Looking at the credits, Luis Muñoz’s gorgeous new album “Voz” seems like it’s all over the map. And it is, in the best possible way. It is a project overstuffed with an international array of artists who have each made memorable recordings of their own, but “Voz” never suffers from a lack of focus.
A multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, percussion, melodica and drums, Muñoz guides the proceedings carefully as a composer and arranger. He doesn’t even play on every track, but his generous spirit suffuses the music from beginning to end.
As the title suggests, “Voz” is a project focusing on the human voice, and what voices! Muñoz showcases three remarkable women from across Latin America, creating bespoke compositions and arrangements to fit the contours of their unmistakable sounds. Like so many Latin American musicians who have settled in the United States in recent decades, Santa Barbara-based Muñoz has created a highly personal style that could be called Latin jazz, though it has little to do with the Afro-Cuban/jazz synthesis forged by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Mario Bauza in the 1940s.
Instead, he’s crafted a luscious sound that’s more interested in song form and creating evocative settings for lyrics than groove. He seems particularly inspired by Magos Herrera, a captivating jazz singer born and raised in Mexico City and now based in New York. She’s the most prominently featured of the album’s singers, and Muñoz makes the most out of her sensuously throaty voice on the opening track “Preludio y Fin.”
For players, Muñoz draws on a cast of longtime collaborators, including pianist Adam Asarnow, bassist Brendan Statom and guitarist Daniel Zimmerman. Each track features different instrumentation. On “Argentina,” an elegant setting for a lyric by Nicaraguan singer/songwriter Luis Enrique Mejía, Herrera engages in a hip-swaying dance with the flugelhorn of Jonathan Dane, whose self-possessed horn work provides the album with another striking voice.
Born and raised in Costa Rica, where he graduated from the National Conservatory, Muñoz moved to California in the mid-1970s to study music at UC Santa Barbara. He’s been there ever since, creating music for film, dance and theater, while documenting his own compositions on a series of acclaimed albums.
“Voz” is his most personal project yet, one that often finds him reaching back to his Central American roots for inspiration. “Quisiera” is a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Jaime Gamboa, a founding member of the great Costa Rican band Malpais. A lament for lost love, the song features a double dose of soul with vocals by São Paulo-raised, Southern California-based Téka Penteriche and Chile’s Claudia Acuña, a longtime force on the New York scene.
What’s particularly impressive about “Voz” is Muñoz’s restraint and exquisite taste. On paper the album looks like it was conceived by a kid in a candy store, but his spacious orchestrations and measured tempos give the music plenty of room to breathe, even on the most intricately constructed tracks.
He leaves you wanting to hear more from every singer, particularly Téka, who shines on the undulating samba “Pasion,” which features a lyric by Panamanian songwriter Romulo Castro (best known for his work with Ruben Blades). The 86-year-old jazz great Ron Kalina provides gleaming counterpoint on chromatic harmonica.
The album closes with the most intimate-sounding track, “Amanecer Luminoso,” or “Luminous Dawn,” a brief setting for a poem by Costa Rican literary lion Osvaldo Sauma featuring Magos Herrera, backed only by pianist Adam Asarnow. Muñoz doesn’t play on the piece, but as an artist attuned to the ephemeral nature of life and love, his voice comes through every track on “Voz,” a gossamer dreamscape of an album.