How often do you get to see and hear a fresh new artist, bursting at the seams with talent and charm? Liz Rosa is the first female performer to headline the Dangerous Rhythms Latin Jazz Explosion, and the first Brazilian. T.J. English, curator and host of the series, caught up with Liz at the Good Stuff Diner on W. 14th Street, one of his regular spots, for this delightful interview.
Let’s start with Antônio Carlos Jobim, Tom Jobim, since the show you’re doing is a tribute to Jobim. How do you go about creating a repertoire from among so many great songs that he composed?
This is the hardest part because, of course, I feel that I need to sing some really well known songs, because people want to hear those. But I really want to show something different, also. Like some stuff that is not as familiar or was not playing on the radio. So I’ve been working on this repertoire since you invited me, with the musicians who will play with me. We are working together, choosing the songs together, choosing the right key for us and doing some arrangements. So the whole concert will be new, fresh and new. And it’s so nice because most of the time we are inside the same laboratory. We’re singing the same songs. And so this opportunity of, you know, being inside this world choosing new stuff, it’s just really nice.
What draws you to a particular song? Are you looking for an emotional connection? Or are you looking for something that fits your vocal range nicely?
Both, actually. And it’s really interesting because especially the last albums that Jobim recorded, they had a lot of different guest singers, so most of the songs I can sing in the same key. This is my process of learning the science of a song — changing keys, changing tempos, changing everything to find what fits better for me. So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve been listening especially to my favorite album in life, which is Urubu. I’ve listened to this album my entire life. And the other one is Elis & Tom [with Elis Regina]. So Tom Jobim has been part of my life as a singer, as a professional, from the very beginning.
So how about Jobim and Jazz? Whenever I have conversations with people about Jobim and jazz, I always direct them to the Jobim and Sinatra record [Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, from 1967], because to me that’s such a great collection of Jazz ballads, and people who are true Sinatra aficionados love that record. And Sinatra himself, I think, once was quoted saying it was the quietest album he ever recorded. What is it about Jobim’s music and Jazz that is such a perfect fit?
To talk about Jobim and Jazz, I think, you need to talk about the history of Bossa Nova. In theory, it all started with João Gilberto’s album that he recorded Chega de Saudade. But actually, before that, we had the great composer who Jobim was inspired by, Johnny Alf. He’s really Jazz, for me. Like sometimes even more than Jobim. So I was talking to Roberto Menescal [one of the godfathers of Bossa Nova]. He’s a good friend of mine. And I asked, what changed? Why did Bossa Nova became like our type of Jazz. He explained, the guys like Roberto and Tom, everybody started listening to some Jazz albums, especially that album by Julie London [Julie Is Her Name, released in December 1955, featuring Jazz guitarist Barney Kessel]. That album changed the way they were thinking about composing and playing the music, because in Brazil we have a lot of different rhythms, we are more swinging, you know. So after that, Brazilian musicians started to inhabit this Jazz ballad world. So the connection between Tom and Jazz is not only about Tom, it’s about all these people that were doing the music during the 60s. It was a movement.
Bossa Nova had such a major impact on the Jazz world here in the United States when it hit in the early 60s. The period of its influence was relatively brief. I remember seeing an interview with Tito Puente one time, and he was talking about Bossa Nova. He said it was incredibly beautiful music, all the musicians loved playing it, but the problem was nobody could dance to it in the United States. Americans, even American Latinos, weren’t familiar with the rhythm, couldn’t dance to it, and so it died out as popular music.
Did you know that same process about dancing happened in Brazil as well? The great composers were doing their thing, and the musicians, of course, were like, oh my God, this music is beautiful, but in the clubs people want to dance. In the clubs, they were not playing Bossa Nova. So in Brazil we started the process of evolving the music, and Sambalanço became the Bossa Nova that you can dance to. And after Sambalanço they started with these trios, like Zimbo Trio, and all the trios with piano, upright bass, drummer, that were influenced by Jazz, playing Samba Jazz. That’s my world. That’s exactly what I like doing and what I’ve been doing within Brazil and out of Brazil. So, yeah, the need to turn Bossa Nova into danceable music, that happened in Brazil as well. It led to Sambalanço and continued through to Samba Jazz, because actually we are a warm people that love dancing, like all Latin America, because we are part of Latin America.
Growing up in Brazil, how influenced were you by American Jazz. Not Samba Jazz but classic American Jazz?
