Arts Desk

D.C. Vocalist Emy Tseng on Bossa Nova, Bach, and Sounding “Organic”

When Emy Tseng moved to D.C. in 2009, she had to adjust to two new worlds: her day job at the Department of Commerce, and her nighttime role as a bossa nova and jazz vocalist in a new music scene. A Taiwanese-American who learned classical piano as a child and began singing traditional early music in her teens, Tseng caught the jazz and “Girl from Ipanema” bug when living in New York in 2001. She recently released her first album, Sonho, and brings her sophisticated lilting vocals to the Alexandria Jazz Festival for free on Memorial Day Monday. Via email she talked to Washington City Paper about her music.

Washington City Paper: How has your classical and choral background assisted you with singing Brazilian music?

Emy Tseng: My classical training, particularly my early music experience, has helped my voice in terms of intonation and purity of sound. In bossa nova, the tone is straight, without vibrato. My ear was familiar with the harmonic language—Antonio Carlos Jobim stated that Bach and the French composers Debussy and Ravel were primary influences. I grew up playing Bach on the piano, and have studied French Art songs. I also learned to sing in different languages (French, German, Italian, Latin) and convey the meaning when neither I nor the audience are fluent.

WCP: Who were some of your Brazilian-music teachers and how did they teach you and are there any anecdotal tales you can relate?

ET: The pianist Marcos Silva was my teacher at the Jazz School in Berkeley, Calif., for 3 years. He was the music director for Flora Purim and Airto for many years, and played with many other Brazilian music luminaries. He's very strict and demanding, but I found his detailed approach helpful since I’m a more analytical person.

My sight-reading ability (from doing choral music) helped me a lot. In ensemble class, he'd put these complex charts in front of us, and we had to read on the spot. And he would point out mistakes and expect us to correct them right away. After moving east, I attended a couple “Samba Meets Jazz” workshops run by bassist Nilson Matta and started studying with him in New York. His group Trio da Paz (with Romero Lubambo and Duduka da Fonseca) is one of the preeminent Brazilian jazz groups. He’s also worked with Joe Henderson and Yo-Yo Ma, and many Brazilian musicians. With Nilson, I’m learning more about the structural elements of Brazilian music, particularly the underlying rhythms. I spend as much time clapping and tapping in his lessons as I do singing. I've been very lucky to have the opportunity to study with these world-class musicians. Other key Brazilian music teachers have been the singer Sandy Cressman in San Francisco and Leonardo Lucini and Wayne Wilentz here in D.C.

WCP: How did you first get involved with the D.C. Brazilian music scene?

ET: Soon after I moved here, I met Wayne Wilentz and started sitting in with his trio at Utopia when they still played Brazilian jazz on Thursday nights. After a certain hour, many jazz musicians would stop by and hang. I met many of album’s musicians there—David Jernigan, Matvei Sigalov, and Lyle Link. I met the Lucini brothers when their group Origem performed. D.C. has a great Brazilian music community—like family. They encouraged me to perform more and record. I’m so grateful for their support, and participation on this project.

WCP: What were some "beginners" things you initially did in the studio that you later changed—or wished that you had changed?

ET: I wish I had been more organized and prepared. Since I had been performing these songs I took for granted that I knew these songs, but the studio was a very different experience. The recording process picks up every little nuance and subtlety. I had to go much deeper into the songs—particularly emotionally. It was less about performing rather being in that emotional state. My producer Marco Delmar kept saying “stop thinking” and coaching me to get present into a song. But when I stopped “thinking,” I would make technical mistakes. I had to re-record some tracks after practicing them for weeks again, because I needed to know them well enough to become “instinctual.” I think that tension is common, especially in technically demanding music such as jazz. Working with different arrangers and coordinating 10 musicians over multiple sessions was a big project-management endeavor.

WCP: How do you balance trying to stay respectful toward Brazilian culture and trying to be original?

ET: I listen to Brazilian music constantly—not just bossa nova, but also MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) and contemporary artists such as Chico Pinheiro, Ceu, and Maria Rita. The songs on the album span over 40 years of Brazilian music—the Chico Pinheiro tune “Na Beira do Rio” was released in 2002. I try to learn about Brazilian music and culture. I dance samba and am studying Portuguese (though languages are not my strong suit). I do love the sound of Brazilian Portuguese—the lilt of the speech which makes it sing. However, I’ve only been doing Brazilian music since 2006, so many other influences combine into my unique sound.

I wanted the album to reflect my taste as a listener—I prefer a more natural, open and acoustic sound. I loved '90s singer-songwriter and acoustic pop—Suzanne Vega, Everything but the Girl, Jonatha Brooke. Also, though we worked out arrangements, I wanted it to sound spontaneous and still "organic." Also, the album reflects where I am at this point in my life. People have pointed out wistfulness and longing in my singing. I grew up in Seattle and I lived in the Bay Area for a number of years. The [Mamas and Papas] song "California Dreamin’" reflects homesickness for out West. Although it’s been great here in D.C., I still feel like the West Coast is home.

WCP: What has the reaction to the album been like?

ET: The reaction has been really positive. I'm pleased and even a little surprised. The album received a number of positive reviews by national jazz critics and was "in play" on over 70 radio stations, reaching No. 23 on the College Music Journal charts. Even more gratifying is the direct feedback from people, especially non-musicians, saying that listening makes them happy and relaxed. I wanted the album to be accessible, although we enjoyed getting into complex rhythm and harmony. I wanted it to have many layers.

Emy Tseng performs at the Alexandria Jazz Festival Monday May 27 at 4 p.m. at Waterfront Park in Alexandria.

Photo by Dorothy Brooks via Emy Tseng's website

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