Carmen Cuesta connects to Bossa Nova king Jobim in latest CD

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istening to Carmen Cuesta on MI BOSSA NOVA is like going back in time to my parents’ sunny 1960s living room somewhere in Japan, stereo blasting Jobim as Astrud Gilberto sings of the softly swaying “Girl From Ipanema” with the amazing Stan Getz on sax, while I thumbed through the latest Sear Roebuck catalog imagining myself all grown up with a family of my own.

When the Madrid-to-NY vocalist starts “Triste,” in easy breezy, exotic Brazilian Bossa Nova time, I’m back there — three years old — listening to my father whistling while he worked on the car and my mom samba-dancing as she dusted. Good times… seamlessly recreated in this fine Jobim tribute.

Carmen Cuesta started off her musical career in choir, on guitar, then in theater — “Godspell” was a big deal — before slowly making a mark as a steady session singer and one who could command the stage with the tightest, best jazz musicians around, in Madrid, Europe and, eventually, the U.S.

A chance meeting in 1979 with Stan Getz’s guitarist Chuck Loeb resulted in love, marriage, babies, and entry into New York City’s musical elite. There, she was exposed to hardcore jazzers and big-name superstars — the likes of Andy LaVerne, Mark Egan and Danny Gottlieb (Pat Metheny band), Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington Jr., Peabo Bryson — and what they could do.

She and her husband, Loeb, put together a band of their own, Paralelo, putting out accessible jazz-oriented pop, rock, and Latin fusions.

Cuesta struck out on her own more in several notable recordings after doing the mom thing. An East Coast tour with Loeb doing some Jobim music inspired her latest CD release (March 22, 2011), MI BOSSA NOVA. The CD features seven Jobim songs that most spoke to Cuesta, as well as “O Barquinho” by Joao Gilberto, “Manhã de Carnaval” by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Maria, and “Jobim” and “Tormenta” by the artist herself.

The musicians co-producers Cuesta and Loeb picked for the recording project are tops in their field and always in demand: pianist Matt King, drummer Brian Dunne, percussionist David Charles, bassist Christian Diener, flautist David Mann, and harmonica player Howard Levy. Cuesta and Loeb’s daughters Christina and Lizzy provide additional flute in “Jobim.”

In training for the recording of this tribute to Jobim, his Bossa Nova contributions, and other Brazilian artists of their time, Cuesta originally planned on singing in her native Spanish — until the Jobim estate put an end to that with a requirement that all songs must remain authentically in Portuguese. Cuesta’s intent with Spanish was to make the songs a little more accessible to a greater portion of the listeners. With this new edict, however, she had to engross herself in the Portuguese musical language — listening to classic Brazilian favorites like Gal Costa, Ana Carolina, and Regina — after having done all this work in Spanish. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She was able to sing with a deeper understanding in Portuguese because of her Spanish translation, instead of just singing by phonetic rote. She also said that keeping the songs authentic in the original Portuguese enabled her to connect deeper with these Brazilian artists’ spirit and intent when they wrote the pieces.

Every song in this CD is Bossa Nova perfection, easy to listen to, danceable, infinitely pleasant to the senses and a fitting tribute especially to the father of Bossa Nova, Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim.

Even though Carmen Cuesta sings in Portuguese, the feel is universal. Her fluid, soft as silk voice is smooth and sensual as any Jobim masterpiece should be; it never detracts from the light and lively, rhythmically layered, sophisticated syncopation of dance, longing, and African-based beats. She’s even, dare I say, less staccato and more cohesive than that famous “Girl From Ipanema’s” Astrud Gilberto.

The best evidence that Cuesta knows what she’s doing is in her song for “Jobim.” It’s not a Jobim composition, but it might as well be. It has the same easy, breezy, Bossa Nova style with a lyrical charm that trips easily off the tongue and sounds so romantic and otherworldly, as if sun-kissed in a forgotten paradise. She wrote the song while feeling a deep connection with the late Brazilian artist, the places he frequented, the inspiration he derived from his seaside coast, Ipanema Beach. “I could almost touch the places where he was when he was writing these songs,” Cuesta explained. Those places usually consisted of hanging out at the Copacabana early in the morning with his colleagues, following another arduous but passionate jam session, or strolling the beach, which felt — to Jobim — “like singing.”

“I can feel that. I can see exactly what he means,” Cuesta finished.

Now, so can we.

Review first appeared in Examiner July 6, 2011.

Check out Carmen Cuesta’s latest album, out since 2013: Toda Una Vida.

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