Cross-cultural musical projects are now commonplace, but Mili Bermejo’s æsthetic has always been singular. The Mexican-born singer/composer/bandleader, long a fixture on the Boston scene, combines all manner of Latin American folk and pop with American jazz in a way that gives her music a flavor that’s as up-to-the-minute as it is Old World. A Bermejo set can range from Mexican ranchera and huapango to Brazilian bossa, Argentine tango, and the nuevas canciones of Cuban composer Silvio Rodríguez, all of it pervaded by jazz improvisation.
At the Regattabar a week ago last Wednesday night, Bermejo’s special qualities became all the more clear. Joining forces with composer/drummer George Schuller, she has created an octet. Schuller was one of the founders of Orange Then Blue, a Boston-based "little big band" devoted to the twin sensibilities of Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, but the band later took on world-music influences. For the octet, Schuller has adapted Bermejo’s material — originals and "covers" — and scored it for piano, bass, drums, trumpet, trombone, and two reeds (in this case, Jason Hunter on soprano and Oscar Noriega "doubling" on alto saxophone and clarinets).
The results were mini-concertos for voice and ensemble. Bermejo’s voice has gained depth and rich chocolaty color with the years, and Schuller would back her with moaning brass choirs, or set her against spare textures with bass clarinet and bowed bass. The sound was always detailed but never cluttered, a warm blend of wood and brass. Trombonist J.C. Sanford and trumpeter Russ Johnson varied their sound with mutes, and Johnson doubled on flügelhorn. The narratives for these tone poems unfolded through traditionally based melodies and over a variety of folkloric dance rhythms and swing jazz rhythms, Bermejo driving them along with various shakers and "little" instruments. The middle section of the set was given over to various combinations of Bermejo and the rhythm section (with Schuller, Bruce Barth on piano, and Dan Greenspan on bass).
Bermejo vocalized wordlessly or sang in Spanish. She introduced each song with unpretentious translations of the verses or paraphrases. She has a cabaret performer’s ability to get across a song, and she expressed alternating currents of sadness and humor with understated dramatic flair. The Bermejo/Schuller octet realizes jazz in one of its best incarnations — popular idioms transfigured as art songs.