Introducing the last concert of the 2022-23 season on May 11, Green Music Center Executive Director Jacob Yarrow invoked the presence of ancestors summoned both by previous performances and the Southern Pomo land now occupied by Sonoma State’s breathtaking Weill Theater, which opened 10 years ago.
It didn’t take long for vocalist Magos Herrera to summon an ancestor of her own Thursday with her emotionally expansive and assiduously political program “Dreamers,” with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider (augmented with restraint and textural acuity by Swiss percussionist Mathias Kunzli). It wasn’t just that several of the concert’s Latin American standards were inextricably linked to Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009).
On songs like Violetta Parra’s nostalgia laden “Volver a los 17” (Returning to 17), Silvio Rodríguez’s aphoristic ode to persistence and resistance “La Maza” (The mallet), and “Balderrama,” Manuel José Castilla and Gustavo Leguizamón’s tribute to the power of raising voices together in song, Herrera’s plush, chesty contralto eerily echoed the glorious sound of the Argentine nueva canción matriarch.
A bountifully gifted jazz singer based in New York City since 2008, the Mexican-born Herrera has carved out a singular jazz niche interpreting songs in Spanish and Portuguese, often commissioning new arrangements for existing tunes and new settings for poetry. She’s on two new albums that expand this fertile territory: her own project on Sunnyside Records, Aire, and a collaboration with the Venezuelan pianist (and longest serving member of the SFJAZZ Collective) Edward Simon, Femeninas.
Herrera returns to the Bay Area with Simon’s all-star quartet, featuring bassist Reuben Rogers, percussionist Luis Quintero, and drummer Adam Cruz, for performances June 8 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center and June 9 at the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab.
If her voice brought Sosa to mind, the “Dreamers” arrangements often recast the songs with skittering counter melodies and pulsing cello lines. A meaty blend of chamber jazz and contemporary classical music, the project is an ideal vehicle for Herrera’s sumptuous sound and capacious skillset. With her voice set amid Brooklyn Rider, she was both a dramatic front woman and soloist and supportive bandmate of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas.
Focusing on the work of Latin American women songwriters, Femeninas covers some of the same ground as Dreamers. But her 2018 album introducing her collaboration with Brooklyn Rider put a different frame around the material, collecting songs written during periods of political repression that offer visions of resistance and liberation.
The Weill performance repeatedly delivered on the promise. At its most effective, the program offered new music, like “Nina,” Herrera’s and Felipe Perez Santiago’s setting of verse by Octavio Pas. In music by flamenco great Vicente Amigo, to Federico García Lorca’s “La Aurora de Nueva York” (The New York dawn), Herrera’s voice took on the throb of a flamenco cantaora.
The arrangements didn’t always enhance the material. The shattering lament “La LLorona,” an oft interpreted Mexican folk song about a tormented female spirit mourning drowned children, needs no adornment. Gonzalo Grau’s arrangement refracted the piece’s momentum, drawing attention to the string interplay at the expense of emotional immediacy. Given the concept of “Dreamers,” it would have been valuable for Herrera to talk a little bit about why she chose these songs. Given the 20th century’s baleful history, there’s no shortage of apt material, and not every selection was an obvious contender.
She closed the concert with Jaques Morelenbaum’s delightful arrangement of Gilberto Gil’s “Eu vim da Bahia” (I came from Bahia), a sensuous celebration of Gil’s beloved home state. The music spoke eloquently for itself. Herrera, a performer of intense grace and exquisite voice, could bring audiences more deeply into her dream.