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A Look into Maria João: An Influential Name in Portuguese Jazz

by admin on April 24, 2017

Maria João is a jazz singer from Lisbon, Portugal who’s highly recognized for her vocal flexibility and range of improvisational skills. Although considered a jazz singer, her style reflects a process-based approach that compromises a mix of folk music and electronica, accentuating her avant-garde approach. Her primary musical partner is Portuguese pianist Mário Laginha. She has also worked with artists like Aki Takase and Bobby McFerrin. Being the daughter of a Portuguse father and a Mozambican mother, her childhood was full of scattered, colorful images of Mozambique from her holidays spent engulfed in its rich culture. Her adolescence unraveled her vibrant and rebellious spirit that later carried on into her musical career.

In 1983, João spent time her time in a music venue known as the “Hot Club,” Lisbon’s oldest jazz club with its own jazz music school, where she listened to iconic jazz divas including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Elis Regina. She fell in love with Betty Carter and progressed to Al Jarreau and other avant-garde singers. After a lot of time spent visiting the club, she formed her first group, Maria João & Friends, with their debut performance held at a restaurant opening. By the third song of their performance, João forgot her lyrics and had to improvise in scat. She describes it the moment as “a success and a fantastic feeling, something like flying.” During that year the group released its first album, Quinteto de Maria João, which was filled with American-inspired performances, among them “Blue Moon” popularized by Billie Holiday.

In 1986, João ventured into an overwhelming tour in Germany, comprised of 24 concerts in 5 weeks, performed in small jazz clubs and she also released her third album, Conversa. During the tour, there was a special spectator who was captivated by her unique vocals and invited João to sing with her: Japanese pianist Aki Takase.

Aki Takase was moved by the world of free-jazz while Maria still vocalized a heavy indebtedness to the traditional American jazz singers; however, her connection with Takase marked a turning point in molding her style today. Together, João and Takase reveled in the unrestricted world of jazz by incorporating various sound elements. They travelled across Europe for five years where audiences at European jazz festivals were captivated by her risqué improvisational performances that sometimes included bassist player, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. Along the way, they released two albums including Looking for Love, recorded live in 1987. With the birth of her son in 1990 ,João’s desire to take a new direction brought an end to the adventures with Aki Takase, so the singer returned to Portugal where she got involved in a project with the Portuguese group Cal Viva.

The album Danças, released in 1994, with pianist Mário Laginha, marked the beginning of a new phase. The unity of Maria João and Mário Laginha has created some of the most celebrated Portuguese music, well proven by the originality and consistency of the duo for more than ten years. Brazilian music also has been among João’s main musical interests. She released a Brazilian flavored album called João in the early 2000s in which she put her own adventurous harmonic stamp on each song. As of 2012, João continues to perform in both duo and quintet alongside Mário Laginha in several European halls as well as regular concerts at the Silver Bracket Factory in Lisbon. João is well appointed in the areas of expressive creativity and experimental technique essential for remaining an individual voice in the ever-evolving world of jazz.

by Makena Mambo

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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Will Peterson April 27, 2017 at 12:19 pm

I enjoyed this article because I speak some Portuguese and love singing it in jazz or whatever really. It is a very percussive language which sounds great in music. I’m surprised someone of her musical execution could have time to raise a child and continue performing and composing years after. Her decision to start scatting after forgetting lyrics is something I think is a great technique. Joao truly uses her voice as an instrument, not just for singing.


Hope April 26, 2017 at 11:21 pm

Having Portuguese family and loving jazz like I do this article definitely peeked my interest . Reading about these women who influenced jazz in this culture is very interesting I find it very cool how two people from different backgrounds found each other and created so much great music together. I also finding it pretty interesting that Joao started listening to famous american jazz singers and took off with it.


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