Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Nature Mislaid in Musical Translation


Back in the day of Kerouac and Langston Hughes, jazz poetry meant a writer reciting while the cats wailed. Setting printed verse to song, though a centuries-old practice in classical music, is relatively new to jazz. The most successful example I know of this is Mike Westbrook’s The Westbrook Blake, which sounds simultaneously Blakean and Coltrane-like. Like her earlier album of Elizabeth Bishop, Luciana Souza’s Neruda is a noble failure. Drawing from translations by W.S. Merwin, Nathaniel Tarn, and Alastair Reid, and mostly limiting herself to the Chilean poet’s odes to nature, Souza ignores both his political didacticism and his wildness—she’s so dead earnest that the laughing absurdity of lines like “and there in the dust of my heart . . . you will come and go among the melons” sails right past her. But her voice is lovely, and her swirling settings—featuring her shakers and finger cymbals and Edward Simon’s piano, and interpolating movements from the Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s “Songs and Dances”—are so beguiling that I hope she continues to indulge her literary sensibility. Souza is an original, and that sensibility leaves me expecting great things from her soon.

Luciana Souza plays Joe’s Pub April 30.