Since releasing her Sunnyside debut, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs in 2000, Brazilian vocalist and composer Luciana Souza has woven poetry into the fabric of her work. Subsequent recordings such as Neruda, Tide, and Speaking in Tongues have all employed this approach as the prime vehicle of creative expression for her as a singer and composer, and she shapes the poems as complementary means in generating human connection and meaning.
The Book of Longing is titled after Leonard Cohen's collection of poems, lyrics, and drawings of the same name. Here she strips down her charts to offer a new direction in ten relatively brief songs. Souza chose guitarist Chico Pinheiro and bassist Scott Colley as her accompanists (she provides organic percussion selectively), as well as her husband and longtime producer Larry Klein to helm these sessions. The program includes four works by Cohen, and one each by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson, alongside a trio of her own songs. Her own "These Things" offers gently syncopated rhythms and minimal textures provided by strings and whispering percussion, Souza's vocals inhabit words and the spaces between them with disciplined phrasing and concision as her musicians provide a color palette that adds depth and dimension. One cannot help but hear the trace influence of Joni Mitchell on this tune. "Daybreak" hearkens back musically to her Brazilian influences, such as Tom Jobim and Dory Caymmi, as slippery bossa is kissed by chamber jazz. Cohen's "The Book" is a vehicle for Souza's canny ability to find the stillpoint inside a lyric. As Colley's bass highlights the changes, Pinheiro's chord voicings and single-string fills add an airy backdrop to her vocal, enveloping it effortlessly. Souza travels through each syllable in the tune's lyric, imparting tenderness and tolerance amid the melancholy weight of meaning it contains. On "Night Song" (also by Cohen), her wordless vocalese introduction engages in taut yet breezy interplay with her sidemen. Their intuitive soloing is fleet and creates a net for Souza, who bridges the feelings of separation and loneliness in the lyric to the unconditional love it celebrates. Dickinson's "We Grow Accustomed to the Dark" is introduced by a rugged bassline. Along with Pinheiro's guitar, they deliver riffs suggestive of blues and rock. But when Souza begins to sing, she wraps both instrumentation and words in a jazz embrace to quietly dynamic effect. Rossetti's "Remember" is a languid elegy, and Souza allows the words to penetrate her to the marrow. Her painfully intimate delivery equates the oncoming pain of death's impossible-to-bear separation with a present in which two souls are joined in the union of heartbreak and longing. Her desire and acceptance drip like honey from her lips, arresting the moment in time. On Book of Longing, Souza displays yet again, her stark and remarkable originality in works of deceptive simplicity and elegance. The empathy and equanimity she displays with her sidemen is actually the sound of musical and emotional generosity.