That happened when I moved to Rio. Because I am from Natal, in the north of Brazil, and when I started singing we didn’t have YouTube or Google or all these things that make it is so easy now to find everything. We didn’t have that. So I was at musical school, I have a lot of friends, so some friends showed me some stuff like, I don’t know, like Charlie Parker, and I could see and hear a few things, but not much. But when I moved to Rio and actually became part of the Brazilian Jazz scene, then I really started to listen to Jazz. It was crazy for me to be working in a completely new musical world, but actually not new at all, because the Brazilian music that I was singing was so influenced by Jazz.
That must have been a revelation. You were discovering the roots and what you already had been singing.
I notice in many female Brazilian singers the influence of Ella Fitzgerald. Ella seems to have had a profound impact on Brazilian singers in particular.
Yes, Ella and Sarah Vaughn both. Actually we have had so many talented, great singers in Brazil. Most of the singers, they have a strong instinct about interpreting things and singing in a way that the technique, everything, is different. Of course, we have some singers that sing soft like Astrud Gilberto, and others, but most of the singers are closer to Ella and Sarah. So, yes, they really influenced our scene. But even before them we had this style of singing in Brazil that was influenced by classical music. More formal. When the singers started listening to Ella and Sarah, that classical style became influenced by this jazz style of singing.
So Ella may have had the effect of loosening up the singing style?
Yes, I think so, I think so. At least for me.
Describe for me a little bit your musical education, your musical upbringing, how you started on this path to being a professional singer?
Like most artists in Brazil, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college to study music. But we had a great musical school in my town, so I started classical singing there for awhile when I was young. When I was 12, I was singing in a choir with kids and I never stopped singing. Mostly I fell in love with being on stage. More than singing, I love being on stage performing. I love performance. So maybe if I was not a singer I would be, I don’t know, a dancer. I would be on stage some way. So, later I started singing in bars and clubs. I was 14, 15 and I never stopped. And then when I was 16 I started to go into the musical school and I went to the university to study Brazilian literature and Portuguese. And when I was 20, I moved to Rio, but I was already a professional performer.
So you knew this is what you wanted to do.
Yeah. Since the beginning.
And did you have any sense of what it would take to have a professional career doing this?
No, I had no idea. I had no idea.
Not that you needed to at that point.
Yeah, I had no idea, especially when I moved to Rio, because in my town I already had a career, so people knew me, I was singing, you know, in theaters and everywhere, different venues. From age 15 to 20, in Natal, I was singing all the time and had my audience. And then I said, well, I need a career, a real career, so I’m going to move to Rio, where I didn’t know anybody. Nothing. So I started from zero, and it was really hard and it took me years there to build something, took like five years. Actually, it was really hard.
What was your big break in Rio, your turning point?
First of all, by moving to Rio, it was the first time that I was leaving my parents’ place. Second, I didn’t know anybody, so everything was new for me. Third, I didn’t know how to approach people. I had a lot of not nice situations where I just came and said, ‘Look, I’m a singer. I’m from Natal. Can I sing a couple songs?’ Because I didn’t yet have an album, no management, nothing, people were saying no to me. Especially because of my accent. That’s crazy, I know. They were like, ‘Oh, this girl from the northeast trying to sing Samba Jazz and Bossa Nova. Are you crazy?’ And the truth is, when I’m singing, if I want I have my accent or not. It’s an option. Anyway, so this situation I faced was horrible. How can people behave like that? Just because I’m from another place? I can’t be in Rio singing the music from Rio? It took me a few years and then everything changed. I started meeting people like João Donato and Roberto Menescal. They started talking about me, and then I recorded my first album. After that, everything started changing.
I have to ask you about being a woman in the world of music and what that experience is like for you, both in Brazil and in the United States. Your bands are probably 99 percent male. You’re in a very male world performing. What are some of the challenges of being a woman in that world?
Brazil is a very sexist country, much more so than here, so the hardest part of this job is trying to make people understand that I am, first and foremost, a musician. The most important thing is that I needed to prove that I am good, and that I am part of the band. I’m just like them. To have that respect, initially, was really, really hard. By the time I arrived here in the U.S., it was different, because I already had my career, people knew that. I had some music online, a well-produced album, so people respected me. I didn’t have to prove myself. It was different.
This process you mention of earning respect based on people acknowledging you as a musician, and the role that you play as a musician within the band, how do you go about asserting that? How do you go about establishing that you are as much a musician in this group as the drummer or the piano player?
