In poems, words exist in the context of silence, while lyrics are created to match the melodies. Rarely do these two mediums create a seamless blend, but Grammy Award-winning jazz artist Luciana Souza, for her latest album project, The Book of Longing, composed music to accompany the texts of Leonard Cohen, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, alongside three of her own self-penned poems.
The tracks were recorded live in the studio and produced by Souza’s husband, Larry Klein. The result is a deep exploration of the words, as Souza’s musical lineage and stunning voice are framed by guitarist Chico Pinheiro and upright bassist Scott Colley abetted by Souza’s subtle percussion flourishes. With jazz elements and echoes of the artist’s native Brazil, it both encompasses and defies genres.
“Sometimes I’m bothered that I make records that feel so reverential, like you have to light a candle and turn out the lights,” says Souza, “But this is my truth. If I’m going to read poetry I can’t do it in the car. I do it at night, on a Sunday, surrounding myself with books. It’s not because it’s so precious, but it is something that requires concentration, which we don’t have a lot of because our phones are buzzing with tweets. But I don’t want it to be difficult or laborious. And I like music to be a companion.”
While Leonard Cohen was probably best known as a songwriter, he also wrote prose and poetry. Souza remembers reading his poem “The Book of Longing,” that gives title to her collection. “It came out in 2006, the year I moved to Los Angeles. Larry gave it to me. I went to Leonard in 2008 and asked him if I could set his poems to music. He said no. Larry asked again later, but someone else was already working on it and Leonard wanted to project the relationship he had with other songwriters. For my album Speaking in Tongues I asked to do two songs and he said yes. For The Book of Longing, I asked his son Adam and he said yes.
In creating the melodies to accompany the words, Souza knew the direction she wanted to take the music in to honor the group of poets whose words she illuminates. “There is a great sisterhood and brotherhood happening among them. They are so refined. With Leonard, there is no word thrown there just to fill the space or the rhyme. The work it takes to write poetry at that level—I know, because I can’t do it. But I thought that I needed to include my own voice, so three of my own poems are included.
Souza’s song “These Things,” opens the record and sets the stage. “I was thinking about ‘The Waters of March’ by Carlos Jobim, the simplicity of the melody, of him walking around the city and taking photographs and describing these events,” she observes. “It was narration, but it’s not in any particular time. Leonard’s poetry is like that too—it could have happened at any time, yesterday or 100 years ago.”
A performer blessed with incandescent charisma, on stage with her guitarist and bassist, Souza captivated a rapt audience at UCLA’s historic 1800 seat Royce Hall as she breathed life into words. “I think the interaction with musicians and the breath and the phrasing especially, create a chamber like performance,” she notes. “I’ve written complex music in the past. This time it was an effort to simplify with triadic music, three note chords, to make it repetitive with the simplicity of the melody and keep reducing things. It was a quick process. I was determined.”
The Book of Longing is a document with deep emotional implications for Souza. “I walk through this world and I see things, and they strike me as I retain an association or a metaphor. The poet sees it differently. It makes an impression in the heart and soul. I am inspired by people who are different and quirky, real artists who have to do what they do. I know what poetry does for me, and I hope it can bring others solace and peace.”
Contact Alisse Kingsley, Muse Media, AlissetheMuse@aol.com