"Life is the art of the encounter, though there are many failed encounters in life." Seldom has the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes's philosophy been more fully realized than in this meeting of Roberto Menescal and Stacey Kent.
There are so many reasons why Stacey Kent and Roberto Menescal should never have met, let alone formed a friendship based on mutual admiration and shared artistic vision, that the very existence of this album, Tenderly (OKeh) available January 15, is close to miraculous.
Stacey Kent – for whom jazz and the "Great American Songbook" formed the musical wallpaper of her East Coast adolescence – viewed Brazilian music with much the same fascination as that with which Menescal had viewed American jazz a generation earlier. Each went on to become an important figure in their own musical sphere. Roberto Menescal began his musical journey in the 1950s as a student in Rio de Janeiro. As an admirer of the exotic sounds of American jazz and popular song, one of his early idols was the jazz guitarist Barney Kessel.
Born in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1968, Stacey Kent began her musical career as an interpreter of American standards, bringing her own unmistakable, intimate and emotionally intelligent style to a vast repertoire. A natural minimalist, she gained a legion of fans for her "less is more" approach. While her music has become increasingly involved with French and Brazilian influences, the same quiet intensity that characterized her interpretation of the "Great American Songbook" has continued to inform her singing.
Born in Espirito Santo in 1937, Roberto Menescal became one of Brazil's most important 20th-century musical figures. A composer, guitarist, founding father of Bossa Nova, record producer and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Latin Grammy Awards, Menescal's importance to the history of Brazilian music from the late 1950s to the present day can hardly be overstated. That he remains as busy as ever – performing, composing and producing – is testament to his true passion for music.
The first step on the journey that led to the encounter between these two great artists was taken when the Brazilian DJ Bob Tostes, an aficionado of American jazz singers and a friend of Menescal, made a compilation of favorite singers for Menescal and his wife Yara. One track stood out for them: a recording of Gershwin's seldom played "Isn't It a Pity?" by Stacey Kent. In this recording Menescal recognized a quality that resonated for him: an emotional depth expressed with a quiet, un-dramatic intensity. This was a quality shared by some of the great Brazilian singers such as Nara Leao, with whom Menescal had enjoyed his closest working relationship. Yet here was an American singer displaying just such qualities.
Menescal made it his business to search out more of Stacey Kent's recordings, and quickly became such a fan of her work that, whenever he was producing a new, young singer, he would give them a selection of Kent's recordings with the instruction, "Listen to this and then we'll talk." However, despite his admiration, Stacey Kent remained merely a name on the sleeves of his treasured albums. Similarly for Stacey Kent, a fan of Brazilian music since her youth, the name Roberto Menescal was just a name on an album sleeve. The idea that they knew of each other had never occurred to either of them.
Fast-forward now to 2011 and the final step on that journey: an invitation to Stacey to sing at the Show de Paz, held in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Cristo Redentor, the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. Stacey had been invited by Brazilian singer-songwriter Marcos Valle to sing his classic "Samba de Verao." This was itself a meeting that would result in a close and enduring musical and personal friendship that has to date yielded a live album, many concerts and a DVD-in-the-making. But it was as Stacey was leaving the stage after her performance with Marcos that the encounter which led to this recording took place.
Menescal was to perform with the band Bossacucanova and was preparing to go on stage. In the bustle of the crowded backstage area, neither Kent nor Menescal had seen the running order or the artist list. And so it was that, on leaving the stage, Stacey spotted Roberto, guitar in hand. Already on cloud nine from her performance with Marcos, here was another idol! On the verge of stage-struck, she could say nothing other than "Roberto!" Menescal, similarly surprised but recognizing the singer from the covers of his cherished CDs, replied, "Stacey!"
Until that encounter, neither had any idea that each was aware of the other. A hurried exchange of email addresses in the wings sealed the friendship. Several subsequent meetings in Brazil and a regular exchange of emails and telephone calls allowed the new friends to make up for the lost years. For two artists of such remarkable empathy, a recording project was the next natural step.
Their first recorded collaboration was for Stacey's 2013 album The Changing Lights, which included Menescal's timeless classic "O Barquinho" and the Jim Tomlinson/Antonio Ladeira original "A Tarde," both with Roberto on guitar. Such was their musical empathy that further recordings were bound to follow.
Having devoured the recordings of Julie London and Barney Kessel in his youth, Menescal had always harbored a wish to record an album of standards along those lines. For Menescal, meeting Stacey was the chance to realize that life's ambition – and, beyond this, to record that album with his favorite standards singer. For Kent, it was the chance to work with a musical idol and one of the founding fathers of a genre that had completely informed her musical aesthetic.
With Stacey's husband Jim Tomlinson on saxophone and flute, and Jeremy Brown on bass, this intimate collection of songs is something of a homecoming for both Stacey and Roberto: for her, it is a return to the "Great American Songbook"; for him, it is a return to the jazz roots that inspired him as a young guitarist in the heyday of the Bossa Nova.
Despite their being separated by generations, continents, cultures and languages, that chance encounter in 2011 has resulted in some of the most distinctively focused and beautiful work in each of their careers. This album represents so much more than just the art of meeting. It is also truly the meeting of art.