Just what is so special about the vocalastics of Venissa Santi—just what is so singularly unique—is so eminently clear on Big Stuff—Afro-Cuban Holiday, the brilliantly innovative follow-up to her 2009 Sunnyside Records debut, Bienvenida. If at first blush this record appears to be a mere tribute to the great Billie Holiday, it is clear that first impressions can be somewhat deceptive. True, this is Ms. Santi’s homage to the legendary singer. However the music on this record comes from the very depth of Ms. Santi’s soul that this is so much more than a tribute: it is more like an anguished cry rich in the metaphor of Afro-Cuban-Blues, cry of sisterhood that is lifted up in elevation to the celebrated ghost of Ms. Holiday. Just as she was on her first album, Ms. Santi has once again channeled her ideas through percussion-colourist and long-time band mate François Zayas, who is responsible for the majestic arrangements of twelve songs with which Ms. Santi, in turn, re-imagines the heartfelt repertoire of Billie Holiday in an idiom that melds the heartbeat of bata and offbeat of clave with African-American deep song. Also joining the vocalist on this musical odyssey are trumpet and flugelhorn players Tim Thompson and Chris Aschman, the late guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, pianist John Stenger and bassist John Fraticelli. Special appearances are also made by bassists Paul Klinefelter and Madison Rast, clarinetist Jon Thompson and percussionist Cuco Castellanos.
The origins of this music are vividly recalled by Ms. Santi, who remembers how Danilo Perez invited her to share the stage with such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Sheila Jordon, Liz Wright and Claudia Acuña among others on a gig that was designed to present a series of homages to Billie Holiday in May of 2010. For Venissa Santi to be included in a playbill that comprised of such stellar artists was both a privilege as well as a chance to do something truly special. She and her favourite doppelgänger, Mr. Zayas, went to work on selecting an appropriate Billie Holiday repertoire; then transferring it to the landscape of danzón, guaguancó and bolero. All this happened about a year from May 2010. Next came learning the challenging arrangements that François Zayas came up with, swirling from out of the fiery cauldron of Afro-Cuban music. This took the musicians close to six months to master; a memorable effort that, together with the fact that this homage was written in Afro-Cuban idioms, made the project so distinctive. The memory of a gig that played in Billie Holiday’s birthplace of Philadelphia, and was later broadcast on the local radio station on Mother’s Day a couple of weeks later lingered long and hard in the memory and Ms. Santi and François Zayas came to the conclusion that this was music worthy of a longer life on a record that would preserve both the beauty and authenticity of this Afro-Cuban odyssey into the heart and soul of Billie Holiday.
Getting into character for the next stage of the project—which was this record; an expanded version of the gig of 2010—was not easy for Venissa Santi. But then, “Life happened,” says Ms. Santi, “and in the journey of putting these songs together… real life was happening while I was delving into the lyrics and repertoire that I (had) started checking out when I was fourteen years old,” she continued. “Then I paid a visit to Cuba, which was both special and enabled me to come face-to-face with something bordering on danger… and also went into a dark place, also while working on the lyrics and François Zayas’ arrangements and the music started to hit home,” Ms. Santi says. “What emerged was an-almost four-year labor of love that overflowed onto this record,” she adds.
Nothing can really prepare the listener for the transcendental melancholy of Billie Holiday’s music like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which is deliberately set as the gateway to the album, in a prelude to dimming the lights and before entering the world of Lady Day, who virtually changed the way a song ought to be interpreted. The festive nature of the guaguancó rhythm is offset by the minor variations that dapple the instrumental introduction and Ms. Santi’s wordless vocals that go with that sequence. Then Ms. Santi’s reading of plaintive reading of the main body of the lyric together with the instrumental break featuring the guitar of Jef Lee Johnson followed by Ms. Santi’s vocalastics provides a bleak, almost blurred and moodily yearning interpretation of a song that Billie Holiday covered in 1941; featured here as the song which cracks open the sternum and enables Ms. Santi to bare the heart of Billie Holiday’s music. The brighter aspects of the song are done in a “clave de sol” kind of rhythm. Ms. Santi adds, “This was inspired by a walk I had with my son, in the cold, taking the sunny side in the morning,” Ms. Santi says. “And I came up with the [melodic idea] that plays with a repeating bridge, using a “coro”. It’s kind of a musical conversation (that I have with myself),”she adds.
Venissa Santi’s musical intellect that combined with the erudite delicacy of manipulating phrasing and tempo is brilliantly on display in the breathtaking complexity of “Big Stuff,” a song that Ms. Santi turns into a musical equivalent of a darkish expressionist film. The fine line between hope and despair; the blues and frail attempt to triumph over the human condition is brilliantly offset by the raw and jabbering Afro-Cuban “tumba-francesa” rhythm featuring a “coro” quote from the conga tradition in the beginning of the song. Ms. Santi’s angular harmonics in the introduction—played against the rhythm—is one of the highlights of this chart. The footage of a damaged life unravels in the elemental sadness of “What’s New” as Ms. Santi dialogues with the eminently soft, almost vocal work of John Stenger’s piano and so begins the descent into the nourish life of Billie Holiday. Listeners would be remiss if they did not find themselves holding their breaths at this point in the album. The stark portrait of “My Man” appears on a ghostly canvas daubed as if by the magic of a brush dipped in the “makuta” rhythm of drums and bass. The shock and awe of “Stormy Weather” is a moving account as if from yet another episode of the dark, expressionist film, this song propelled by the rhythmic sweep of Central-African “palo” highlighted by a burbling ostinato that churns the melody and harmony into a veritable twister’s vortex before Ms. Santi enters the narrative, breaking the verses of the song with a pirouetting “coro”.
