In December 2017, singer/composer Claudia Villela was all set to catch a return flight to California from her native Brazil when a fire broke out in her Rio de Janeiro apartment. She sustained several severe injuries that day, and the computer that held years’ worth of her unreleased recordings—including some tracks of compositions that she’d written in 2008 under commission from New York University—were destroyed. The catastrophe prompted Villela to reassess her career path. The loss of so much creative output impelled her to think about how to get her extensive catalog of mostly all-improvised compositions out into the world, and “it made me more passionate about what I’m releasing now,” she said in a recent phone conversation from Santa Cruz, her home in the U.S. since the mid-1980s.

Her latest album, Encantada Live (Taina Music), is Villela’s seventh release since her now little-known debut of originals, Nosso Abacaxi (s/p), in 1992. In the intervening years, as Villela’s reputation as a preternaturally gifted improvisational singer rose, she performed and recorded diligently but released albums only occasionally. Whether by default or by design, Encantada Live fills in some of the regrettably empty space in Villela’s discography: the collection derives from multiple live performances over the last 10 years or so, featuring Villela in concert variously with solo guitar or piano, a quartet, or a septet. None of these divergent performances is about a specific group sound, however; what they hold in common is an unwavering commitment to the highest level of improvisation.  

All discussions about Villela’s singing and songwriting necessarily start with a nod to the dizzying scope and depth of her improvisatory skill. In one tune (say, “Cuscus,” from the new record) she’ll run through several registers, shift vocal qualities, allude to familiar riffs, and keep unswerving time. Oh, and improvise a full set of lyrics in Portuguese. It must be said—hardly anybody can do this.

The bebop singers come closest, perhaps. And though Villela studied at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music with scat master Sheila Jordan—a fitting guide for the naturally intuitive singer—bebop is only one of Villela’s sources. In addition, she culls references from Western classical music, lullabies, traditional Brazilian sambas, bossas, choros, and the like. “I don’t know where [all of the ideas] come from,” she admitted. “When I sing, I’m in a spell and that’s where the magic happens.”

Villela finds a like-minded improvisational musician in pianist Kenny Werner, who recorded Villela’s fourth album dreamtales (Adventure Music), a completely unrehearsed, all-improvised duo album, in 2004.  The two had met at a Toots Thielemans concert a couple of years earlier; Werner, one of Thielemans’ first-call sidemen, was playing and Villela was trying—successfully—to engage the Belgian harmonica player to record with her. (Thielemans, taken with the Brazilian singer’s ability, played on her third album, Inverse Universe, on Adventure Music, in 2003).   

“I think of what Claudia does as spontaneous composition—you feel like you’re hearing a composition that’s being revealed in the moment,” explained Werner when queried about the approach they used on “Minas,” a 14-minute, enchantingly modal duet on the new album. “She is the only singer I’ve met who not only can play free for a whole set but can bring enough textures to [the music] to make it feel like spontaneous composition.”

Today, Villela travels back and forth to Rio often, still busy rebuilding after the fire. The effort depletes her energy, even as she feels galvanized to produce more music. “I will record again this year for sure,” she avowed, describing a studio album that will include material from the NYU commission (Latin American poetry set to her music) and then a live album with 2017 Latin Grammy-winner, guitarist Romero Lubambo. But Villela’s renewed interest in record releases isn’t about pushing out product. “My next album is going to be better, deeper, and stronger,” she concluded. “I have this feeling now that we haven’t much time.”

Photo: Brian McMillen

(Reprinted from May 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine.)