By Robert Knox, Globe Correspondent | November 2, 2006
Leah Souza of Plymouth is saluted by critics as one of the "freshest faces in contemporary jazz" and already, at age 24, is recognized as a "superb" jazz vocalist. How did she become so successful so young?
"Blessed with good ears," she says.
Souza grew up in a musical family. She recalls the day her father, listening to her singing harmony in the back seat of the car at age 11 during a family Christmas caroling session, realized he might have a new generation of musical talent in the family.
Leah's father, Johnny Souza, is a trumpeter and vocalist whose recordings of jazz standards and his own compositions have received national airplay. The younger Souza is quick to acknowledge a debt to her musical father -- "He helped train my ear and I fell in love with music" -- but these days the debt goes two ways.
A tune on the elder Souza's latest CD, "Meet Me in the City, " called "Song For My Father " -- a duet for father and daughter -- received the most airplay of all the tracks on the disc. Father and daughter take a fresh approach to the Horace Silver standard, receiving critical praise for their "heartfelt lyrics" and "tasteful scatting" on Silver's breezy tune.
Souza, who as a young singer had classic tastes, found her niche after her father introduced her to jazz.
"I think jazz is an acquired taste," she said. "I didn't appreciate it until my dad sprung it on me."
She listened to classic artists like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and contemporary recordings by George Benson, and now seeks to impart "a 2006 feeling to jazz standards so young people can like them and older people can recognize them."
Timeless numbers from the "Great American Songbook " (the informal term fans use for popular American songs written between the 1930s and the '60s ) dominate her repertoire.
And while young people typically do not listen to the same jazz vocal artists, "I was surprised," Souza said. "Young people do appreciate jazz. They don't listen to it in their car, but they really respect it."
After working with her father, she studied with local singing teacher Maureen Hague, who in turn passed her on to noted Duxbury jazz singer Rebecca Parris.
She learned breathing techniques from Hague. "I was breathing the wrong way," she said, "and cutting off my air supply."
Her instrumental training began in elementary school with the clarinet; in high school, she moved to the saxophone, in addition to singing for her high school ensembles and out-of-school bands. A throwback to an earlier musical era, Souza eschewed music schools and colleges after high school and "jumped right in" to the club performance circuit.
"I always had a jones for doing it," she said, and with her father's club experience and connections to rely on, she believed she had "an open door."
"If I'm good enough I get into that door," she thought.
One of the most useful stage doors was at Ricky T's Blues Club, which for several years booked blues and jazz talent at Cordage Park in Plymouth. Singing on her father's dates, she met the musicians who played with him, and some of them became her regular musicians, such as piano player Michael Shea.
Souza is working on her first CD, which will include classics such as "Angel Eyes," "The Nearness of You," an uptempo reading of Gershwin's "Summertime, " and a homage to Ray Charles with a version of his signature tune, "Georgia."
Though the recording is still in the studio, one of the cuts was played by Eric Jackson on his nightly WGBH jazz show.
She has performed extensively at local venues, and recently enjoyed two well-received dates at the Ryles jazz club in Cambridge, one of the most prestigious jazz spots in the Boston area.
"It was real exciting, a lot of press out, and the whole place was full," Souza said. At Ryles, she sang "Night and Day " by Cole Porter, "Fly Me to the Moon, " and the more contemporary Roberta Flack tune, "Feel Like Making Love."
She performs in various combinations -- quartet, trio, and singer plus piano accompanist -- depending on the size of the club. Gigs at private functions and corporate affairs, in which she performs as part of her father's seven -piece "funk band," help pay the bills.
The Leah Souza Trio -- the singer with piano and bass player -- will perform at the Radisson Hotel Plymouth Harbor at 180 Water St. from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Hers is the only jazz group regularly booked at the hotel's pub.