‘Big Stuff’: Venissa Santi travels light on Afro-Cuban Holiday
“The journey has been long and at times dark. By daring to interpret the tunes as uninhibited as possible it enabled me to come face-to-face with something bordering on danger and I experienced great gratitude. What emerged was an-almost four-year labor of love that overflowed onto this record. [Venissa Santi]”
Taking on Billie Holiday’s repertoire is like trying to interpret Shakespeare for a modern age. Holiday was the queen of unusual phrasing, parsing every lyrical turn dangerously close to the vest, resisting the audience’s natural urge for pleasing, predictable melody. She literally would take a song and throttle it into the submission with her unrelenting, drunken anguish. Her songs weren’t easy to take either. Lost love, damnation, madness, violence, the tortured torch of an artist who lived the pain of the jazz classics she breathed life into.
Venissa Santi and her percussionist/arranger François Zayas do something entirely different to most of Billie Holiday’s repertoire. They go Afro-Cuban, an inspired, crazy choice on the surface. But the complicated, polyrhythmic beats work up against the required vocal digression barely holding on, which only Lady Day knew how to work to her rarified advantage.
The idea first came to Santi and Zayas four years prior, in preparation for a special, May 2010 series of tributes to the late Billie Holiday set at Philly’s Kimmel Center. That series featured the likes of Kurt Elling, Lizz Wright, Claudia Acuña, and Sheila Jordan. Danilo Pérez had invited Santi to be a part of it all. It was an invitation she took seriously, so seriously that she put herself to the task of studying Afro-Cuban music in Cuba and immersing herself in Billie Holiday’s songs until they bled off her skin.
The natural inclination of any artist is to go with the known path, play the songs Holiday made famous straightforwardly, right on cue, in a straight-ahead style. Nobody would’ve found fault with that. However, Santi and Zayas chose to go a much deeper, much harder route, which took them and the recording band — including the late guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, pianist John Stenger, bassist Jason Fraticelli, trumpeter Tim Thompson, flugelhornist Chris Aschman) through an arduous six-month learning curve before they could even confidently walk into the studio for the recording.
Zayas put together careful arrangements of all 12 chosen tracks, including one Holiday never got to record, a Jack Reardon number — “Involved Again” — that forever eluded her when she died on July 17, 1959. Zayas and Santi applied the danzón, guaguancó, tumba francesa, tango congo, bolero, yambú, makuta, palo, son dance rhythms of Afro-Cuba, as well as cultural references. That took some time.
Bringing Holiday’s repertoire to Santi’s second major album since signing with Sunnyside Records took even more time. Santi explained that “[L]ife happened and we had great odds keeping our crew from finishing the record, and in the journey of putting these songs together, while I was delving into the lyrics and repertoire that I had started checking out when I was 14 years old, I realized I had grown up into the songs. The journey has been long and at times dark. By daring to interpret the tunes as uninhibited as possible it enabled me to come face-to-face with something bordering on danger and I experienced great gratitude. What emerged was an-almost four-year labor of love that overflowed onto this record.”
What emerges in the final record — out September 10, 2013 — is a brilliantly successful adaptation of Billie Holiday in all her glory, with an Afro-Cuban performance piece that should get the jazz pundits buzzing and cannibalizing for years.
Polyrhythms characterize much of the material here, providing a scattered backdrop of multiple, converging and diverging beats. The full listener effect is that of feeling completely overpowered and overwhelmed by such an embarrassment of riches, perfectly reflecting Billie Holiday’s own emotional overload at the height of her golden career. Here was a woman suffering through her music; she used her voice to fill up those empty spaces with strange, unearthly howls. In the recent Big Stuff: Afro Cuban Holiday, Venissa Santi has her Afro-Cuban band to help provide a dual narrative behind her own.
She quickens Holiday’s drawn-out misery and infuses it with a more casual, loose, ever-changing sense of impermanence to catch up with the controlled chaos in the music she must follow. At first, all the divergent, rhythmic beats come all at once in sensory overload until Santi pierces through the different lines with her strong center. The Euro-American sense of rhythmic melody is completely lost here, but not with Santi in control. Somehow, she manages to adhere to her own directional sense, following some unheard meter without losing the mainframe amidst all the superimposing cross-rhythms going on.
The two opening numbers, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and “Big Stuff,” really underscore the genius of slamming the Afro-Cuban style onto the music and vocals. The original 1930 Broadway baby is made denser, brighter and savvier, very much faster in pace. Santi was able to keep up with so much going on, because she did her homework, replaying this song in her head until she knew the lyrics by osmosis, singing it note for note, word for word long enough to then be able to play around. It shows. “I started to sit with the tune daily, doing just what the lyrics require, taking the sunny side with my son on cold morning walks to school to stay warm. It was an extreme honor to record with Jef Lee Johnson as well. I miss him dearly.”
“Big Stuff,” lavished with West African/French Haitian tumba francesa drumming styles, measures up to the title. The percussive/horn extravaganza twirling this piece into the hemisphere is heady stuff. How Santi manages to ground the whirlwind of multiple line beats and not miss her place is nothing short of miraculous, and deeply informed.
When Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” she made time stand still. The dark tale of lynchings in the South becomes quite an avant-garde poetry reading when Santi gets a hold of the song. A strong case could be made for “Strange Fruit” as the prime example of a modern-day bolero performance art piece in vocal and piano form. Santi makes this song her own by including a Yoruba prayer to the deity, Oya. “She is the keeper of the cemetery gates and the fierce winds,” Santi explained. “Strange Fruit is a political and graphic song. I am drawn to repertoire like that. ‘Strange Fruit,’ ‘My Man,’ ‘Good Bye Pork Pie Hat’ — I have sung these for years. In this performance on the record I very much wanted to sing in a way where there is room for the audience to sing along to it again and I recall performing it in a way where I literally don’t breathe.”
It’s hard to hear “What’s New?” without drawing comparisons to Linda Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra’s lush 1980s jazz recording of the same name. In Santi’s version, she and pianist John Stenger weave an entirely different mood, less lush or romantic, more stark and pensive, even deceptively casual, as if she doesn’t really care to know, but she really does. Santi again adds her cultural flavor by dropping the proper English enunciation of “What’s” in the title to “Wass,” evidence of the island way. There’s still that odd meter, where Santi seems to lag behind the beat of the melody slightly (she’s not), to create a sultry Holiday effect.
Holiday took her lyrics and stretched them beyond the breaking point until her voice was almost unrecognizably inhuman, a nightmarish figment of a defeated, tortured imagination. There’s some of that in Santi’s play, without going quite that far, just enough to give off a contemplative, unaffected, and ultimate resignation for whatever comes, the voice of a woman who’s seen it all and is willing to stay for more, which wasn’t quite in the original Holiday vocals of a woman on the verge of giving up. Stenger’s pushing melody and harmony tones quite deftly in his solo, as to touch on a slightly off-kilter undercurrent.
“Travelin’ Light” is a jazz fan’s sonic delight, a blend of Cuban guajira and New Orleans’ second line rhythm. Horns cut in diagonally, percussive beats flow in tap-dancing, hand-clapping waves, which the piano mischievously echoes in taunting keys, and the vocals are almost Patsy Kline-country. This is only one of a few happy songs, much appreciated. “You get a sense of the interpreter (of the song) travelling light because I am only accompanied by the bass at one time; then by the piano; later the trumpet,” Santi said.
A superior effort overall by a young, promising artist — winner of the 2008 Pew Fellowship for Folk and Traditional Arts — coming out of Philly.
Artist quotes from a DL Media press release.