Wednesday, February 24, 2010


* With pianist Carlton Holmes, saxophonists Paulo Levi and Yosvany Terry, guitarists Romero Lubambo and Freddie Bryant, bassist Essiet Essiet, drummer Willard Dyson, percussionist Nanny Assis *

The superb and startlingly accomplished debut CD from vocalist Erika Matsuo, Obsession, (March 23, Erika Records) resolves the usual preconceptions about a “first voyage out” with a wholly positive and enthusiastic confirmation that a rare, magical talent has ventured forward for the world to hear. An enchanting singer with remarkable command and range, Matsuo leads her top-notch accompanists through a collection of fourteen love songs, more than half of them from Brazil’s greatest songwriters—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dori Caymmi, Djavan, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque—and creates a world of heart-stirrings and sensuous joys.

Starting with a rousing, swing-happy encounter with Cole Porter on “Night and Day” and concluding with Erika’s own snappy samba, “I Close My Eyes,” Obsession is, indeed, a voyage full of genuine connections and memorable moments, an artistic triumph that can easily stand next to some of the finest jazz vocals recordings ever made. That it is a work of pure self-determination and true mastery of a musical gift makes Erika Matsuo’s Obsession even more extraordinary.

Seventy years ago, “jazz ambassadors” from the United States—namely Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—were traveling around the globe and introducing America’s Great Musical Idiom to countless new fans, royalty and world leaders included. Now, in 2010, Japanese native Erika Matsuo is among yet another new generation of jazz artists from around the world who are honoring the traditions of the genre while embracing the new globalization of culture.

On Obsession, listeners can experience where jazz is today in this regard, as Matsuo sings five of the Brazilian songs (including Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” and Djavan’s “Samurai”) in flawless Portuguese, a language she has been ardently studying. There are also subtle inflections of Japanese music throughout the CD, and Erika’s beautiful “Love for Life,” an original sung in her native language, finds common ground between the longing nostalgia of saudade and the equivalent feeling in Japan, called setsunai.

For Erika Matsuo, Obsession is both a culmination and a beginning in terms of artistic development and promise.

Entirely self-produced, Erika’s debut album succeeds because of her strong, personal vision of how to make her musical gifts flourish, and under which circumstances. The hand-picked rhythm section—veteran pianist Carlton Holmes joined by Essiet Essiet on both acoustic and electric bass, Willard Dyson on drums and Nanny Assis on percussion—provides drive, sensitive accentuation and loads of sparkle, allowing Erika’s vocals to bounce giddily along on tracks like Van Morrsion’s “Moondance” and Jobim’s “Someone to Light Up My Life” or glide through two pensive ballads, Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book” and the Jimmy Van Heusen chestnut “I Could Have Told You” (in which she will bring to mind Diana Krall at her best).

Finding the right instrumentalists to balance and contrast the dynamics of vocalizations is a task usually best handled by a seasoned producer, but here Erika again shows her sterling instincts. Freddie Bryant’s nuanced guitar work on Nascimento’s plaintive “Bridges/Traverssia,” Djavan’s “Oceano” and the Dori Caymmi penned title track displays his deep understanding of Brazilian rhythms, and he measures up closely to Romero Lubambo, the famed six-string virtuoso from Rio de Janeiro, who delicately provides the classical guitar framework woven beneath Jobim’s landmark bossa nova composition “Chega de Saudade” and Buarque’s yearning “Atras da Porta” on Obsession. Saxophonists Yosvany Terry and Paulo Levi are featured separately on several tracks, intertwining with Erika’s strong vocals in places and taking the spotlight in others. Erika’s scatting alongside Levi’s soprano sax on “I Close My Eyes” gives ample evidence that a singer with enough confidence will match her instrument happily against another soloist.

Recorded in and around New York City, Obsession was released last fall in Japan. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Erika, now 33, did not rush to produce her first CD. She was born and raised in the Fukuoka, the same southern Japanese city that pop music megastar Ayumi Hamasaki hails from. Erika began piano lessons before grade school and was studying classical music until she was became enthralled with the effervescent sounds of Japanese pop music. Her all-girl rock band, Tear Drops—with Erika singing—won first prize at the Yamaha Teen Music Festival, but her parents convinced her to go to college in Nagasaki and study literature. While in college Erika met Quasimode pianist Yusuke Hirado, who hired her as a singer and later invited her to pursue jazz seriously in the United States once she had graduated.

In 2000, Erika Matsuo moved to New York City and began to study music and English at City College of New York. Her first singing gigs were with the college’s Latin jazz band, and soon she was learning all of the Brazilian songs in the band’s book by heart. Growing in confidence, she started taking vocal classes with Sheila Jordan, recognized as one of jazz’s most inventive singers. “Sheila taught me how to really sing, but also, and more importantly, how to live a life dedicated to music,” says Erika. Further study with pianist Barry Harris deepened her abilities to inhabit songs and bring forth performances that were genuine and uniquely interpretative. “My interest in music always comes back to how a song sounds, and how it makes me feel. Then it’s up to me to bring that feeling to others,” Erika says. On Obsession, she brings listeners to a musical paradise, a perfect destination for a first journey out.

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