The critic Gilles Tordjman once wrote that Brazil was not a nation, but “a region of the heart, where everything seems to ring to the tune of a stronger and more accurate vibration”. This is a sentence that STACEY KENT could no doubt make her own.
At the age of 14, the American singer discovered the endless charms of the album, Getz / Gilberto, an historic encounter of jazz and bossa nova, after which nothing would ever be the same. Over the course of a musical journey that has wandered freely in the open spaces of jazz and song, Brazil became, in her eyes, more than a country: a kind of internalized poetic horizon, a chosen land on an intimate scale, adjusted to the proportions of her soul, her singing and her inspiration. Whether she literally celebrates them through covers of Tom Jobim, Sergio Mendes or Luiz Bonfá, or whether she summons the spirit through the finesse of her performances, Stacey Kent has never loosened the emotional ties that bind her to Brazilian music. An eternal student, this well-informed polyglot, with a degree in comparative literature, has followed her passion to the point of learning the Portuguese language and taking an interest in the cultural and political history of the giant auriverde.
It is this passion, made both of depth and lightness, that pervades her tenth album. The Changing Lights is not “Stacey Kent’s Brazilian record”. It is more a recreational break or a sound postcard than a stuffy exercise of style. In collaboration with her partner and husband, the English saxophonist, composer and arranger, Jim Tomlinson, Stacey Kent simply displays all the sensitive qualities of a musician for whom Brazil represents, precisely and foremost, “a region of the heart”.
To do this, the singer, who has lived between England and Colorado for the past two decades, felt no need to go to a studio in Rio de Janeiro. In Sussex, where the recording sessions for The Changing Lights were held, she surrounded herself with her close musical guard – Jim Tomlinson on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, Graham Harvey on piano, Jeremy Brown on bass, John Parricelli on guitar, Matt Home and Josh Morrison on drums. Roberto Menescal, the legendary Brazilian guitarist and composer, also lent his talent to two tracks on the album. In this good company, she was immersed in the turbulent and welcoming water of a feeling that is very familiar to her: the sumptuously volatile mixture of happiness and sadness that answers to the bittersweet name, saudade. “Especially on this record, and in my musical world in general, this word is my cornerstone”, says the singer. “It has no equivalent in other languages, and Brazilian music has given it a unique flavour. But what it refers to is a universal feeling, which belongs to the human condition: a vague nostalgia directed towards what one has lost as well as towards what one has never had nor experienced. Here, I am thinking about the lyrics of the song, Samba Saravah (Samba de Benção): – Mas pra fazer um samba com beleza, é preciso um bocado de tristeza. But to make a beautiful samba, a little sadness is needed. -That is the atmosphere that we wanted to create on The Changing Lights; on that spiritual and emotional level, this is a profoundly Brazilian record.”
In fact, the album, from start to finish, is infused with a melancholy wavering between light and dark: freed of the burden of pathos and pomposity, this chiaroscuro marries, with a rare accuracy, all the sparkle and heartbreak of real life. Opening with a light reinterpretation of This Happy Madness, an adaptation of Estrada Branca, by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, the album continues with The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain: an original song that evokes a nomadic and romantic existence in light touches, and whose harmonic, melodic and poetic texture, draws a musical fabric tailored to the voice of Stacey Kent. By themselves, these first two tracks, which seem to answer and embrace each other like lifelong lovers, announce the wonder that is at work in the album. The Changing Lights is indeed the meeting place where standards from the Brazilian repertoire and compositions by Jim Tomlinson dissolve any spatial and temporal gaps: in the miraculous moment of playing and singing, we hear them link intense relationships of complicity. “Searching for songs that work together and that, once united, roll out all their magic: that is one of my greatest pleasures, confides Stacey Kent. The joy that The Changing Lights gives me, owes much to the balance that we found between compositions and covers: there is a sort of winding movement between them, as if they belonged to each other.”
