David Bowie’s Blackstar and Luciana Souza’s Speaking in Tongues
As the news of David Bowie’s death spread across social media on Jan. 11, longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti offered a touching tribute on his Facebook page. In it, he said, “[Bowie] made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” The album, released just two days before his death, was always clearly about a man confronting his mortality — “Lazarus,” the second single, features lyrics about being in heaven and comes with a video that shows Bowie lying in a hospital bed. It was only after his death that it became known that he had cancer throughout the entire recording. This context can make it a tough listen, but as parting gifts go, it’s a joyful, generous one. The production is rich and heavily jazz-influenced — the drums are terrifically loud, the guitars are rich with mood, glorious squalls of saxophone break loose, and highlights such as “Lazarus” and the Portishead-like “Girl Loves Me” abound. Bowie’s humor even remains intact, opening “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” with the line, “Then she punched me like a dude.” Indeed, one of the tragedies for fans is that this album promised more years of excellent Bowie music. In 1969’s “Space Oddity,” Bowie sings as a man trapped in orbit, drifting away from Earth. Blackstar often sounds that way, too — one man surrounded by heavenly sonics, finally leaving adrift a guitar solo, repeating the pointed title to “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the final song of his career and life. Between “Space Oddity” and this, Bowie gifted us with decades of magic, music, inspiration, and affirmation. Thanks for all of it, David. — Robert Ker LUCIANA SOUZA Speaking in Tongues (Sunnyside) Jazz is all about “listening and collaboration and dialogue,” Luciana Souza says in a video interview about her new album. That methodology proves itself beautifully in her work here with guitarist Lionel Loueke, harmonicist Grégoire Maret, drummer Kendrick Scott, and bassist Massimo Biolcati. On the opener, “At the Fair,” Souza’s sublime wordless singing is as syncopated as the stepping bass and tat-tat percussion. At Maret’s entrance, everything gets funkier; he and Loueke, playing electric guitar, lay it on thick. A stunning finale ties the knot on the band’s bright, stimulating mix. Souza and Loueke sing gently together with his acoustic guitar on “Hymn,” but the mood changes from melancholic to celebratory in the second half. “Straw Hat,” which is enlivened by an African rhythm, has Souza expressing in an invented “language” that actually sounds Portuguese (she is Brazilian), and she adds flourishes of pure jazz scat. Together with fascinating harmonica work and Loueke’s outlandish synthesized guitar, they fashion the album’s most dynamic track. “For me, singing without words means I can articulate my own humanity with just sounds,” Souza says — but on this album she adds two songs composed around Leonard Cohen poems. The first, “Split,” sounds like a desolate urban landscape (“and the lover will groan and the other will laugh”), and the poetry is punctuated by stellar guitar and harmonica solos, and more of Souza’s scatting. This is a remarkable, dynamic album.