss my music.” And he replied, “You will always miss your music.” Edward turned that story into a song.

Is that how you felt singing “Nueva Luna, Mundo Arjo,” the Argentine piece?

Yes. Arjo comes from argento, silver, which is the name of our country, and the composer says it means “our world.” And it’s true. I love American jazz more than any music in the world. But when I sing my music from Argentina, my body is aligned with my voice and with my soul.

“Adios a Cuba,” the closer, sounds almost like a benediction.

That’s my work as the producer. Find a guest who can show his soul. Chucho Valdés was very moved by the lyrics: footsteps that disappear on an island that looks really dark from a distance, because it doesn’t have much electricity.

You also did “Los Tres Golpes” with Chucho, which sounded like so much fun.

It was! I was facing Chucho, with Martin [Bejerano] improvising on the other piano like crazy. Just before I got to the studio, the tuner called to say, “You may have to cancel because I can’t match the two pianos.” And I said, “What? [laughs] I’m sure Chucho will love the piano.” And he did.

My first husband, a flamenco guitarist, taught me about duende, and I could feel the power of duende throughout Unánime.

Duende is when the spirit speaks through you. I really trusted that as a producer, but I can get a little distracted at the studio, doing things like sandwiches.

And it’s like, “Now I have to sing?” The voice is a very delicate instrument, and I never go into the studio like a diva. So when I finally sit in front of the microphone, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

I think that works in your favor, because it lets the duende speak. My first introduction to Argentina was the great writer Jorge Luis Borges. What’s your perspective on Borges?

He’s definitely the father of Argentinian literature, not only as a writer but as a cosmopolitan intellectual. When I started writing this album, I was thinking about [his short story] The Circular Ruins, and the main character in that story talks about noche unánime.

So, I decided to call the album Unánime, which means one soul. Now every time I say the name, I remember Borges. DB

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December 2023
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