There’s enough in Karen Souza’s biography, even the skeleton one on Wikipedia, to give one pause, maybe even be a bit suspicious, when considering her recent reinvention and re-emergence as a torch singer. The Wikipedia entry states: Karen Souza is a Latin American jazz singer. She began her career under various pseudonyms. She provided vocal support to a number of electronic music producers and was part of several International House hits on her label, Music Brokers. She can be found singing under these pseudonyms on albums such as Pacha Ibiza, FTV (FashionTV) and Privé. Singing under “various pseudonums”? Providing vocal support to “electronic music producers” and having “International House” hits? Pacha Ibiza? FashionTV? Is this someone you can really take seriously as an artist, or another Lana del Rey?
Well, there is this, from José Carlos Sanchez, president of Warner Music Spain: “Karen is not only one of the best new voices of this time, but also a performer with an attitude and a personality that when I see her on stage makes me feel like I am experiencing one of those great singers who will change the history of popular music.“
No, that’s not going to happen. Or, no way, José.
‘You and me in Paris..’: Karen Souza, ‘Paris,’ the first cut on Hotel Souza, a Souza original. This lush, woodwind-rich billet-doux sounds like something off a soundtrack to one of Claude Lelouch’s 1960s romances—indeed, Ms. Souza, singing from the vantagepoint of a woman indulging in an illicit affair, might well be channeling Anouk Aimee’s character in A Man and A Woman…
But there is this: a 2011 album titled Essentials, a dozen lush, classic pop-styled reimaginings of songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” (a collaboration with the great Latin ultra-romantics known as Los Panchos); “Billie Jean” (cool, swinging, jazzy); “Every Breath You Take”; “Bette Davis Eyes”; “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”; “Tainted Love,” and others. For those that have always found the peculiar charms of Depeche Mode elusive (as well as those of the risible, talent-free Marilyn Manson), Ms. Souza tackles “Personal Jesus” as a finger-popping lounge tune in what sounds like a send-up of the doom-and-gloom treatments the song has heretofore received (Johnny Cash’s version included). Nodding to her South American roots, the Buenos Aires-based vocalist also delivered a sultry, captivating reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s evergreen beauty, “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars).” The only misfire, in fact, is a slow, bluesy treatment of John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” that drains the song of all topical urgency and metaphorical heft.
Now there is a new album, Hotel Souza, in which eight of the 11 songs are Souza originals (her biography indicates she spent time in Los Angeles studying with Pam Olund, a multiple Grammy nominated songwriter who has contributed to the catalogues of Aretha, Whitney Houston and Earth, Wind & Fire), composed with a number of collaborators; the tunestack’s other three songs include two covers of pop-jazz standards plus a slow grinding, orchestrated take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” delivered sotto voce and with a conspiratorial air, punctuated by warning blasts of horns (trumpeter Ray Monteiro spices up the action with a fluttering, anxious run up and down the scales) by a combo whose members include some of the musicians who accompanied Marvin Gaye on his classic recording of same.
‘Tempting on my tongue/the words I-love-you/I’m undone’: Karen Souza, ‘I’ve Got It Bad,’ a Souza original from Hotel Souza
And there is this: Hotel Souza has already accumulated a number of reviews from credible sources: at All About Jazz.com, Nicholas F. Mondello hailed the album thusly: “This hotel has musical rooms of exquisite talent, beauty, elegance and intimacy.” At CriticalJazz.com, Brent Black, seconding Mondello’s effusive appraisal, noted: “Hotel Souza works incredibly well thanks to some dynamite arrangements of classic songs that are not quite old school but have just a pop of a more modern contemporary vibe that would actually make numerous cuts potential cross over hopefuls if what is attempting to pass for commercial radio decides to expand their play list past Diana Krall played on their Sunday morning jazz hour.”
