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Interview: Stacey Kent

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Next Tuesday, singer Stacey Kent will begin a five-night run at New York's Birdland with the legendary bossa nova singer-songwriter Marcos Valle and his band from Brazil. Marcos was part of the generation that followed Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto and Vinicius de Moraes in the early 1960s and the composer of dozens of hit songs, among them Summer Samba (So Nice); Chup, Chup, I Got Away; The Answer; Crickets Sing For Anamaria; She Told Me, She Told Me and so many others.

Stacey, of course, is a jazz singer with a singular voice. After spending her early career studying and performing in London, she was championed by critic and jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton, and she won the 2001 British Jazz Award and the 2002 BBC Jazz Award for Best Vocalist. In October, Stacey and Marcos released a terrific new live album in the States—Ao Vivo (Sony), which features Jim on tenor sax.

So in advance of their gig next week, I asked Stacey a handful of questions. Her answers may surprise you. Tomorrow, I will feature my similar chat with Marcos:

JazzWax: How did you and Marcos meet?

Stacey Kent: In 2011, a Brazilian TV producer who was putting on a concert in Rio called. He invited me and Jim [Tomlinson], my husband and tenor saxophonist, to come down and perform with Marcos Valle. I had recorded Marcos' So Nice on an album of Jim’s in 2003 [Brazilian Sketches] and we had seen Marcos perform in London, but we had never met him. The producer said that Marcos had recently heard my French album, Raconte-moi, on the radio, bought it and had become a fan of mine.

Upon arrival in Rio a day before the concert, we went to Marcos' house for a rehearsal. That evening, the chemistry was instantaneous. Jim and I and Marcos and his singer-wife, Patricia, stayed up until almost sunrise. We talked and played and sang, and by the end of the session we all felt we had known each other for years.

After our song together at the concert that evening, Marcos had to leave immediately for the airport. Backstage, we hugged good-bye and he pointed to me and said, “Sabe, temos que repetir isso!” ("You know, we have to do this again!") “Yes, we do," I said.

JW: How did the idea for the album come up?

SK: Three weeks later, after Jim and I had returned to our home in Colorado, Marcos emailed me. He said he had found some tour dates and that Jim [above, with Stacey] and I should return to Brazil in the spring to tour with him and his band. Jim and I had only one week free, which miraculously coincided with the dates Marcos had in mind. A few days later, Marcos called. He said that 2013 was going to be his 50th year in the music business and that he and Patricia were kicking around ways to mark the occasion, like recording a CD of songs he had written over the last 50 years. Marcos said that in addition to a tour, he wondered if we would like to record with him live on the road to celebrate the milestone. He didn't have to ask twice.

JW: I noticed the album was released last year.

SK: Yes, it came out last year in Brazil and Japan. Now it's being released in the States. It was nominated for an award at the annual MPB Awards—Brazil's Grammy equivalent—and hit #1 on the iTunes and pop charts there. The cover photo was taken on our balcony at our home in the Colorado Rockies. Marcos suggested we pose in the snow. I loved the idea of Marcos, a Carioca surfer, in a winter wonderland. So exotic.

JW: How does Marcos’ music make you feel when you’re singing it?

SK: Marcos has an unbelievable gift for melody. He's such a romantic composer. He has a tender and generous heart, and I love how romantic he is. Mix this with his love of a great groove and you wind up with special music. Marcos has such a range of musical styles, so this album isn't just one feeling or mood. I'm on a journey of emotions here.

But this feeling goes beyond just singing his songs. I love singing with him on duets. He has such a sweet and pure voice. Like a dancer, he's also a great leader. Let me try and give you an example of what I mean. Marcos asked if I would consider singing his Viola Enluarada (1968). Now, for an American singer to take on such a song isn't easy. This isn't any old song. It's a song that stands as one of Brazil's anthems—a love song that's also disguised to be critical of Brazil's military dictatorship at the time. So many Brazilian composers were doing this then. I knew Marcos' version with Milton Nascimento as well as Dori Caymmi's exquisite rendition. So I was reluctant to take on the song and sing it live on stage in Brazil, in front of Brazilians. It's too sacred a song on so many levels.

But Marcos convinced me I should, that it would be beautiful. I trust Marcos, so I agreed. He came up with this sublime arrangement. He also sang it with me. I will never forget the feeling when we rehearsed it for the first time. I start the song and he eventually joins me mid-way and sings a harmony line behind me, not of the words but a gentle yet so powerful “ah" behind me. I immediately started to cry but I had to keep singing. He brings me to tears on this song every time. I have to suppress the lump in my throat. It is quite simply one of the most beautiful musical feelings I have ever experienced. Oh, I forgot to mention that when you sing this song in Brazil, Brazilians join in, which also is indescribable. A very humbling and human experience.

