You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
By Lissette Corsa
Magos Herrera found solace in family and nature during the pandemic, and she’s eager to share the healing.
The story of Aire (Sunnyside), Magos Herrera’s latest release, is partly steeped in the central highlands of Mexico, an area known as the bajío mexicano that is filled with rich, mystical allure and tradition. It’s the singer and composer’s home away from home. “This place is where I used to come to with my parents when I was a kid, so it really informs who I am at my core,” Herrera says by phone from Mexico.
As Herrera tells it, when the pandemic hit in 2020, the family retreat quickly became a sanctuary. “When they closed the borders, I decided I wanted to be closer to my family, because we didn’t know how long that was going to last,” she says.
So she left New York City with her immediate family and immersed herself in the natural surroundings of San Miguel de Allende, where she meditated and conceived of two albums in relative isolation: Con Alma, a collaboration with composer Paola Prestini, released in December of 2020, and Aire, recorded in New York City in 2021 amid mask and social distancing requirements. “We had to postpone the recording so many times because everybody kept testing positive,” Herrera explains.
However, she’s quick to downplay pandemic-related associations that may be drawn from Aire. “I think it limits the core of what it is to me,” she affirms. “What the pandemic experience revealed to me was a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. The transitory idea of being human, but also of resilience. So, to me, [Aire] is an expression of humanity to thrive; it’s a nod of gratitude to be on this planet and a nod of gratitude to explore my humanity and the humanity of others.”
Comprising six original compositions commissioned by Chamber Music Americas New Jazz Works, and six classics culled from the Latin American Songbook, the expansive Aire encompasses a gamut of emotions and styles. Herrera’s vocal palette of smoldering hues remains at the center, further elevated by her jazz trio and the 21-piece, Brooklyn-based orchestral collective, The Knights.
For more than two decades, Herrera has proven a versatile singer who embraces contemporary jazz, Latin American rhythms, chamber music and international pop. Her oeuvre demonstrates a preference for interpreting the songs of Latin American songwriters from both the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking worlds, particularly female writers. On 2018’s Dreamers, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, Herrera revisited Latin-American songs written during periods of political repression, many by women. More recently, she collaborated with Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon on Femeninas, a collection of tunes written by some of Latin America’s most prolific female songwriters.
On Aire, Herrera gives full rein to those sensibilities. She takes two pillars of the folk-inspired Nueva Canción movement spanning late 1960s and ’70s Latin America — Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida” and Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna’s “Alfonsina y el Mar” — and completely reshapes them. With pithy, nuanced arrangements from Argentine pianist-composer Diego Schissi, the tunes evoke a more modern-day neurosis. “I love [“Alfonsina y el Mar”] because it talks about impermanence, which is something that became clear [during the pandemic],” Herrera says. “If we didn’t understand it before, now we know. The idea that your entire life can change in a day, that we will all die someday and that it’s part of nature.”
Three Brazilian classics — Guinga and Paulo César Pinhero’s “Passarinhadeira,” Danilo Moraes and Paulo César de Carvalho’s “Obra Filhia” and Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell’s “Samba em Preludio” — infuse the album with sensual warmth as Herrera croons in impeccably enunciated Portuguese.
Whimsical originals “Choro de Lua” and “Papalote,” written by Herrera for her young niece and nephew, are wordless, melodic flights of fancy carried by Herrera’s supple scatting and fleeting harmonic structures. On “Papalote,” Herrera was inspired by a moment of awe when her nephew, for the very first time, marveled at a kite taking flight. “To see his face in that exact time was like all the universe was there, all the wonder, all the possibilities,” she says. “It really connected me with something very deep.”
Herrera closes the album by paying homage to the late, legendary chamana (shaman) Maria Sabina, setting a sampling of Sabina’s voice during a healing session to a syncopated son jarocho. It stands as testament to the healing power of music, as Sabina calls out bird names in her indigenous language. “To me, that was so powerful because birds are very present in my writing and in my image universe,” Herrera says. “It was very powerful to learn that she healed with nature. I thought now is the time to heal each other through each other. We can all be agents of healing.”
Featured photo by Shervin Lainez.