As for yours truly, make it three on the plus side for Hotel Souza. To her credit, I say, Souza’s voice is an acquired taste: I found Essentials after I had received Hotel Souza, and early on it seemed to me she was too deadpan, and mistakenly thought she was not very tuneful, either. But not giving up on Hotel Souza after a single listen, and then spending time with Essentials, I found her voice growing on me, to where I would throw the disc on at odd moments, because it had some je ne sais quoi about it that told me something of substance was going down here, and it was speaking to me. I didn’t want to hear the album—I had to hear it. Reviewers have compared her to everyone from Nina Simone to Julie London to Diana Krall, but more appropriate comparisons can be made to Nico and even to the young Ann-Margret, neither of whom are stylists of the Simone-London-Krall caliber. But if Nico hadn’t been so morbid, if there had been a little more hope and sunshine in her readings, well, first, she wouldn’t have been Nico, but she also would have been closer to what we hear in Souza’s voice, which is not the most colorful instrument but effective because she understands the power of phrasing and knows how to ride a long line of melody or linger behind it for telling effect, both tacks lending her attitude a free, seductive character, sly even. To that end she summons the spirit of the young Ann-Margret, who was not the greatest singer of her time by a long shot but infused each song with her infectious personality and enough smarts and chops to hold her own whether she was solo or tête-à-tête with Elvis, Al Hirt or, on her most adventurous outing, Lee Hazlewood (on 1969’s strange The Cowboy and The Lady album). Which is not to say Ms. Souza has not absorbed some Simone-London-Krall in arriving at her own voice
From Hotel Souza, ‘Break My Heart,’ a wrenching, Lennon-esque beauty of confusion and heartache
In addition to studying songwriting with Ms. Oland, the other smart move Ms. Souza made for this project was to enlist as her producer one Joel McNeely, who, while still an undergrad music student at the University of Miami, toured with Tony Bennett, Al Green, Peggy Lee, Jaco Pastorius and several other heavyweights. Since turning professional after graduating from the Eastman School of Music, he has been most prolific scoring for television and movies, compiling an impressive resume of credits that includes Disney’s Tinker Bell movies, James Cameron’s celebrated TV series Dark Angel (which gave us–hey-hey!–Jessica Alba), Seth McFarlane’s American Dad (and producing budding crooner McFarlane’s album of pop standards, Music Is Better Than Words), et al. He’s also produced and arranged for Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, CS&N and Rosie Clooney, among others, in addition to continuing to be a working musician and composing on commission for various chamber aggregates. Together, Ms. Souza and Mr. McNeely have plotted out a musically accomplished, texturally rich album that, as previously noted, will not easily leave a listener’s memory. You can say they have you at “Paris,” the album’s first song. Written by Ms. Souza, Ms. Oland and Dany Tomas (who plays keyboards on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”), this lush, woodwind-rich billet-doux sounds like something off a soundtrack to one of Claude Lelouch’s 1960s romances—indeed, Ms. Souza, singing from the vantagepoint of a woman indulging in an illicit affair, might well be channeling Anouk Aimee’s character in A Man and A Woman when she sings in her whispery tone, “I can hardly breathe/lovin’ you so much/always on the run—runnin’ outta time/and I’m scared that this could end…,” to which you can only say, “What’s up, Buenos Aires?”
Karen Souza, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ from Hotel Souza, featuring some of the musicians who accompanied Marvin Gaye on his 1968 classic
As it happens, “Paris” is but prelude to a program charting the vagaries of love, especially as that emotion plays out in the context of troubled assignations. “Night Demon,” a very Melody Gardot-ish bit of Latinized swing, with a smoky, jaunty sax solo (Manuel Gandelman?) punctuating its smoldering groove, “It’s a lonely job to bear, riding on your dreams in the dark,” Ms. Souza sings with weary resignation, as if to say, in subtext, this isn’t going to end soon. Her breezy “Delectable You,” with its warm piano and guitar support, is one of a few tunes in which the singer embraces the passion she feels for her lover, even as she fights it—or tries to tell herself she’s fighting it: “When your eyes devour me/I can feel my face burn hot/when you lips empower me/I forget to stop!” Really, what could she do but jump in? Thus the animating push-pull/yin-yang of Hotel Souza, a conceit even the covers embrace: the suspicion of faithlessness broadcast “through the grapevine”; “Dindi,” the outpouring of all consuming love and commitment Jobim expressed for Brazilian singer Sylvia Telles in 1965 (her nickname was Dindi—pron. “Jinji”) and first recorded by Astrud Gilberto that year; Ms. Telles was killed in a car crash in 1966), is close in spirit to the Sinatra-Jobim version from 1967, with its gentle, swaying rhythm and woodwinds fluttering through the arrangement like sparrows in flight, as Ms. Souza sings tenderly, “Don’t you know, Dindi, I’d be running and searching for you like a river that can’t find the sea/that would be me without you, my Dindi…” Most memorable of all, though, is the artist’s thoughtful, deeply introspective rendition of “My Foolish Heart,” the Great American Songbook classic penned by Ned Washington and Victor Young for the film of the same name in 1949 and subsequently recorded by practically every pop singer of note since then (Billy Eckstine’s version was the biggest hit, selling a million copies in 1950; Tony Bennett also cut it, and given Joel McNeely’s connection to Bennett…) along with the likes of Jan and Dean, the Teddy Bears and Dion & The Belmonts). With understated percussion (bass, Trey Henry; drums, Jaime Branley and Ralph Humphrey—the liners do not indicate which one played on this cut) and a spare but lyrical piano backdrop (by either Alan Pasqua or Tom Ranier, seemingly inspired by George Shearing, who recorded the song with Nancy Wilson), the singer warily warns herself to recognize “the line between love and fascination,” but you can hear her resistance crumbling in the subtle rising of her voice as her lips move closer to his, until she’s in conditional mode: “But should our eager lips combine”—“eager” is the key word there—“then let the fire start/for this time it isn’t fascination/or a dream that will fade and fall apart/it’s love, this time, it’s love/my foolish heart.”
Karen Souza, ‘Lie to Me,’ the official video of the closing number on Hotel Souza
Finally, at the end, in her blues-tinged ballad “Lie To Me,” her defenses having collapsed completely, she’s all in, and might as well be asking, “What’s love got to do with it?” Over a lilting arrangement fueled by piano, horn and strings, she asserts, with a sultry swagger, “Though your motives are transparent/your feelings are apparent/no need to love me till you die/till we sleep, I feel inspired/when we wake, you’ll be too tired/to lie to me/to lie…to me.” So you pays your money and you takes your chances. Put a man and a woman together, these things happen. That Karen Souza sings of these matters that would seem beyond her years is a whole other story. For now, she hopes you enjoy your stay. I know I did, and I’m coming back.