Claudia Villela meets “A” Band and NiteCap

As director Rejean Marois squinted through sweat, Claudia Villela traced the Christian cross along her body and nervously signaled for the NiteCap jazz choir to begin the title track of her new album Inverse Universe. As they began the frenetic arrangement with its bubbling vocal punctuations, anyone in the 200 strong audience at Cap's Performing Arts Theatre who wondered about the jazz students skills put their doubts to bed. From that point on, there was only a wide-eyed respect.

That respect became a tangible current that ran through the house last Friday, March 7, as the vocally driven NiteCap band and then the big band horns of the  “A” Band breezed through Villela's challenging Brazilian compositions, though at times you could almost taste their trepidation.

From Rio de Janeiro, Villela is a celebrated composer, singer and music therapist. While she carries a clear transmission of Bossa Nova, which emerged from Samba between 1958 and 1963 and became known for its naïve embrace of nature and beauty (think Girl from Ipanema), her songs reference the diversity of Brazil, from Pernambuco province's style of Frevo, resembling boiling water, to the picnic  Pagode of Rio.

As Villela explained, her songs are deeply rooted in the landscapes of her country, and she described the mysterious coves and sparkling beaches at length in true Bossa Nova style. Her song Jangada, named for a small skiff from Northeastern Brazil, was inspired by the “fishermen who go out in those boats... who knows if they'll ever come back.” Her voice carried the audience along those beaches by imparting the emotional charge of her experience.

Unveiling her 5-octave vocal range, composer Viella playfully sang and played triangle and pandeiro (a skinned tambourine) while the students nimbly followed. Up against the deeply refined and exotic, I wondered if the house bands would be able to keep up, but Villela remarked to the audience at one point that she had goosebumps from performing with “these talented and wonderful souls.”

Each note added to the crowd's enthusiasm and approval for these gifted musicians. On the last note of his vocal solo, singer Blair Hammond blushed and smiled, nearly rubbing his toe through the proverbial sand... aw, shucks. 

Many of the performers showed this kind of on-the-edge musicianship, like they went into their parts with no idea whether they would emerge on the other side intact. That spirit was evident in the faces of the Cap players.

It's always there... sometimes you hear something like the concert tonight and it makes you want to hear more,” said Dee Daniels, the highly acclaimed local jazz vocalist who recently was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Applied and Fine Arts by Cap U. She applauded the NiteCap band at intermission. “I was very impressed [with the bands] because Brazilian and Latin music isn't the easiest, because you have to be right there and the meter has to stay steady.”

The sentiment was echoed by NiteCap's vocalist Zulfikar Nathoo: “[Brazilian] rhythmic concepts are way beyond ours, much more advanced, much more saturated and much more concentrated ... it's something that our musical culture may not have.”

It's also something that Capilano usually lacks as well, as Blair Hammond pointed out: “There's not as much true Latin jazz coming out of cap, there's a lot of mainstream.” He described some of the rapid-fire horn parts as “Stravinsky big band.”

While the classical Cap jazz program is light on latin, the student bands still perform one latin music show every year, though as Nathoo pointed out, there is often little time to prepare. NiteCap had only about a week to rehearse.

The “A” Band had more preparation time, but only one live rehearsal with Villela. Though they sounded technically more confident, they played with less overt enthusiasm, except for guitarist Chad Leyte. He grimaced like a gargoyle on glue during some of his elegant licks. During his features, his playing pulled at the seams of the pocket and challenged the rhythm, adding tension, then resolved to a roaring applause. The lively Villela snapped out her “who's your daddy” hands over his display.

What the band lacked in authentic Brazilian feel, they made up for by their versatility, adding classic jazz sensibilities to the compositions. Villela, who scatted, clicked and popped throughout the performance, mimicking the traditional instruments of Samba,  even slipped into a growling Louis Armstrong dream or two to acknowledge it.

The show ended with a standing ovation, and the proud performers took their bows. As one spectator behind me remarked before leaving, “It's amazing to see what these kids are capable of.”

You can hear the fantastic Claudia Villela on You can see more from the “A” Band and NiteCap during their performance   on April 9th, when they play with Christine and Ingrid Jensen.

// Kevin Murray

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