When Grammy Award winning composer, bandleader and pianist Maria Schneider invites you to tour with her, you seize the opportunity and that is exactly what Argentine vocalist, musician and composer Sofia Koutsovitis did. The native of Buenos Aires now living in New York City recently concluded a European tour with Schneider. Concerts were performed in Portugal, Spain, Austria, France and Switzerland. Koutsovitis who is a highly skilled vocalist had a unique performance role with Schneider’s orchestra. She sang the instrumental lines, providing a vocal rendition for various instruments in the orchestra.
I contacted Schneider while her band was in Madrid Spain and she had this to say about the young Argentine, "Sofia sounds really beautiful with the band. She has a lovely sound that is human and earthy all at once. She is able to blend in with the instruments while adding something very human to it. She creates such a broad spectrum of colors and sounds. Sofia is so creative and I know there is much to discover down the road."
Koutsovitis leaves no doubt as to how she feels about the opportunity to tour with Schneider, "It has been my dream to work with Maria and I got a chance to do this with her."
When Koutsovitis first came to America, it was as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. The twenty-four year old at first struggled in an environment that was devoid of many Latin American students. "(In Boston) everything was difficult at first because of the language. It was difficult to know what was going on in the classroom. There wasn’t anyone around who could speak Spanish," she says.
The most startling revelation that Koutsovitis made concerning her adjustment to Boston was, "Oh my God, I have never seen so many rats in my life!"
Despite the linguistic challenges and the rats (not at the conservatory), Koutsovitis eventually emerged from the New England Conservatory of Music recognized as a skilled and versatile vocalist.
The highly respected vocalist, composer and vocal coach Dominique Eade observes, "Sofia Koutsovitis is a remarkable singer. Her rich, warm alto is equally at home with quick Latin rhythms and sensuous ballads. Her sound appeals right to your heart but her witty, intelligent interpretations and compositions will win your mind."
Koutsovitis demonstrates her excellence and versatility as a singer with her 2005 project Ojalá. The album also highlights her skills as a composer.
The first two tracks from Ojalá are lively and more frenetic whereas "Gris," the third song from the CD, is at times very relaxed and at others more experimental. In fact, "Gris" at some junctures is reminiscent of the music of Koutsovitis’ friend, fellow musician Monika Heidemann.
Koutsovitis has created a beautiful arrangement for Paulinho Da Viola’s "Dança Da Solidão." It is a more relaxed tune whose melody takes advantage of the piano, saxophone and percussion instruments. Jorge Roeder establishes a strong bassline, which Koutsovitis confesses has always been present in her music.
Talking about her CD Ojalá Koutsovitis says, "One of the things that we are incorporating is Argentine rhythms. Some of the Argentine music is from the folkloric traditions (such as) chacarera and zamba (not to be confused with samba). Some of the music is from northern Argentina where they have African influences. For the first song, Ojalá we used black Peruvian traditions (such as) lando for the song, "You Don’t Know What Love Is." Other influences that can be found in Koutsovitis’ music include festejo (Argentine), Avantrio (Peruvian) and the rhythms of both Brazil and Colombia.
In terms of the musicians who appear on this CD, I tip my hat in particular to the percussionists, Richie Barshay (drums, cajón), Jorge Pérez Albela (congas, cajón, djembe), Jamey Haddad (surdo) and Leo Genovese (bombo).
Koutsovitis finds it interesting that so often the music of South America is grouped under the banner of Latin music. She says, "That (statement) assumes a unity in the styles from South America, but they all come from different (origins)."
As one might expect when your music is infused with so many cultural influences, Koutsovitis’ songs also utilize an eclectic mix of instruments. Two of the unique instruments are a quiljada de burro otherwise known as a donkey jaw (yes you read that correctly!) and a cajón (ka-hone). Before we proceed, we should explain that the donkey’s have died naturally and are not being culled for the sake of making new instruments. Both the cajón and the donkey jaw have their origins in Peru during colonial times. African slaves were prohibited from owning and playing traditional instruments. The ancestor of the present day cajón was nothing more than a wooden box, which was used to carry everyday items such as fruits and vegetables. In fact, the word cajón in Spanish means crate or box. The cajón began to appear in modern day flamenco music and in more recent years it has been heard in a variety of genres.
Koutsovitis explains how the donkey jaw is played, "The teeth of the donkey are loose and they move when you hit it. You hit the jaw with your hand. You can also hit it with a stick," she says before relating a humorous story, "In Lisbon (Portugal) I left it (donkey jaw) on the table in the hotel room. I came back to get it while two cleaning ladies were in the room. They looked at me weirdly." Gee Sofia, I wonder why that would be? She later convinced the maids that it was in fact an instrument and demonstrated how the donkey jaw is played.
Other less familiar instruments that can be heard on Ojalá include the surdo, guiro, melodica and agogo.
The chanteuse who is fluent in Spanish, English and Portuguese has set a torrid pace for herself during the first part of 2007. She will appear on Maria Schneider’s next project scheduled to begin recording in January. Koutsovitis will also be recording a new solo album. She already has already charted several original compositions. Geoffrey Keezer has asked her to appear on his next project. During the first part of the year, there will also be recordings with Folklore Urbano for their third CD Corazon as well as Alcatraz’s Afro-Peruvian album.
In Cambridge Massachusetts, you will able to catch Sofia Koutsovitis at the Regattabar Jazz Club in the Charles Hotel on January 27th as she takes part in a tribute concert to Antonio Carlos Jobim. She will be back in Boston on February 24th singing at the Ryles Jazz Club, as well as fulfilling a television commitment. Jazz fans in New York City can slip over to Cornelia Street Café where Koustovitis will be appearing on February 8th.