Growing up in a jazz-loving household, San Francisco Bay Area vocalist Sherie Julianne was raised on bossa nova and bebop. But her path to singing Brazilian music was long and discursive, with many a twist along the way. After more than a decade of devoting herself to the vast and treasure-filled Brazilian Songbook, she makes an emphatic statement with her wondrous debut album 10 Degrees South.
Collaborating with master pianist/arranger Marcos Silva, a Rio de Janeiro native who has worked extensively with legendary Brazilian and American jazz musicians, she introduces herself with an enchanting and sophisticated collection of songs.
“I can’t explain exactly what it was but I fell completely, totally, and utterly in love with Brazilian music and started listening to it all the time,” Julianne says. “I’m American, not a native Brazilian, and I wanted to find music that fits my personality, that speaks to my American roots, while being immersed in Brazilian rhythms.”
She doesn’t pretend to be Brazilian, but Julianne possesses a translucent honey-amber voice ideally suited for the lithe and flowing melodies that distinguish so many Brazilian standards. Her supple sense of time and her facility at brisk tempos makes her a double threat, emotionally incisive on ballads and fearless on breakneck arrangements. She’s joined by a superlative cast of musicians who have also been mentored by Silva, including veteran saxophonist/flutist Mary Fettig and the dynamic rhythm section tandem of drummer Phil Thompson and bassist Scott Thompson (no relation). Ace guitarist Jeff Buenz, who has performed and recorded with the great Brazilian jazz vocalist Claudia Villela, rounds out the ensemble. Beyond introducing a fresh and vital new voice, 10 Degrees South stands out as an unusually well informed program. This is no roundup of the usual bossa suspects. Julianne knows her Jobim and Bonfá, but her exquisite taste and persistent curiosity has led her to captivating material that has eluded other American singers of a similar bent. The album opens with João Donato and Gilberto Gil’s surging “Bananeira,” from Donato’s classic but hard to find 1975 album Lugar Comum (Bebel Gilberto reintroduced the song on her hit 2000 album Tanto Tempo). She interprets another Donato gem (written with Caetano Veloso), the quietly imploring “A Rã” from his 1973 album Quem É Quem, as a ravishing duet with Silva, until the band finally comes in for a grooving double-time outro.
Many Brazilian and American jazz artists adopted Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy’s “Récit de Cassard” (or with Norman Gimbel’s lyric, “Watch What Happens”) from Demy’s beloved 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Brazilian connection came through Gimbel, who was responsible for providing English lyrics for many a beloved bossa nova, an insinuating pulse that Julianne and Silva apply to the lustrous melody. In much the same way she takes to the quicksilver samba groove of ur-bossa nova “O Pato” like a duck to water, and is full of tantalizing longing on Jobim’s aching “Bonita.”
At the center of the album Julianne ventures far off the beaten path, starting with “Brasil Nativo,” a startlingly beautiful song by Paulo César Pinheiro and Danilo Caymmi. Digging into the circular melody “Encontro,” she’s possibly the first American vocalist to record a piece by guitarist Chico Pinheiro, one of the most inventive composers on the Brazilian scene. Marcos Silva contributes one of his own superbly crafted songs, the deliciously aching ballad “Painting” (with a lyric translated from the Portuguese by Heather Davis).
Back on more familiar ground, Julianne interprets the bossa standard “O Barquinho” (Little Boat) by Roberto Menescal, who like Dorival Caymmi found endless inspiration in nautical themes. Fettig follows Scott Thompson’s graceful bass solo with a breathtaking flute passage, an all too rare example of a son/mother instrumental tandem, while Marcos’s arrangement restores Menescal’s original chords. She closes the album with the intoxicating, dreamy ballad “So Many Stars,” by Sergio Mendes and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a particularly apt choice as it embodies one of the best American/Brazilian songwriting collaborations.
Born and raised in Miami, Julianne grew up in a close-knit family where her father’s experiences soaking up jazz and Latin music in New York City reverberated through the years. “He was a huge jazz fan, and there was always music in the house,” she recalls. “We had Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Sonny Stitt, Lockjaw Davis. He took me to jam sessions.”
She studied violin and played in various ensembles through college, and sang in her middle school and high school choruses. But by high school her primary creative outlet was modern dance. Julianne led a dance company while earning a fine arts degree from the University of Florida, and moved to the Bay Area in the late 1980s to pursue her love of dance.
While studying at the Oberlin Dance Collective Julianne often found herself in classes accompanied by percussionists, an experience that forged her powerful rhythmic sensibility. “It helped so much with Brazilian music,” she says. “In dance, feeling the music inside yourself is essential. Your body is the art form, and the rhythm moves in you and through you.”
While she continued to study and teach dance for many years, Julianne eventually decided that she wasn’t going to attain the level she sought. She began to change her focus while raising her niece, who started studying music and singing. Helping her with phrasing was so enjoyable that she decided to start studying herself, taking lessons with the respected Bay Area jazz singer Daria. Before long she discovered Berkeley’s Jazzschool (now the California Jazz Conservatory), where her studies with vocalist Stephanie Bruce soon led to Marcos Silva.
“In Stephanie’s class we had to pick six different styles to sing and I kept picking bossa nova,” Julianne says. “She noticed and said, ‘You really like this. You know, we have a Brazilian music department.’ So I went over and auditioned for an ensemble with Marcos.”
While she had less singing experience than most of the people in Silva’s class, he immediately noticed that Julianne possessed excellent time and intonation. Performing regularly in class with the class band (Silva, Phil Thompson, and Scott Thompson), she gradually built up a repertoire. Attending Dennis Broughton’s Brazil Camp in Cazadero, she deepened her knowledge and experience, while befriending celebrated artists like Guinga and Chico Pinheiro.
“One great thing about the Jazzschool program is that it forces you to be a performer,” Julianne says. “By the time I was in two ensembles I could perform my own full hour set. After five years I was comfortable being on stage singing Brazilian music for an hour.”
She started performing around San Francisco with Silva and the Thompsons in Sol do Brasil. (Scott Thompson is Chico Pinheiro’s touring bassist.) Though lately she’s been working under her own name, Julianne is quick to credit Marcos Silva as her essential collaborator. One of the Bay Area’s hidden creative reservoirs, he’s an underground force who is renowned among his peers. The Rio native had already earned his stripes working with the great Brazilian jazz vocalist Leny Andrade when he moved to the Bay Area in 1984, where he found a community of musicians eager to study with an artist as steeped in jazz as in contemporary Brazilian currents. He spent years touring the world as music director for Airto and Flora Purim, a gig he gave up for good in 2008 to concentrate on teaching at the Jazzschool. While Julianne has made the transition from student to colleague with Silva, their creative relationship continues to evolve.
“Even now I constantly have three or four new songs up in the air,” Julianne says. “We’re never resting on our laurels. We’re always developing new material.”
With 10 Degrees South, Sherie Julianne delivers more than an impressive debut. She leaves you eagerly anticipating what songs she’ll interpret next, the sure mark of a truly engaging artist