Spotlight: Bienvenida, Venissa Santi

by chip on May 7, 2008

The Spotlight Series highlights upcoming Latin Jazz musicians that have yet to reach national recognition. Many of these musicians thrive in local scenes and some tour in support of releases. All these musicians contribute greatly to the overall Latin Jazz scene, and they deserve our “spotlighted” attention.

Venissa Santi

Musicians that integrate pop music ideas into jazz quickly earn the jazz community’s disdain, but a demonstration of serious artistry forces listeners to reconsider their positions. Pianist Herbie Hancock often experiments with funk rhythms and pop songs, earning harsh criticism from the traditional jazz world. Even the staunchest traditionalist can’t deny that Hancock proved his worth through his work with Miles Davis and his own modern acoustic jazz though. Vocalist Diana Krall’s Sinatra influenced swagger and easily digestible repertoire has gained her a regular spot on most adult contemporary radio stations. At the same time,her recordings with traditional jazz icons Ray Brown, Benny Carter, and Terence Blanchard established her credentials as a serious songstress. Pianist Chick Corea helped forge the fusion age with thundering keyboards and dramatic rock fueled compositions. Although his continuing fascination with electronic music distances many purists, traditionalists admire his straight ahead virtuosic piano playing. These artists have acted as a bridge between musical aesthetics, widening the audience for both genres. Vocalist Venissa Santi bravely follows their lead on her debut release, Bienvenida, with an organic blend of Latin Jazz and pop music that shows a deep understanding of tradition and an original, contemporary voice.

Creative Arrangements of Traditional Songs
Santi reaches towards the traditional audience by performing several standards, but engages her artistic sensibilities with creative arrangements. Pianist Robert Rodriguez and bassist Yunior Terry delicately support Santi’s personalized interpretation of “Embraceable You,” allowing her to freely phrase the melody. Santi pushes her second verse reading with a sense of urgency, utilizing her emotional range to push the song to a higher level. Rodriguez catches this sensation, subtly pushing melodic ideas forward until Terry bursts into a commanding statement. Trumpet player Michael Rodriguez mellows the strong Cuban 6/8 feel with a gentle melodic phrase on “Tender Shepard and Little Girl Blue,” making way for Santi’s swinging vocal. Santi applies endless creativity to her vocal performance, twisting phrases and continuously reinventing the lyrics. Both Robert and Michael Rodriguez provide distinct flavor on the track, acting as a creative mirror for Santi. The old Cuban standard “Tu Mi Delirio” easily translates into an up-tempo swing song, guided by Santi’s vocal interpretation. As she spins the Spanish lyric into swing phrasing, her accents and rhythmic placement reflect the knowledge of an experienced jazz vocalist. Michael Rodriguez digs into the swing rhythm with bebop intensity, while Robert Rodriguez weaves short rhythmic lines through the changes. Santi’s repertoire choices bring her closer to a wide audience while her arrangements maintain a high level of artistic integrity.

Making A Commercial Connection
Some songs delve deeply into the popular song market, establishing Santi’s commercial appeal. A slow rumba rhythm opens “Talkin’ To You,” before Santi emerges with her English lyric. Her witty spin on love songs and the use of a standard pop form bring the song firmly into the commercial market. Strong improvisations from both Robert and Michael Rodriguez maintain a connection to jazz, while the rhythm section’s knowledgeable work keeps the Latin roots alive. The distorted blues riffs from Jeff Lee Johnson’s guitar quickly set Santi’s version of “Como Fue” apart from the traditional bolero approach. Santi relishes in the shuffle feel, filling the old Cuban standard with blues slurs and accents. Johnson’s aggressive guitar solo makes no excuses for its blues background; in fact he vividly creates imagery of a smoky blues bar. Santi performs “Wish You Well” as a duet with Robert Rodriguez, delving into pop-jazz territory inhabited by Norah Jones. Santi’s songwriting skills shine brightly here, as she tells a story about lost love through strong lyrical development. The song lacks a connection to Latin music, but Rodriguez’s strong rhythmic accompaniment provides powerful movement. These songs both connect Santi’s music to a commercial market and allow her to express contemporary ideas.

Strong Roots In Latin Music
Other tracks retain their roots in Latin music, keeping Santi strongly connected to traditional music. A strong 6/8 rhythm pulses beneath Michael Rodriguez’s trumpet introduction on “Convergencias,” quickly transitioning into a danzon rhythm behind Santi’s vocal. She finds a perfect balance between the danzon’s elegant nature and laid-back jazz phrasing with her vocal interpretation, demonstrating her knowledge of both styles. Michael Rodriguez delivers a finely executed improvisation, leading into his brother’s well constructed solo. The group delves into traditional rumba with “Columbia pa’ Miguel Angel,” intensified by Santi’s rhythmic vocal, Terry’s percussive bass line, and Robert Rodriguez’s ethereal piano work. The song quickly opens into an extended jam session, leaving room for an explosive statement from Michael Rodriguez and Santi’s adventurous scat solo. After Robert Rodriguez’s improvisation, a thick coro frames improvised ideas from drummer François Zayas and conguero Cuco Castellanos, pushing the song into an intensive frenzy. Santi’s gentle vocal and Robert Rodriguez’s calm, colorful chordal work distinctly contrasts the up-tempo rumba guaguanco on “Cumpling Cumpling,” creating an intriguing effect. Santi smartly toys with this sensation, subtly shifting her phrasing between the two feels as she develops the melody. The band builds momentum, eventually exploding the song into a full-blown son montuno, driven forward with a strong coro and a fiery solo from Michael Rodriguez. Santi firmly establishes her deep roots on these tracks, dispelling any questions about her foundation.

Creating A Bridge Between Musical Worlds
Santi succeeds in creating commercially viable Latin Jazz on Bienvenida while simultaneously establishing herself as a creative voice with a strong knowledge of the style. Her ability to expressively shape a melody gives her work emotional depth and Santi maintains a subtle command over each song, keeping her presence consistent regardless of the stylistic context. Her arrangements put a unique spin on each song’s history – placing traditional Cuban songs into a swing context or a bolero into a raucous blues shows Santi’s transparent vision of each song. Her choice of fantastic compositions overrides stylistic history and places each song in a modern context. At the same time, her intimate relationship with each song reveals a careful study of the music’s background. These arranging twists don’t just reflect a desire for commercial success, they signal the arrival of a young voice with the ability to connect past and present. Her backing band shares a complementary perspective and their committed performances reinforce Santi’s concept. Musicians like the Rodriguez brothers and Junior Terry represent a young generation knowledgeable in Cuban traditions, traditional jazz, and contemporary popular music. Santi utilizes this broad understanding and leads her group through an important set of music on Bienvenida that marks a more important event then the simple merger of artistry and commerce, she creates a potential bridge between the Latin Jazz world and the mass popular market.

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