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AUDIOFILE - Val A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

I have always been fascinated by vocal artists who sing as if they’re reading to you the most amazing story in the most expressive yet soothing tone. They deliver each phrase in impeccable diction, gliding from note to note in an effortless pitch.

I’m not really drawn to singers who belt out. They make me feel like they’re bragging about the level of difficulty at which they could perform. Mostly, I hate being shouted at.

This is why I love singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Jo Stafford, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Bing Crosby, Eva Cassidy, Bobby Caldwell, Stacey Kent, Michael Buble, Jennifer Warnes, Robby Williams, Diana Krall and Allison Kraus, to name a few. 

My long vacation from writing this column has given me time to flip through and enjoy my various album collections. Among the voices I listened to again and again in the past few weeks was Lisa Ono’s. So far, I have 10 of her 29 albums, and hers is one voice I am certain would never give me listening fatigue.

Lisa Ono is recognized as one of the best Japanese interpreters of contemporary bossa nova. She was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1962, where she lived until she was 10. Her father was a night club owner and manager of the famed Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell. It was in Brazil where Lisa’s guitar playing skills were developed. When her family moved back to Japan, her father built and managed a Brazilian restaurant which became host to traveling Brazilian musical ambassadors. These Brazilian artists influenced and introduced Lisa to the theatre of music. It was also in her father’s restaurant where she started performing mainly bossa nova and samba. Besides singing and playing acoustic guitar, she is also a songwriter.

Her melodious voice, guitar skills and amiable smile contributed to her success and helped propel bossa nova’s popularity in Japan. Her first album “Catupiry” was released in 1989. Since then, she has churned out an album, mostly in Portuguese, at least once every year. By 1993 her star shone even brighter upon the release of the Minha Saudade, dedicated to works by João Donato, who also did the arrangements. This feat opened her up to worldwide fame. Her material is exceptional, made more so by her lilting, inimitable voice. Top Brazilian session musicians, including Zeca Assumpcao, Cristovao Bastos, Paulo Moura, Danilo Caymmi, and Tom Jobim, helped define the quality of the material Lisa performs and her manner of delivery: over half the material here is of her own creation.

My favorite track on this album is the icebreaker, the association between Ono and Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, Samba de Enredo, with her astounding guitar work with fundamentally seething rhythm. This samba spirals around her vocals and offers the listener a series of vocal and instrumental gymnastics. To me, there couldn’t be anything better: the piece is head and shoulders above the rest.

It is not only in bossa nova that Lisa excels, though. Her albums “Cheek to Cheek” “Jambalaya – Bossa Americana’”, “Look to the Rainbow”, “Soul & Bossa” are but a few examples of how she is pursuing to add all major world music genres into her bossa nova catalogue. In these albums, Lisa is ably backed up by an ensemble much like that in the television series Glee (only much better) and exceptional orchestral accompaniment. “Jambalaya”, for one, is an album of American country music (as well as bluegrass and related regional sounds) that has been re-imagined in a Brazilian format. The resemblance between some lighter fare (such as John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads) and bossa is made amazingly clear as some songs seem hardly affected by the genre transition.

“Jambalaya”, “Soul & Bossa”, “Cheek to Cheek” may have been a bit of a change of pace for Lisa as she digs deeply into the richness of the Great American Songbook, both old and new. Take the A Train, Baubles Bangles and Beads, Satin Doll, Fly Me to the Moon, Hello Dolly, For Once in My Life, and You’ve Got a Friend are only some of these great musical selections.

With her elegant compilation of tunes that feature iridescent acoustic guitars and layers of lilting hand percussion, listening to a Lisa Ono album is like experiencing an incredibly intimate sharing of ideas and feelings with a friend who knows all your secrets. All her musical arrangements enable her to express the poetic quality of her bossa influences. Lisa’s voice is a nuanced percussive element in and of itself, as the beat floats her singing into the tempo which has a mesmerizing effect on me. She’s truly my kind of girl!

* * *

For comments or questions, please e-mail me at [email protected].

BADEN POWELL

BAUBLES BANGLES AND BEADS

BING CROSBY

BOBBY CALDWELL

BOBBY DARIN

BOSSA

BOSSA AMERICANA

LISA

LISA ONO

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