This beautiful alchemy occurs throughout the record. The palpitations of the evergreen One Note Samba (Tom Jobim/Newton Mendonça) resonate in the lively and mischievous virtuosic passages of Waiter, oh Waiter. The notes showering down in Mais Uma Vez, a chronicle of a love lost and then re-found, resonate, like a troubling extension of harmonies descending from another famous standard by the Jobim/de Moraes duo, How Insensitive – a moving song about break-up and regret that Stacey Kent has adorned with a new quivering exquisiteness. The ethereal melodies of Like a Lover (Dori Caymmi) and The Face I Love (Marcos Valle) appear to grant the wishes made a little further along by Chanson Légère, in which Stacey Kent, in the French lyrics, dreams of a refrain that floats “like a soap bubble, a cloud of cotton, a butterfly wing”. At the heart of the album is an instrumental version of O Bêbado e a Equilibrista by João Bosco that, like the waters of a miraculous spring, empties into the crystalline wave of Smile by Charlie Chaplin.
These interactions and connections could not have happened without the high artistic standards that presided over the conceptualisation of The Changing Lights. On the musical side, the writing and arrangements by Jim Tomlinson, weave a web of infinite delicacy, teeming with details that never alter its fluidity or consistency. “I wrote for the group as if it were a guitar”, he said, to explain the typical Brazilian rhythmic and harmonic richness that emerges when listening to the album, as well as the sense of unity and harmony that emanates here from the ensemble. Roberto Menescal also contributes to the guitaristic sound of the album with his special arrangement of his own 1960 classic, O Barquinho, as well as adding his own telling touches to Tomlinson’s A Tarde.
On the poetic side, Stacey Kent was able to count on quills that know all about the subtleties of her sensitivity. A long-time accomplice and admirer, the writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain and Waiter, oh Waiter, also provides a sublime impressionistic internal monologue, a dive into slowness, haunting and sensual swirls of memory, with the title song, The Changing Lights. As well as Mais Uma Vez, the poet, Antonio Ladeira, who Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson met at Middlebury College, where they were introduced to the delights of the Portuguese language, penned A Tarde: a variation on the themes of separation, absence, memory and ultramodern loneliness, seen through the eyes of a woman contemplating the city where her childhood sweetheart also lives. Bernie Beaupère, who has already written for Stacey’s album, Raconte-moi, completes this circle of inspired poets with the lyrics for Chanson Légère. Of these writers, Stacey Kent says: “They are much more than songwriters offering lyrics: when they write, it is my voice and sensibility they have in mind. Thanks to them, I can truly express myself in the performance, and feel fully inside the songs.”
With The Changing Lights, Stacey Kent attains an even higher level of accuracy of tone and delicacy of expression. In tune with the group that accompanies her, and never succumbing to the temptation of grandstanding or superfluousness, she reaches new heights of calm, intensity and clarity in this vocal art that distinguishes her from many of her contemporaries. “I’m still working on my voice, she confides with disarming humility. I try to sing the best that I can, simply because it’s my profession and my reason for being. It so happens that I am a very intense person, and I cannot help but approach music that way. But I do not do so in an outrageous or extroverted manner: waves of emotions, whether joy or sadness, I express them calmly because I want to tell the stories that communicate them in the best way possible. Yet there are many kinds of stories in The Changing Lights: therefore, it was important to deliver the songs as well as I can.”
That is why the voice of Stacey Kent, at the height of her abilities of suggestion, reveals itself here more than ever in the magnificent and complex nakedness of her expression. Under the quivering surface of her singing, there are a multitude of currents and forces, a permanent ebb and flow of feelings, murmurs that are in turn anxious and serene, mixed up and calm, which she is able to harmonize like no one else.
Jim Tomlinson says, in paraphrasing Kazuo Ishiguro’s comments, “Stacey’s style reminds me of the best film actors who, on camera, develop a very different style to stage actors, who are still required to project their voices and gestures in order to be express themselves across the space of the theatre. In film, an actor can do a lot with very little, whether in terms of expression, gesture, inflection or tone of voice. With Stacey, I believe that we create a style of music in the same way, where even the smallest gestures have great significance.”
It is there, in the richness of these nuances, that open onto the vast dizziness of our deepest feelings, that The Changing Lights reveals itself as much more than an album. For those who have the good fortune to discover it, it very quickly becomes “a region of the heart” for them too recognizable and inhabitable by all human beings endowed with emotions.