Chile-born Claudia Acuna came to town to present material from her recently released second Verve album, “Rhythm of Life,” and consistently sang to the back of the room. Her well-crafted vocal style is reminiscent of Flora Purim, with doses of Dianne Reeves and the seemingly ubiquitous Diana Krall.
The Jason Lindner-led quartet provided full-tilt, imaginative energy throughout, giving Acuna a chance to paint vocal shadings, while she gave support when needed. The standard “My Romance” opened the hourlong first set, with Lindner tapping an incessant one-note damped string while the band swirled around him, spinning their own interwoven patterns. Acuna’s crystal-clear voice added its own Latin interpretation, giving the song a fresh slant.
Reflecting on her Chilean influences, Acuna resurrected countrywoman Violetta Parra’s “Volver a Los dieciete” (Going Back to 17th). Kudos to drummer Eric MacPherson, whose relentless underpinning challenged and pushed the music, not only on this song but throughout the set.
A suite-like effect was created as “Volver” evolved into the Acuna-penned “Nowhere to Go,” featuring John Benitez’s standout solo and punctuated by Acuna’s microphone-less background vocal support. “Lourdes’ Song,” co-written with Avi Leibovich, is a gorgeous ballad that gave Acuna and Leibovich’s trombone a chance to harmonize perfectly.
Leibovich consistently stood out with understated support on a well-worn instrument. And when he harmonized with Acuna, the lack of background vocals was barely noticeable; he provided the perfect complement to her.
“Meditation” was marked by Lindner’s steady left-hand rhythmic bed, but suffered from tepid lyrics. MacPherson revived the set’s momentum on closer “More Than You Know” with an explosive drum/bass tradeoff before the full band joined in for a rousing finish.
Acuna’s always-under-control vocals are nonetheless inviting and comparable to an opera singer who knows her strengths and weaknesses, when to step aside instinctively and let the band do its thing. With this understanding, Acuna exposed the weaknesses of other vocalists, who feel the universe revolves around them, and are determined to prove it.
Her unselfish, near-orchestral approach was a decided breath of fresh air. Too bad the Laker faithful weren’t around to enjoy an equally exciting conclusion to the evening.