Telluride Jazz #38: Claudia Villela Returns to Town

Telluride Jazz #38: Claudia Villela Returns to Town

“Villela doesn’t just sing. She actually dances with her voice on top of Brazilian beats,” San Francisco Examiner

When we think about the music of Brazil, we think about the rhythms of the bossa nova and names like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Sergio Mendez and Caetano Velosa. Those in the know might also remember the music known as “tropicalism,” a blend of bossa nova, jazz, rock and classical, written and performed by Milton Nascimento. There are acts such as Flora & Airto and Badi Assad, who in more recent times, made a big splash in the U.S. Add another name, another unique sound to that list: Claudia Villela.

Claudia Villela returns to Telluride Jazz Celebration

Claudia Villela returns to Telluride Jazz Celebration

The only thing small about Villela is her stature. Her talent is big. In performance, her voice is sensual and sure. Her range is broad; her choice of material, eclectic and electrifying; and her passion, unedited. When she sings, she shows all the colors of her emotions.

Villela performs at the 38th annual Telluride Jazz Festival Saturday, August 2, 2:15 p.m. on the Main Stage in Town Park. She also participates in a panel discussion on Sunday, August 3, 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. (location TBD). That event is free and open to the general public.  (Other panelists include Peter Bell, host, Josh Quinlan, Jon Cleary and others.)

“I’ve brought a number of Brazilian artists to town, including Baji Assad, Pamela Driggs and Flora Purim & Airto. They are all wonderful performers. Because both Claudia and Flora have an extraordinary range – in Claudia’s case, five octaves – critics often compare Claudia to Flora. In performance, Claudia reminds me more of Airto. Like Airto, she sings from deep within her soul. What comes out is fire,” said Telluride Jazz impresario Paul Machado.

“If I sound like another singer, it’s pure coincidence,” explained Villela. “I rarely listen to other singers. Instead, I listen to lots of guitar music. I love Villa Lobos, Debussey, Ravel, Nascimento, music from all over the world – and the music the world makes. When you open your antenna real big, there is music everywhere. I hear music when a flower unfolds. Squirrels fighting in the branches of a tree make music. I love the sound of the ocean kissing the shore. Music is magic. It has transformative power.”

Creative and soulfully expressive, Villela’s music is heavily rooted in the traditional and contemporary sounds of Brazil’s rich cultural heritage, passed on to her through her family.

“My father’s father worked in an office sending telegrams by day. At night, he was a bohemian, who played seven instruments.”

The musical history on Villela’s mother’s side is also interesting.

“The musical history of my mother’s side of the family is really interesting too. One of my great aunts was a famous classical pianist. Back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, she and all her sisters lived in a hotel in the mountains of Santa Teresa just outside Rio, where Don Pedro Secundo, the Emperor of Brazil, was a regular guest. In his honor, there were lots of parties and wonderful music. All the sisters played something. My maternal grandfather liked to whistle. I found out years after he died that his first gig was doing background effects on radio programs: he could cry like a baby, imitate the clip clop of horses’ hooves or make the sound of a slamming door. No wonder making sounds came so naturally to me. His wife, my maternal grandmother, also played piano. The hotel is now abandoned and in ruins. I inherited some of the silver, crystal and art, but not the fabulous piano, imported from Europe. I regret the piano.”

When she was only one year old, Villela’s father gave her an electric piano.

 “It looked more like an accordion than a piano, a horizontal accordion. At three, I was asked to perform at the ceremony for the last day of school. To this day, I remember what I felt. I feel the same explosion in my chest today. It’s always there.”

At five, Villella’s mother had her study with a piano teacher.

“The teacher was very traditional and strict and would slap me because I wanted to play my own compositions. After that, I wanted no more formal lessons. I did not play piano again until I turned 15, when my grandmother gave me a piano and for a period of four months, I practiced diligently six hours a day. In my teens. I also sang in choirs.”

Also as a child, remembers falling asleep listening to the sounds of samba school practicing behind her grandmother’s home.

“I remember waking up to the melodies of my mother singing while my father played the harmonica. My music is the sum of all the sounds I’ve heard, from Brazilian macumba to bossa nova to freeform jazz to European classical. It comes from all those memories.”

Villela’s career began when she started singing at college festivals around Rio. Soon, she was a backup singer on recordings, improvising vocals for movie soundtracks, and doing live performances. In addition to vocalizing, Villela began composing music and writing lyrics. She planned to go to medical school, but opted to study music therapy instead, receiving her B.A. from the Brazilian Conservatory of Music in 1983.

“I was always fascinated by the link between psychology and physiology, the shamanic potential of music. The last two years of my program, I got to work in a hospital with adult schizophrenics and autistic children and became so enthralled, I wanted to study the changes music can affect at a cellular level.”

claudia villela

In 1984, at 23, Villela moved to California with her husband at the time and quickly became active in that music scene. She began singing with the Stanford University Chorus and in 1986, she joined the De Anza College jazz Singers, which won first prize in Down Beat’s vocal jazz competition. Villela received a number of scholarships, including one to study jazz with vocalist Sheila Jordan at New York’s Manhattan School of Music, and another to work with John Robert Dunlap of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She also won at Jay Shore jazz scholarship to study with Ray Brown at Cabrillo College.

“I rely on intuition, I don’t go for the premeditated, calculated thing when I’m performing,” she said. “I like an aspect of losing myself, of going into the unknown. I’ll just take the conditions of this moment and make something of it. It can turn out to be magical. I’ll hit a moment that has a mysterious, nurturing, confessional feeling. People really get it.”

Buy tickets now for the Telluride Jazz Celebration.

And for a preview of Claudia Villela, watch this video:

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