Although Rio de Janeiro-based vocalist Ithamara Koorax has long been established as a recording artist in her native Brazil as well as in Europe and Japan, it wasn't until 2000 that American listeners were introduced to her unique vocal stylings on Milestone's Serenade in Blue. That release helped position her for a 4th-place finish in the Female Singer category—behind Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, and Dianne Reeves—in the 2002 Down Beat Readers Poll.
Ithamara's extraordinary follow-up CD, Love Dance: The Ballad Album, will certainly establish her artistry in the most convincing possible terms.
For this new album—inspired by Mark Murphy's 1988 Milestone session September Ballads—Koorax and her producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro assembled a phenomenal international cast as well as a challenging, inspiring repertoire. Singing in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and German, Koorax has chosen unexpected beauties from Brazilian masters including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, Marcos Valle, and Ivan Lins; from Claus Ogerman and pianist Jurgen Friedrich; and even Vernon Duke (a tender reading of "April in Paris," recorded as a duet with Bonfá just a few months before his death).
Among Ithamara's accompanists are guitarist John McLaughlin (on "Man Alone," his first recording backing a vocalist), Azymuth ("Love Dance"), Marcos Valle (a duet performance of his composition "Flame"), and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (offering piano backing on "La Puerta" and Jobim's "Amparo"). Other tunes are Jobim's "Ligia," "Someday," "Blauauge," and "I Loved You" (composed by the brilliant arranger Claus Ogerman).
Ithamara Koorax (pronounced ee-tah-MAH-rah KOH-rax) is a native of Rio de Janeiro, where she still resides. "My family, Polish Jews, fled Europe during the second World War," the 37-year-old vocalist explains. "I started to study singing and classical piano when I was very young, just five years old. My concentration, of course, was on lyric singing, classical music, mostly European music.
"But when I was around 18 or 19, I started earning money by singing ad jingles and doing backup vocals for many Brazilian pop stars. I realized then I wanted to do something else. I had become familiar with singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Elis Regina. But the most important influences on my singing were Elizeth Cardoso [the uncredited singer in the original Black Orpheus soundtrack], Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, and Flora Purim."
Koorax's reputation as a controlled and expressive vocalist spread quickly and her voice became a very hot commodity in studios all over Rio. Her first solo recording "Iluminada" launched her into the limelight when the song was included as the theme for one of Brazil's popular novelas (soap operas). The soundtrack went platinum and her career never looked back.
Ithamara soon began performing with the likes of Hermeto Pascoal, Edu Lobo, Azymuth, and Martinho da Vila, and returned several times to the hit parades with more novela theme songs. (In Brazil, everything stops for the evening soaps whose soundtracks become instant hits because of the hammering TV exposure. Inclusion in a novela is a very prestigious gig.)
Her debut solo album, Luiza (Live in Rio), won the Brazilian version of the Grammy: the 1994 Sharp Award for Best New Artist. That same year she took part in an all-star session alongside Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, and Gil Goldstein, produced in New York by Creed Taylor but never released in this country.
Describing this emerging new voice, one of Brazil's top popular music critics, Tarik de Souza, wrote: "Possessing a rare vocal range, Ithamara. . . exercises her well-crafted instrument in stylistic schools that run from Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis to Elis Regina, Yma Sumac, and Elizeth Cardoso. But she does so in her own way, alternating delicate intimacy with heated passion. . . a dazzling, heady lesson in vocal techniques."
Then her fame spread halfway around the world. "In 1991 the novelas had given me so much exposure," Itha recalls, "even tourists were crowding my gigs. A Japanese impresario heard me one night and invited me to do a tour of Japan. I didn't even have a record there yet. Later I did three more tours and now I am considered one of the four top jazz singers by Japanese critics!"
The CDs she eventually released in Japan, including Luiza (1994), Rio Vermelho (1995, which, by the way, included Jobim's last recorded performance), and Almost in Love/Ithamara Koorax Sings the Luiz Bonfá Songbook (1996, featuring Bonfá, Ron Carter, Larry Coryell, Sadao Watanabe, and Eumir Deodato), have all been prominently recognized on Japanese best-seller and best-of lists.
In testimony to Ithamara's talent, composer and guitar legend Bonfá remarked, "It's an honor and a privilege to work with such a great artist as Ithamara, one of the best singers in the world." Jobim himself referred to her as "simply one of the best singers on the scene."
On another front, her acid-jazz version of the João Donato/Caetano Veloso tune, "The Frog," became a dancefloor hit in Europe in 1994, anticipating later collaborations with Dom Um Romão (formerly with Sergio Mendes, Frank Sinatra, and Weather Report, among others), including an appearance on Romão's much-acclaimed Rhythm Traveller CD in 1998.
Later that same year, in an able display of her versatility, she recorded the first Brazilian album in the drum 'n' bass genre, Bossa Nova Meets Drum 'n' Bass, and participated in a recording of works by Brazilian classical composer Hekel Tavares.
Ithamara's Milestone CDs—both the new Love Dance and its predecessor Serenade in Blue—grew out of her desire to be known, not as a Brazilian singer of Brazilian music, but "as a singer—period."
Love Dance is a very personal record in which the musicians made deeply personal contributions, as composers and accompanists, to their friend and colleague Ithamara, who turned in some of her most affecting performances to date. It's a stunning effort from a uniquely gifted artist.