THERE has hardly been a moment in Luciana Souza's life when she hasn't been listening to, making, or thinking about music.
"Music was all I knew," says Souza, a Grammy Award-winning vocalist. "It became an inevitable choice."
The Brazilian-born singer and songwriter performs at Capilano University tonight with 'A' Band, Capilano's big band, and NiteCap, a vocal ensemble.
Souza grew up in Sao Paulo in a household filled with art and music. Her mother was a "writer, poet, thinker and political strategist," while her father played the guitar and ran a music studio and "jingle house." Musicians were constantly visiting the family's home, and she began her professional musical career recording jingles at the age of three.
"Mom always reading or writing, dad playing music," she says of her upbringing. "It was pretty amazing, looking back."
Souza moved to the United States in 1985 to study music, eventually earning a masters in jazz composition, and released her first album in 1998. She now lives in Los Angeles with her young son and her husband, Larry Klein, the well-known producer of many of Joni Mitchell's albums.
In August, Souza released two records: Duos III, the final release in her trilogy of Brazilian jazz, and The Book of Chet, an exploration of Chet Baker standards. She recorded both in the space of two months. The effervescence of Duos III contrasts sharply with the slow, introspective songs in The Book of Chet, but Souza says the two albums simply reflect the different sides of day-to-day experience.
"I think I exist in these two worlds all the time," says the singer. "I don't think there's a day that goes by where there isn't something dark, or something extremely light."
Souza can't pinpoint when she was first introduced to Baker's music; she feels like it has been with her her whole life.
"I became so obsessed with him in graduate school," says Souza. "I transcribed everything I could get my hands on. I really did sort of a study . . . a thesis on Chet Baker, but in my head, and never committed that to anything."
Considered one of the jazz greats, Baker struggled with drug addiction for most of his life, was jailed several times and had an up-and-down career until his death in Amsterdam in 1988. Souza says she loves the vulnerability and fragility in Baker's delivery.
"It's a sound that's not masculine and it's not feminine, it's somewhere in between, and I'm attracted to that. I remember listening to him when I was younger and thinking, he sounds like a boy."
When she recorded the songs on The Book of Chet, Souza focused on slowing down the music and a quiet delivery.
"I'm forcing the listener into the corner," says Souza. "I'm saying you have to sit here for the duration of this music."
In contrast to the way much music is recorded today, with separate tracks laid down and then layered together, both records were produced live in the studio. Having all the musicians together in the studio - the way records used to be made - was especially important for Duos III, says Souza. For the recording, she reunited with master guitarists Romero Lubambo, Marco Pereira and Toninho Horta.
"Everybody is in the studio at the same time, we count off, and then we go," says Souza.
"If it's not good we stop, and if it's good we keep going, and then we go to the control room and we listen."
Critics have praised Souza's singing for its emotional depth, and she says she's constantly thinking about vocal expression.
"How can the voice sound? Is it more woody, like a cello, or a viola? Or is it more like a flute - is it sharp and metallic? Is it like a trumpet? Trying to find those different colours and shapes in my mouth is also something that interests me."
Souza moves easily between jazz genres, but recently, classical composers have also sought her out. Souza performed a solo piece in The Passion of San Marcos by Argentine classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, and has also appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She suggests it's the quality of her voice, expressly not classically trained, that attracts certain composers.
"It's a certain humanity," she says. "My voice sounds like a human being's voice. It's not so trained . . . my approach, my breath, everything I do is not classical."
Souza taught for four years at the Manhattan School of Music and she is still an enthusiastic speaker and guest performer at music schools. This is her second time performing at Capilano, where she'll meet with the big band and vocal ensembles to rehearse one day and perform the next. She has also performed at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in the past.
"I really love being there," she says. "I hope I have a chance to come back soon."
For more information on Luciana Souza's performance at Capilano University, call 604-990-7810 or visit capilanou.ca.