As she made her way through the audience to the Joe Henderson Lab stage, Claudia Villela sang a quiet wordless melody, more to herself than to the people assembled for her second show Friday at SFJAZZ. Within moments she and multi-instrumentalist Gary Meek had set out on an extraordinary journey marked by luscious melodies, constantly shifting instrumental combinations, and improvisational flights to unlikely destinations. Focusing on originals songs from her gorgeous new album, Cartas ao Vento, the Santa Cruz-based Villela seemed to enter a zone of pure invention, moving between piano, pandeiro, bass drum, and sundry percussion implements, including an artfully deployed squeaky toy pig, while Meek joined her on soprano and tenor sax, flute, and piano.
It was the second night of a four-day SFJAZZ residency that paired Villela with various musical collaborators. On Thursday, she’d reunited with guitarist and fellow Rio de Janeiro native Ricardo Peixoto, and on Saturday and Sunday, she performed with New York-based pianist and accordionist Vitor Gonçalves, another Carioca. But Friday, she was joined by the Monterey-based Meek, who’s best known for a two-decade stint with Brazilian music icons Flora Purim and Airto Moreira. Cartas ao Vento provided the road map, but the duo ranged far beyond the album, which features songs commissioned by New York University that set verse by Latin American poets.
The extended form on “Flores do Mais” turns a piece by the great, doomed Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar into supreme drama. And the Spanish-language “Paramo” offers a ravishing setting for a poem by the late Venezuelan writer Ramon Palomares.
Not that Villela needs lyrics for creative fuel. On “Chorinho pra Elas,” Meek doubled her dancing wordless vocal line on flute, attaining joyful levitation. On “Fua,” Villela dug into a northeastern Brazilian rhythm, accompanying herself on piano while Meek’s tenor picked up the groove. On the majority of the tunes where Villela wasn’t playing percussion, drums were not missed.
With no solos or improvisation, a concise version of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’s bossa nova standard “Chega de Saudade” featuring Meek on tenor was sublime. It was on the set’s final number that Villela made her only misstep of the evening. Wildly overestimating the musical skills of her audience, she tried to enlist us as her percussion section. With her guidance we made a game attempt to follow, but when she moved on to a different part, the center did not hold. No matter, her uproarious frevo “Batucador” ended the evening with a blast of jubilant energy, providing yet another reminder that the Bay Area is fortunate indeed that one of world’s finest Brazilian jazz artists has long called the region home.