Songbirds of Summer

A trio of releases by accomplished vocalists from Chile, Peru and the U.S. provide both an enticing soundtrack for the summer season and an insight into the artistry of four of the most versatile songbirds of their generation.

Claudia Acuña is a Chilena who arrived in the U.S. in 1995 and plunged aggressively into New York City’s club scene. Despite all of the obstacles experienced by neophyte performers who attempt to take the Big Apple by storm, Acuña has been remarkably successful. Early on she landed a contract with a major jazz label and scored countless high profile engagements, earning critical acclaim along the way.

Today she is featured on two equally ambitious and attractive recordings that underscore her broad stylistic range. In These Shoes (zoho), a partnership with pianist Arturo O’Farrill, is a consciously flirty affair, with bubbly Latin jazz-grounded arrangements of pop tunes (“Moondance” by Van Morrison), jazz standards (“Willow Weep for Me”) and tropical Latin fare (“Dime” by Rubén Blades). En Este Momento (Marsalis Music), a session with a more direct connection to the singer’s Chilean soul, is produced by saxophonist Branford Marsalis and features a cast of New York’s best musicians.

On the more folkloric-focused program on En Este Momento, Acuña reveals her inherent connection to the Nueva Canción tradition and such legendary interpreters as Mercedes Sosa and Violeta Parra through her choice of repertoire and majestic treatment of traditional themes by Victor Jara, Astor Piazzolla and César Portillo de la Luz, among other fabled Latin American composers. Acuña’s version of Piazzolla’s masterwork “Vuelvo al Sur” is a stunningly effective example of her remarkable ability to accurately interpret the distinctive emotional character of each song.

In the fertile and increasingly popular universe of Afro-Peruvian music, Eva Ayllón commands a unique presence. While not as well known internationally as Susana Baca, Ayllón brings a surge of irrepressible energy and a vivacious vocal technique to the style that makes her a truly one-of-a-kind artist. Her performances crackle with the same brand of vigor that made salsa sensation La Lupe stand out from her Cuban peers three decades ago.

On Kimba Fa’ (Times Square Records), Ayllón’s festive and unabashedly sexy vocals tackle a wide range of Afro-Peruvian styles, from the more folk-oriented and heavily percussive tracks associated with the landó and festejo rhythms to burning salsa works. The singer’s conversational style, accented by shouts of pure joy, enlivens such time-honored themes as the exuberant “El Muñeco de la Ciudad.” Ayllón and her ensemble find the perfect balance between contemporary and traditional sonic ingredients on Kimba Fa’, producing a session with both idiomatic integrity and broad popular appeal.

It’s no wonder that Luba Mason, a lanky blond singer who was tabbed for a role in Paul Simon’s Broadway production of The Capeman, quickly caught the eye of cast mate Rubén Blades. The two were reunited on the salsa icon’s Grammy-winning album Mundo and at the wedding alt ar. Of Slovakian heritage, Mason is quick to use a few words of Spanish in her program, referring proudly to Blades as mi esposo.

The salsa singer joins Mason on one track on her new album Krazy Love (Kookie Records). Rather than rework one of his classics, the duo mix English and Portuguese on lovely Brazilian ballad “E Com Esse Que Eu Vou.” The Brazilian theme is extended with Chico Buarque’s captivating “Olhos Nos Olhos,” this time with Mason crooning in the sultry Brazilian tongue. Most of the session, recorded in Los Angeles with a cadre of Carioca musicians, has a lilting Brazilian vibe---the perfect complement for relaxing summer moments.

Mark Holston