I think that not only in music, but in life, it’s our responsibility to learn how to make people part of your life. So that’s exactly what I do. Like if I invite a musician to be part of my band, he knows that he’s an important part of my music, because he is. So actually the drummer, me, the sound engineer, the guy who works at the door, we are all part of an important thing. So I think that, for me, it’s easy, actually.
Is it better or easier if you’re assembling the band, you’re choosing the musicians that you play with?
It doesn’t matter. For me, this is not a problem. Not for me. I’m traveling to Europe, different countries, and I’m traveling alone. Each country with different people, a different band. So I need to be open. Now, okay, when I have a Brazilian band, the whole band is Brazilian, we have a similar feeling for the music, and that is really nice. The way that we feel the music is the same. So it’s more comfortable, but it doesn’t mean that the alternative is bad. It just sounds different. I perform a lot in Poland, and in Poland people really don’t know anything about the music. It’s not like here. Here people know Brazilian music. People know Jobim, they know Elis Regina. But over there — and I’m singing most of the time in Portuguese — so they are not understanding what I say, they don’t know the type of music that I’m singing, but they are understanding somehow.
You’ve been in New York less than two years, how do you feel its going?
It’s going okay. Sometimes it’s hard because New York is a lot of stress, a lot of people, a lot of information to take in. And it’s hard to be like, okay, so I need to go in this direction, or that direction.
So you’re still getting lost on the subway?
No, not anymore.
Come on. I’m still getting lost on the subway and I’ve been here my whole adult life.
No, but it’s funny because it’s really easy for me to find places. It’s so easy to walk in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, I’m lost.
I get the impression that there are a lot of really good musicians in New York, and one of the difficulties is how the business of music has changed so much in the last decade with the digital revolution. The concept of recording something and releasing it and promoting yourself that way no longer exists. So how has it been for you to try to build a brand, to establish recognition, to make a name for yourself, to make your voice heard? What is the key?
Actually, I don’t know because I don’t have an answer for that.
Well, in the past you would record a CD, and then you would do another one two years later, and by then a record company would have signed you. And that’s how it would be done. And you would have a lot of help, a machinery behind you, now you don’t have that, you’re on your own.
Right. When I released my album, it was in 2010. What happened? It was at that time that we started having this online streaming, so everything was changing. I learned how to deal with that because it became clear that I was not making money through streaming. So you’re basically just making money performing. My album was released by one of the biggest labels in Brazil, Som Livre, but they didn’t invest any money in my album. So it was all my work. Even sending to the journalists, it was all me. I released it eight years ago and until now I haven’t recorded another one, because actually I feel like I’m still working on it. Now I think that I need to do something new, but I’m not sure if it is an album, or if it’s something like a video, you know, because actually people are more into this video world. And things are changing so fast. Every year when I think about releasing something, something new happens. So, yeah, it’s like a math problem. I don’t know what to do.
You have many advantages, one of them being the fact that you are a great performer, a dynamic performer. You can have a career as a performer. Anyone who sees you will want to book you because you connect with your audience in such a strong way.
That’s the joy for me — live performing. The studio for me is kind of cold. It’s not a thing that I really like. I’m always wondering, ‘Where are the people? Where is the audience?’ People to share with. I sing better when I have people sharing feelings with me. I give you something and you give me something. It’s all about this.
We at Dangerous Rhythms are very excited about your show, for many reasons. For one, because you’re the first woman, something we’ve been trying to find for a while. And also being able to highlight the influence of Brazilian music in Latin Jazz, particularly Bossa Nova. I’m not sure people are fully aware of that legacy. So it’s a great opportunity to make that connection for people. It’s an important part of the educational aspect of what we’re trying to do with the series.
You know, when I first came to New York City, I was like, oh my god, yes, of course I sing some Bossa Nova, but my music is not only that. But that’s what people wanted. Especially the Jazz club owners. So I sing one or two Bossa Nova favorites, and then I change my repertoire and take the audience in a different direction. You’ll see. I think you’re going to like it.
(Come and experience the artistry of Liz Rosa as she pays tribute to the great Antônio Carlos Jobim in a special installment of the Dangerous Rhythms Latin Jazz series, Thursday, September 27 at Zinc Jazz Club, 82 W 3rd St., in the heart of Greenwich Village, NYC. Sets at 7:30 & 9 PM)