JW: What surprised you most about Marcos’s chord voicings and harmony lines?

SK: Let me give you an example: His If You Went Away—it's like chamber music, all done on the breath. When we perform the song, he doesn't take his eyes off me. He is listening and watching so he breathes at the piano when I breathe. Those silences and suspended moments are delicious. We both totally look forward to this magical moment each time we perform it.

On every song we sing, Marcos shadows the melody, but I always feel I have the space to sing where and how I want. It's astonishing how closely he can follow me. It's like having somebody walk right behind you, but not crowd you—completely in sync. We share so much in common, so musically we are a great fit.

JW: Are you fluent in Portuguese—or did you write out lyrics to songs phonetically?

SK: I speak Portuguese fluently. For me, I could never write out words phonetically and sing them. Poetry is something I need to internalize and feel. I can't be thinking about the words from a linguistic point of view, when it's such a visceral experience.

I was a literature and language major in college, before becoming a musician. I studied French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Latin. This was my childhood passion. My grandfather was a Russian who emigrated to France and spent many years there before eventually heading to the U.S. He was passionate about poetry and would recite them to me. He also passed along his wanderlust—a love of travel, language and poetry. Once I learned how to speak French as a young girl, it's the only language he and I ever spoke together.

JW: Being able to speak Portuguese must also help you with Marcos' band.

SK: Absolutely. Jim and I would be missing out on so much if we were on tour with them and unable to communicate. I have to tell you, meeting Roberto Menescal [above, with Stacey] in the band has been vital in my musical and personal life. Roberto speaks some English but not enough that he could share the amazing stories he shares with us. Jim and I are hearing these stories first-hand about his life in Rio in the '60s, his time with Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, Nara Leão and others These people have been our heroes. Being able to hear these stories in his native language makes a big difference.

JW: Who have you listened to over the years to get an authentic feel for the bossa nova?

SK: I discovered bossa nova at 14. I was at a friend's house playing cards after school, and he put on Getz/Gilberto. The following evening I went to Tower Records on 66th and Broadway and bought it. From that day on, I began to discover Jobim, João Gilberto, Elis Regina, Roberto Menescal, Vinícius de Moraes, Baden Powell, Edu Lobo, the Caymmi family, Gal Costa and Marcos and so many others. Vocally, my greatest heroes from Brazil have been João Gilberto, Elis Regina and Edu Lobo.

I think the elements that first attracted me to the bossa nova still excite me today. When I first heard João Gilberto play and sing, I was immediately struck by how tender and soft and melancholy his voice was. And yet, through the rhythm, it's so propulsive and joyous. It was quietly intense, powerful and delicate all at the same time. I think his style spoke to me because that's who I was as a kid—intense and emotional and sensitive but in a quiet, undramatic sort of way.

JW: How so?

SK: As a kid, I felt such joy and such sadness in everything, and when I discovered Brazilian music, it expressed what I was feeling. Even at its saddest, the music felt optimistic. This was vital, important music to me in my formative years, and I discovered it years before I knew I would become a singer. When I did eventually begin to sing, of course, I was going to delve into this repertoire and, more importantly, into the sensibility I shared with them. I was going to let myself go.

JW: What's the biggest challenge you face when singing bossa nova?

SK: Respecting the spaces between the notes. When I was young, friends often asked me to sing to them at school. I was known for this. But they would ask me to sing in their ear, like a soft whisper. I was never attracted to big, show-stopping singing. It's not who I am. My approach is about the quiet intensity. In our bossa nova arrangements, Jim and I approach our music with a minimalist aesthetic. We think of the spaces between the notes as powerful as the notes themselves.

JW: What was the most surprising thing a fan told you at one of your shows?

SK: Recently, a famous opera singer approached me. She said she was in awe of how honest my voice and interpretations were. She confessed that she would love to sing with the voice that god had given her rather than the one she had developed for the opera. I was knocked out. I hadn't really thought of that. In bossa nova, I am able to sing with my natural voice. How I sing has everything to do with how I'm built and how I hear the music. Bossa nova is a perfect fit.

JazzWax notes: For more information about Stacey Kent and Marcos Valle's Birdland gig next week in New York, go here.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Stacey Kent and Marcos Valle's new ablum Ao Vivo here.

JazzWax clips: Here's Stacey last year singing Marcos Valle's The Face I Love, with husband Jim Tomlinson on tenor sax...



Here's Marcos and Stacey singing his Summer Samba (So Nice)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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