Claudia Acuña is revered in the New York jazz scene as one of the most unselfconsciously soulful and mutable singers around. She bridges the gap between North American jazz and South American balladry better than just about anyone, equally skilled in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a hell of a songwriter. Her new album Turning Pages – which hasn’t hit her music page yet – features seven originals along with a standard and another by her mentor, Abbey Lincoln. It’s Acuña’s first album as a bandleader in ten years, and it was worth the wait. She’s playing a four-night stand at Birdland to celebrate this Feb 6-9, with sets at 7 and 10; you can get in for as little as $20.
Lowlit by Pablo Vergara’s broodingly gleaming piano, Yayo Serka’s elegant drumming and Carlos Henderson’s terse bass, the album’s opening track, Aguita de Corazon is a masterpiece. Acuña’s voice is cool and nuanced yet plaintive, working the increasingly haunting twists of the lyrics with a subtle wallop. On harmonica, guest Gregoire Maret plays the solo of his life, a comet trail of angst to mirror the vocals.
Then Acuña flips the script with Hey, an insistent empowerment ballad that mashes up 70s clave soul with trippy, stainless-countertopped 90s acid jazz, guitarist Juancho Herrera adding an incisive, funky edge. Her luxuriantly bittersweet remake of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful is spacious yet propulsive, driven by Serka’s syncopated, clickety-clack snare work. Henderson’s sinuous soloing and Herrera’s resonant jangle.
Acuña brings back the darkly pensive atmosphere in Tres Deseos (Three Wishes), awash in Serka’s waves of cymbals and malletwork and Vergara’s translucent, neoromantic phrasing. The moon imagery – a persistent trope here – in the next track, Futuro is more carefree, lit up by Herrera’s incisive flares over a pulsing quasi-reggae groove. His Arabic-tinged solo is just short of savage, and the album’s instrumental high point.
Lincoln’s Bird Alone has all kinds of neat, unexpected touches: Vergara’s coy chirps, Herrera’s spare, plaintive but powerfully present chords and a world-weary vocal that echoes both the writer and Sarah Vaughan. Silencio is anything but quiet, Herrera’s gritty flamenco-inflected lines driving the song to a harrowing peak with Acuña’s vocalese paired against Vergara’s ominously glittering rivulets.
Home, a duet with Herrera, is a gospel tune with some unexpected, sunny slide guitar. Those gospel echoes remain in thee album’s closing cut, Tu Sonrisa (Your Smile), its Mexican ranchera-inflected sway the closest thing to carefree here. It’s early in the year, but this is the best album of 2019 so far.