“You’re My Thrill” is perhaps the most sensuous song on the album. Set as a “tango-congo” Ms. Santi caresses the lyrics as only she can. When she serves up her character’s heart on a silver platter to her lover, the song turns dark, yet remains as undulant as the bodies of crepuscular lovers. “Travelin’ Lite” is a cross-hatching collision between the Cuban “guajira” and the second line rhythm so characteristic of New Orleans. “You get a sense of the interpreter (of the song) travelling light because I am only accompanied by the bass at one time; then by the piano; later the trumpet,” Ms. Santi explains, “I’s being accompanied by one musician at a time… It’s called “Travelin’ Lite” but it is hard to play,” she reveals. The stately, shimmering rhythm of the Cuban “danzón” bathes “Involved Again,” with Jon Thompson’s sweet clarinet and the singer who is yearning for a new love in her life, yet realizes that she is a fool for love. This is a chart that Billie Holiday wanted dearly to record, but died before she could do so. Dick LaPalm, Nat “King” Cole’s promoter suggested that Ms. Santi record this song. “It was extremely special to be mailed the lead sheet personally by the composer, Jack Reardon,” Ms. Santi reveals somewhat in awe of being considered as an interpreter of a song that Ms. Holiday herself yearned to do. “That Old Devil Called Love” sashays with the voluptuous ecstasy of “son-Abakuá” and is resplendent in the rich imagery of Afro-Cuban music. “There are codes here which only my (Afro-Cuban) peers will hear,” Ms. Santi says, “including a quote from a famous Cuban song called “El Diablo Tun, Tun,” she reveals, almost as a gentle challenge to anyone ready for it. “I Cover the Waterfront /Monk’s Dream” is another song worked into the cracked rhythm of a Monk-like idiom, worked into the swinging “guaguancó” rhythm, featuring the lonesome clave with the rumble of François Zayas’ cajón. “You’d Better Go Now” is set to a deliciously sexy “yambú” rhythm that is beguiling despite its sad and lonesome lyric.
Perhaps the darkest part of the album is “Strange Fruit” a song that Billie Holiday’s infused with the searing imagery of an ugly part of America’s tainted history. Performed as a swaying “bolero” this chart infuses the horror of lynching in the deep south of the United States with a prayer to the Cuban God, “Oya”. “She is the keeper of the cemetery gates and the fierce winds,” Ms. Santi warns about a torch song that she sings with breathtaking power. “It’s a political song. It’s a song about social change. I like repertoire like that,” she says, “I busted my skull over hearing it for the first time. Much of my phrasing is breath work… holding a lot inside and (having to) creep out of a very tight air space with my diaphragm,” Ms. Santi says enigmatically. In many respects “Strange Fruit” is the crowning glory of Big Stuff. It is a song that Ms. Holiday never took lightly and neither does Venissa Santi.
A musician of rare and unbridled genius, Venissa Santi was born to parents who filled her life equally with the music of Celia Cruz, Maurice Ravel and Michael Jackson, and numerous other musicians. Here musical heritage goes further back: to a grandfather, Jacobo Ros Capablanca, a Cuban composer. She honored his memory by playing one of his songs on Bienvenida. Ms. Santi was born in Ithaca, New York, but moved to Philadelphia after she graduated high school. There, through the study of her grandfather`s compositions, she re-connected with her Cuban roots and majored in Jazz Vocal Performance. She was a vocal instructor at the Asociación de Músicos Latino Americanos. She has gigged extensively with a slew of jazz, Latin-Jazz and World Music groups and musicians. In 2008, Ms. Santi won the Pew Fellowship for Folk and Traditional Arts. In 2009 she was signed to Sunnyside Records. She went to Cuba specially to study Afro-Cuban song, dance and percussion as well as to prepare for this very unique Billie Holiday project.
“I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg,” she reveals with beguiling honesty. “I have not yet got to “God Bless the Child” because I have so many thematic ideas regarding that tune… which leads me to believe that I might do a Billie Holiday suite… a “God Bless the Child” suite…” More Billie Holiday? “It’s sort of intense to think how close I’ve been to this repertoire and Billie’s story,” Ms. Santi adds, “It’s been an extremely existential experience”.
Track Listing: 1. On the Sunny Side of the Street (Guaguancó); 2. Big Stuff (Tumba Francesa); 3. What’s New?; 4. My Man (Makuta); 5. Strange Fruit (Bolero); 5. Stormy Weather (Palo); 7. You’re My Thrill (Tango Congo); 8. Travelin’ Light (Guajira/Nola); 9. Involved Again (Danzón); 10. That Old Devil Called Love (Son); 11. I Cover the Water Front/Monk’s Dream (Guaguancó); 12. You Better Go Now (Yambú).
Personnel: Venissa Santí: Vocalist; François Zayas: Drums, Percussion; Tim Thompson: Trumpet; Chris Aschman: Trumpet, and Flugelhorn; John Stenger: Piano; Jason Fraticelli: Bass; Cuco Castellanos: Congas; Madison Rast: Bass; Paul Klinefelter: Contrabass; Jon Thompson: Clarinet; Special guest: Jef Lee Johnson: Guitar.
Label: Sunnyside Records | Release date: September 2013