“I feel that the album really reflects my musical voice. It is our modern take on Brazilian music… I want to spend more time in Brazil, absorbing the music. So much of Brazilian music has the happy interwoven with the sad, with longing and wistfulness. I love performing this music, and take it seriously while having fun with it. Exploring these rhythms and harmonies is a lifelong journey.” —Emy Tseng
Emy Tseng originally came from a classical background growing up in the Midwest and Seattle. While at Brown University, the Taipei, Taiwanese-born pianist focused more on her vocals when she wasn’t studying Math and Physics. Even when she moved on to MIT for graduate studies, Tseng would stick with classical voice, early music, and French and German art song repertoire at the Longy School of Music. “It was not until I moved to New York in 2001 that I became very interested in jazz and Brazilian music,” Tseng explained. “I lived within walking distance of the Village Vanguard and other clubs. When I heard live jazz, I fell in love with it and then Brazilian jazz and bossa nova, particularly when I heard Brazilian singers such as Paula Morelenbaum and Luciana Souza. Other influences include Kate McGarry and Claudia Acuña.”
To deepen that interest, Tseng took in as much Brazilian jazz and jazz improvisation as she could, learning from the best in NYC (Jay Clayton), San Francisco (Jazz Camp West, Brazil Camp, Sandy Cressman, Marco Silva-Berkeley’s Jazzschool), and D.C., where she resides now. She also began trying out what she learned on real gigs with some outstanding musicians and arrangers the likes of guitarist Matvei Sigalov and bassist Leonardo Lucini.
Tseng got so good at Brazilian and jazz covers that she recently collaborated with these and other D.C. musicians on her debut album, released February 5 on Mei Music. “Sonho” (Dream) is the quietly effective result of her love affair with the Brazilian way of hearing and interpreting music. But “Sonho” also contains an easy Brazilian feel for standard/traditional tunes.
Tseng wisely employed a band full of solid players (mentors) who could handle the job for her debut: Sigalov (acoustic guitar and violin), special guest star-Brazilian acoustic guitarist Rogério Souza, keyboardist Wayne Wilentz, percussionists Bruno Lucini and Roberto Berimbau, drummer Alejandro Lucini, acoustic bassist David Jernigan, bassist Leonardo Lucini, and saxophonists Lyle Link and Andy Connell (also clarinet). They cover her ingénue vocals quite nicely.
The Portuguese/English album ventures into the allure of Brazilian jazz for the most part, honoring past and new artists from Jobim, Toninho Horta, Caetano Veloso, and Baden Powell, to Ivan Lins, and Chico Pinheiro. There are a few jazz standard departures — such as the 1960s pop hit “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas, Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” Johnny Mercer/Jimmy Van Heusen’s “I Thought About You,” and Bernice Petkere’s 1933 standard “Close Your Eyes” — but they fall in line with the classic Brazilian theme of yearning serenity crashing up against melancholy.
Tseng does yearning melancholy under the guise of somnolent acceptance so well, especially on “California Dreamin’,” a 1965 hit from the Mamas and the Papas. Their hit sanctioned the hip, copycatted soundtrack of the understated stranger in a strange land long ago. Sigalov’s arrangement slows down the tempo even further to allow for Tseng’s soul-cutting vocals, which removes any hint of the original self-aware hipster narrative, leaving behind the raw, spare space where torment gives way to slowly spiraling, depressive surrender. Sigalov plays intensely intricate acoustic guitar that is quite breathtaking, at once spare yet interwoven with complicated emotive resonance.
Except for “California Dreamin’,” Tseng’s voice is better suited to the Portuguese songs. And even then, if you listen very closely, you can hear the cracks, the uncertainty, the hesitancy, in many of the tunes (“Na Beira do Rio” is a prime example). In the English ones, there’s a distance between the singer and the content of the songs, perhaps due to lack of personal understanding, or her youth and musical inexperience in general. “Close Your Eyes” typifies this dissonance.
However, “Deixa,” “Aquelas Coisas Todas,” “Coração Vagabundo,” and “Berimbau” all benefit from her light, child-like touch.
“Deixa” — arranged by Leonardo Lucini — comes closest to those Brazilian hits of the 1960s, making exotic dance rhythms sound easy to pull off. Tseng’s girlish innocence, high hopes, and wide-eyed wonder really burst through in the soaring highs, while Andy Connell’s clarinet does most of the hard expository work.
It’s impossible not to bounce around to the lively, filigree of Matvei Sigalov’s acoustic guitar play in Tseng’s opener, “Aquelas Coisas Todas,” a declarative love letter to Brazilian jazz. Sigalov and the percussion section really fly here, backing Tseng’s airy vocalese. Most noticeable on this track too is the brisk keyboard flair from the amazing Wilentz, which will win him lots of new jazz musician fans. The fade on this piece is heavenly, as the vocalist—on a double harmonic line, and musicians coalesce in a timeless finish.
The height of Tseng’s ability to marry Brazilian jazz’s melancholy, sensual yearning, and serene delivery is in Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” another song arranged by Leonardo Lucini. Tseng lifts the simplistic heavy-handedness implicit in this piece, and keeps it light. Her voice is quite charming when she does this too.
“Berimbau” is three minutes and 50 seconds of Brazilian escape in both melody and musicality, with a catchy repeat-title chorus. Yet another winner from Lucini, who gives the drums and soprano saxophone ample room to flow in another powerful climax.
The songs that are not so powerful stray from the Brazilian theme and try too hard to be poignant, a big no-no in jazz. “Helianthella (Little Sunflower),” quite frankly, would benefit from full instrumentation, taken over by a deft horn and piano section, leave the vocals out of it. But it’s a weak song in general lyrically, even when Freddie Hubbard does it. And even then, he still downplays the sappy lyrics in favor of the depthless musical options, which isn’t quite in Tseng’s wheelhouse quite yet. Her version takes away from the haiku poignancy by sounding too precious about the meaning behind the humanizing of a little sunflower raising her face to the sun each day. The singing is a little shaky too. Overall, not enough music to offset all that obvious sentimentality.
“I Thought About You” is an old-fashioned song popularized in 1939 and covered by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, Mel Tormé… you get the gist. These jazz greats managed to lessen the old fashioned to get down to the heart of the bluesy, melancholy guts. Not Tseng; she sings this straight, as if she’s pitching a root beer commercial for a 1920s-themed ice cream parlor.
For her first shot out of the gate, Emy Tseng managed Brazilian jazz, in all its modern and traditional modalities, quite nicely — even surpassing expectations in a few of the numbers. (Her “California Dreamin’” ought to be on the top of the pop charts right now.)
She and her band will host a West Coast CD party at Oakland’s Avonova March 23, 8 p.m.-10 p.m. The acoustic guitarist on her debut album, Matvei Sigalov, will join her, along with bassist Dean Muench and drummer Jason Lewis. RSVP now. Only $15.