“A vida é a arte do encontro, embora haja tanto desencontro pela vida.” - Vinícius De Moraes
“Life is the art of the encounter.”
Seldom has Vinícius De Moraes’ philosophy been more fully realised than in this meeting of Roberto Menescal and Stacey Kent.
There are so many reasons why Roberto Menescal and Stacey Kent should never have met, let alone formed a friendship based on mutual admiration and shared artistic vision, that the very existence of this album is close to miraculous.
Roberto Menescal, began his musical journey in the 1950s as a student in Rio De Janeiro. An admirer of the exotic sounds of American Jazz and popular song, one of his early idols was the jazz guitarist, Barney Kessell.
Stacey Kent, for whom the jazz and the Great American Songbook were the musical wallpaper to her East Coast adolescence, viewed Brazilian music with much the same fascination as Menescal had viewed American jazz a generation earlier.
Each went on to become an important figure in their own musical sphere. Roberto Menescal became one of Brazil’s most important 20th Century musical figures. A composer, guitarist, founding father of Bossa Nova, record producer, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 Latin Grammy Awards, Menescal’s importance to the history of Brazilian music from the late 1950s to the present day can hardly be overstated. That he remains as busy as ever, performing, composing and producing is testament to his true passion for music.
Stacey Kent began her musical career as an interpreter of American standards, bringing her own unmistakable, intimate and emotionally intelligent stylings to a vast repertoire. A natural minimalist, she to gained a legion of fans for her “less is more” approach. Whilst her music has become more involved with French and Brazilian music, the same quiet intensity that characterised her interpretation of the Great American Songbook have continued to inform her singing. The first step on the journey that led to the encounter between these two great artists was when the D.J. Bob Tostes, an aficionado of American jazz singers and a friend of Menescal, made a compilation of favourite singers for Menescal and his wife, Yara. One track stood out for them; a recording of Gershwin’s seldom played “Isn’t It A Pity” by Stacey Kent. In this recording, Menescal recognised a quality that resonated for him; an emotional depth expressed with a quiet, undramatic intensity. This was a quality shared with some of the great Brazilian singers like Nara Leão with whom Menescal had enjoyed his closest working relationship. Yet here was an American singer displaying such qualities. Menescal made it his business to search out more recordings. Menescal quickly became such a fan of Kent’s work that whenever he was producing a new, young singer, he would give them a selection of Kent’s recording with the instruction, “listen to this and then we’ll talk”. However, in spite of his admiration, Stacey Kent remained merely a name on the sleeves of his treasured albums. Similarly for Stacey Kent, a fan of Brazilian music since her youth, the name Roberto Menescal was just a name on an album sleeve. The idea that they knew of each other had never occurred to either of them. Fast forward now to 2011 and the final step on that journey; an invitation to Stacey to sing at the Show De Paz, in Rio De Janeiro, a celebration of the 80th Anniversary of the famous statue of Christ The Redeemer atop Corcovado. Stacey had been invited by Marcos Valle to sing his classic Samba De Verão. This was itself a meeting that would result in a close and enduring musical and personal friendship that has to date yielded a live album, many concerts and a DVD in the making. Leaving the stage, after her performance with Marcos, the encounter that led to this recording took place. Menescal was to perform with the band, Bossa Cuca Nova and was preparing to go on stage. In the bustle of the crowded backstage area, neither Stacey nor Menescal had seen the running order of artist list. And so on leaving the stage Stacey spotted Roberto, guitar in hand. Already on cloud nine from her performance with Marcos, here was another idol! On the verge of stage struck, she could say nothing other than “Roberto!” Menescal, similarly surprised but recognising the singer from the covers of his cherished CDs replied, “Stacey!”
