by Chip Boaz, Latin Jazz Corner

Vocalist Hiromi Suda has found something that many jazz musicians spend years talking about but never capturing – a true cross cultural musical blend that digs deep into diverse musical territories. Growing up in Japan, Suda spent time learning the basics of her craft in her musical family while pursuing a musical education at every turn possible. Inspired to make her way as a professional musician, Suda moved to the United States, settling in Boston to attend the Berklee College Of Music. While there, she discovered the beauty of Brazilian music, which inspired her to travel to Brazil and connect with the music on an authentic level. Returning to Boston, Suda dug deeply into the music, performing with flautist Fernando Brandao, pianist Clarice Assad, and more. She later made her home New York, where she met even more Brazilian musicians, including guitarist Romero Lubambo. As Suda progressed in her art, all of the pieces of her background came together into a unique musical approach.

Suda just released her third recording, Nagi, a mature musical statement which puts her distinct approach to composition and performance on display. Singing in Portuguese, English, and Japanese, Suda fluidly moves between musical worlds. In other hands, these influences might clash; in Suda’s care, they seem like branches of the same tree. Presenting a repertoire that includes original music, as well as songs from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, and more, Suda gracefully delivers an intriguing musical statement. It’s a wonderful album that needed some more time here at LJC, so Suda took some time recently to answer a few questions about her background, her music, and the creation of Nagi.

Latin Jazz Corner: It seems like you had a musical childhood – what are your early memories of being involved of music?
Hiromi Suda: My mother was a violinist so I have memories with her that we played music together. She played the piano and I sang – she played notes and I answered which notes were they (ear training). She also played the violin for me. I played the piano and composed songs that I showed her. Most of the childhood memories with my mother are with music.

LJC: How did you get involved in jazz and how did you start to learn the style when you were still young?
HS: I had a chance to meet a jazz vocalist when I was junior hight school student and I started to take voice lessons with her. And I also met a film music composer who graduated from Berklee. There was no YouTube when I was young, so it was not easy to get information and recordings like you can now; but I leaned from musicians who I met and CDs. After I entered the university in Tokyo, I started to sing more jazz.

LJC: You discovered Brazilian music when you were at Berklee; what was it about the music that grabbed your attention?
HS: It’s a long story…

Before coming to Boston, I listened to Brazilian musicians such as Elis Regina. But I got into Brazilian music more when I moved to Boston from Tokyo. I had an ear problem when I had just entered Berklee. At that time I had to re-think what I really wanted to do with music since it took a whole semester to find the right doctor who could solve my problem. Whole my first semester at Berklee, I had a hard time until I met the right doctor. After taking the right treatment, I recovered from my illness. Before I got that treatment though, I couldn’t hear lower sounds and I had ear pain. The scariest thing was that I didn’t know why it was happening; I didn’t know if I would recover or get worse. In the mean time, it was hard to listen to music since the balance of my hearing was weird. There was a concert by a Brazilian singer at Berklee and my Brazilian friend asked me to watch the show. I went to the concert and I was so surprised that her voice sounded like Elis Regina. I told my friend about it and my friend said that the singer was the daughter of Elis; her name was Maria Rita. I was moved by Maria Rita’s performance and I started to discover more about Brazilian music. Brazilian music is so deep – all of the rhythmic variations, the different styles from different parts of Brazil, and the music from different times. This attracted me to the music a lot and I got more into Brazilian music.

LJC: This led to time in Brazil studying the music with a variety of Rio musicians – what did this experience do for your commitment to Brazilian music?

Before I’m going to Brazil, I was really into Brazilian music, but I didn’t have many chances to listen to the live “Brazilian” concerts in Boston. In Rio, I had wonderful experiences; every night music were happening. I could go to the concerts by musicians that I really wanted to hear live – Gilberto Gil, Marisa Monte, Toquinho and so on. I could also meet wonderful musicians to play with. I got even more got into Brazilian music through these experiences.

LJC: Since returning from your time in Brazil, you’ve got the opportunity to play with a number of Stateside Brazilian musicians – who are some of the musicians that helped you deepen your understanding of the music back here in the States?
HS: Other musicians and Brazilian friends helped me to understand more about Brazilian culture. Playing with wonderful Brazilian guitarist, Romero Lubambo has always been a wonderful experience as a musician and I learn from him a lot. Also, playing with pianist/composer, Clarice Assad was great experience.

LJC: Nagi is your third album and it reflects your most mature musical concept yet. What do you think has evolved in your music at this point that stands out as unique?
HS: I think my background making my music is unique. I grew up in Japan, and then I moved to Boston to study music. While I was there, I met and played musicians from all over the world – we shared the music beyond our different backgrounds. I went to Brazil to learn about both Brazilian music and culture. Then I moved to New York to focus on my own music style with musicians from lots of different nationalities, languages and gender.

LJC: You write with a combination of cultural elements – Japanese lyrics, jazz harmonies, and Brazilian rhythms play a part at different times in your original music. What are the musical considerations that you take into account when writing with all these elements?
HS: My original music comes naturally to me. I hear the songs in my mind first, and then I write the score to what I’m hearing. Ideas for lyrics and music come into my mind at the same time. I try to just feel the music that I hear in my mind. I’m not trying to put all the cultural elements together together on purpose; they all blend into my music because of my background, I think. (Japan, Brazil, Boston and New York) Of course I polish the musical ideas after they come up. So far, that’s how I’ve been writing my music.

LJC: Lyrics play an important part in your music – what do you look for in a song’s lyrics when you’re interpreting a piece of music?
HS: I try to have my own interpretations when I sing songs of other composers. I research the original meaning first, but I always try to find my own way to understand and express the songs. I try to find the way that only I can express the songs. If I’m singing samba I try to think how I can express the song and remain myself even though other people wrote it.  I try to sing samba just as I would Japanese and I try to being myself. I’m not trying to be Brazilian or someone else.

LJC: You’ve got a fantastic group on Nagi – what do your musicians bring to the experience of shaping your approach to the music?
HS: We have been playing together for a while and I know their sound. I just expected them to be themselves and play their sounds. They are also just trying to feel my music. I always appreciate that I can make music with such wonderful musicians.

LJC: Having explored so many musical avenues at this point, what would you like to do next musically?
HS: I would like to work more on my original music. I would like to make an album with all original music.

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