Until that encounter, neither had the least idea that each was aware of each other. A hurried exchange of email addresses in the wings sealed the friendship. Several subsequent meetings in Brazil and a regular exchange of emails and telephone calls allowed the new friends to make up for the years already lost. For two artists of such remarkable empathy, a recording project was the next natural step. Their first recorded collaboration was for Stacey’s 2013 album, The Changing Lights, which included Menescal’s timeless classic, O Barquinho and the Jim Tomlinson/Antonio Ladeira original, A Tarde, both with Roberto on guitar. Such was their musical empathy that further recordings were bound to follow. Having devoured the recordings of Julie London and Barney Kessell in his youth, Menescal had always harboured a wish to record an album of standards along those lines. For Menescal, meeting Stacey was the chance to realise that life’s ambition, and beyond this, to record that album with his favourite standards singer. For Kent, it was the chance to work with a musical idol a one of the founding fathers of a musical genre that had completely informed her musical aesthetic. With Stacey’s husband on saxophone and flute and Jeremy Brown on bass, this intimate collection of songs is something of a homecoming for both Stacey and Roberto. For Stacey, it is a return to the Great American Songbook and for Roberto, it is a return to the jazz roots that inspired that young guitarist in the heyday of the Bossa Nova years. Despite being separated by generations, continents, cultures and languages, this chance encounter in 2011 has resulted in some of the most distinctively focused and beautiful work of each of their careers. This album represents so much more than just the art of meeting. It is also truly the meeting of art.
Why listen to Stacey Kent rather than to Ella, say, or Billie or the other great singers from the swing era? A friend asked me this recently and my initial response was one of irritation. 'That's like asking: why Toni Morrison rather than Henry James? They're wonderful artists from different eras and it's daft choosing between them.' But I suppose my friend deserved a better answer. He was wondering, I'd guess, if a young contemporary artist of today could work authentically in a style of music that had had its heyday over half a century ago.
Having thought further, I realise that for me it's partly the very fact of her being contemporary that makes Stacey special. My encounter with the first Stacey Kent album in 1997 was a revelation precisely because I was hearing reinterpreted - without any sense of pastiche - those great swing era songs in a voice at once steeped in tradition but somehow fresh and unmistakably that of an urbane woman of today. She, and her sublime small band, were revealing to me a hitherto unsuspected universality in those old songs. They were demonstrating how that treasure trove from the past could more than convincingly express the yearnings, hopes and broken dreams of men and women in today's confused, fragmented world.
But maybe a simpler answer to my friend would have been that Stacey Kent is a singer to match the greats of the past, with an unusual power to hold your attention and control your emotions from the first note.
Why? For one thing, Stacey's singing never lets us forget these songs are about people. Her protagonists come to life so fully in her voice you sometimes have to remind yourself the CD has no visuals. She has, in fact, much in common with today's finest screen actors who, assured of the camera's ability to pick out detail, portray complex shades of personality, motive and feeling through subtle adjustments of face and posture.
Like them, Stacey has complete mastery of her tools, but hardly allows us to be aware of them. In song after song, we find a route to the emotional heart of the music without first having to admire her technique.
It's been said that one of the most appealing qualities of Stacey's style is that it is 'conversational.' I'd go one step further. She conveys as well as any other singer I've heard the sense of a person talking to herself; the faltering hesitancies, the exuberant rushes of inner thought. There is invariably a lover being addressed, but in Stacey's readings that lover is never in the room. The lyric is what the singer wishes to say, or wishes she had said. We're witnessing a private moment.
No surprise then to find on this latest album emotions being portrayed never in primary colours, but always subtly shaded. These thirteen Richard Rodgers songs move between the themes of love found and love lost. But it's never as straightforward as sunshine followed by dark despair. She may convey wonderfully the giddy intoxication of love, and yet she does sound, well, intoxicated - and vulnerable; like a sophisticate who's suddenly left herself open to naiveté. Then every three or four tracks - as though to confirm our fears - we discover her disappointed and let down, singing something like IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND or EASY TO REMEMBER. But what's curious and unique in these exquisitely rendered ballads (and what makes her distinct from Billie Holiday, say, or that other fine singer of her generation, Diana Krall) is the absence of bitterness. What we get is someone going over the broken pieces of her life, trying to coax from somewhere a little courage and perspective. Here's a great jazz diva of our age.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Author, July 2002