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A New Leaf

"What's driving us is an attempt to express what it's like to be alive as a human being on this Earth."

Maria Marquez and Ann Dyer Credits: John Mockus

The secret garden is an apt metaphor for the Bay Area jazz scene, a creative hothouse that nurtures artists developing genre-bending, hybrid musical forms. All too often musicians who have achieved an arresting vision must leave the region in order to attain national recognition, making the Bay Area something of a covert jazz proving ground. But for Ann Dyer and Maria Marquez, two Oakland-based singers who have quietly created strikingly original sounds, the secret garden refers not to a geographical place, but a psychic space; taking very different routes, they have found themselves moving through similar lush and forbidding emotional landscapes.

Drawing on the classic children’s book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and its evocative image of an ivy-covered door leading to a wild, long-abandoned playground, “The Secret Garden of Ann Dyer and Maria Marquez” presents the vocalists together for the first time in a concert designed to showcase both of their singular approaches separately and then bring them together for an unpredictable collaboration. Dyer performs with her longtime rhythm section of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis, with special guest Rob Burger on accordion. Marquez is joined by her Venezuelan countryman, pianist Otmaro Ruiz, best known for his long association with singer Dianne Reeves. She’ll be singing boleros, work songs, and other Venezuelan folkloric material filtered through an improvisational sensibility.

“Our lives are very different but we feel like we go to the same internal place, and that’s what we’re trying to evoke,” says Dyer. “We’re both attempting to create a certain human quality in our music, versus an idealized vision of the way things should be. Another alternative would be doing music that’s very clever, or doing music with an emphasis on virtuosity. Our music may have all those elements, but what’s driving us is an attempt to express what it’s like to be alive as a human being on this Earth. There’s a certain texture that the music takes on–it has a little bit of grit, a feeling of reaching back, reaching down, reaching into this sort of subconscious place and bringing it forward.”

While the two singers have never performed together before, and indeed only really met several months ago, they have long been aware of each other’s work. Brought together by publicist Isabel Yrigoyen, they bonded during a series of cafe hangs, and decided to find a way to work together.

“She has a unique approach to music and I admire and like it very much,” Marquez says of Dyer. “It’s very spontaneous, with a lot of improvisation. Even when she’s interpreting standards her sound is so unique, what she does with the melody and phrasing. I think we can feed off of each other and get inspiration from each other.”

Dyer is the better-known of the two vocalists. Ever since the release of her 1995 debut, Ann Dyer & No Good Time Fairies on her Mr. Brown label, she has stretched the possibilities of jazz vocals, creating a highly personal sound by incorporating elements of classical Indian music and interpreting material drawn from far outside the Great American Songbook. She made a dramatic creative leap with the 1999 release of Revolver: A New Spin, her gorgeous reinterpretation of the landmark 1966 Beatles album. Though she performed regularly at high-profile jazz festivals and venues around the country, and was named “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” four consecutive years by Down Beat magazine, Dyer’s unorthodox approach seemed to scare off labels. But Revolver gained critical raves, and last year she hooked up with Premonition, a Chicago-based label with a reputation for developing the careers of hard-to-pigeonhole artists.

“The first thing that attracted me was her originality,” said Michael Friedman, president of Premonition. “I loved how she used the Hindustani techniques in such a musical way. And to be able to approach the beautiful melodies and songs on Revolver and reinvent them in her own way, it’s pretty special.”

Marquez’s career has been on a similar path in recent years. Working with producers Federico Pacanins and Roberto Obeso, Marquez recorded 1999’s Once Cuentos de Amor (Eleven Love Stories), her stunning US debut (in the mid-’90s she had also collaborated with Pacanins and Obeso on her Venezuelan release De Uno y Otro Lado). The self-produced album attracted the attention of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, and head of Rykodisc. He was so taken with Once Cuentos de Amor that he made a deal to release it on Palm Pictures, a label of global divas including Peru’s Susana Baca, India’s Shweta Jhaveri, Brazil’s Virginia Rodrigues, and Mali’s Rokia Traore. With a cast including Omar Sosa on Fender Rhodes, Gerry Grosz on vibes, Robin Lewis on guitar, and John Santos on percussion, the album features delicate, spacious arrangements of eleven classic Venezuelan boleros. Neither Latin jazz nor traditional Venezuelan music, the songs seem to exist in a timeless place where the teller and the tales merge into one. Dyer had been aware of Marquez’s work before the album came out, but when she heard Once Cuentos de Amor she was blown away.

“I was playing it for everybody I met because I thought it was the closest thing to perfection I had heard in a long time,” Dyer says. “The maturity in her singing was really arresting. This is a woman who has something to say. It reminds me of a story about Leonard Feather inviting Billie Holiday over to his house and playing her a flamenco record with a singer, and Billie said, ‘Man, I don’t know what that bitch is saying, but she’s in trouble.’ It’s like even if you don’t speak Spanish, when you hear Maria sing, it’s so clearly rooted in experience. You don’t often find that sort of depth. That was the thing that really excited me, but everything else about the album was so well done, from the instrumentation to the arrangements to the choice of tunes and packaging. I was just raving about her.”

Marquez started her career in Caracas, but then married as a young women and moved to Los Angeles, where she had a daughter. When she separated from her husband, she decided to get back into music and moved to Boston, studying composition, arranging, and film scoring at Berklee College of Music. She moved to the Bay Area in the mid-’80s and quickly attracted attention with her performance at the third San Francisco Jazz Festival, performing with the Brazilian band Voz de Samba.

“I sang for a short period of time in Venezuela, and I recorded and played in festivals with some composers,” Marquez said. “But then I forgot about music and got married and divorced. I was 25 when I started studying music, pretty late. After I graduated from Berklee I came to the Bay Area looking for one of my favorite singers who lived here, Mark Murphy. I wanted to hear him live, and I studied with his coach for three years–Judy Davis, here in Oakland–and then I started working professionally in a duo with Joyce Cooling, and got into the Latin jazz scene with John Santos.”

She gained further exposure in the late ’80s with Trio Altamira featuring Colombian composer, singer, and guitarist Claudia Gomez and Venezuelan multi-instrumentalist and composer Jackeline Rago. But in 1992, Marquez decided to return to Venezuela and hosted and produced a weekly world music radio show in Caracas. Working with Pacanins and Obeso, she assembled top Venezuelan jazz musicians for her first album, an eclectic session that hinted at the direction her music was going. When Marquez returned to the Bay Area in the mid-’90s, she joined the world groove band Wild Mango and started working with Omar Sosa. She reunited with the two producers in 1999, and they came up with the concept of recording popular Venezuelan love songs from throughout the 20th century. Much like Dyer’s Revolver, the project took on a life of its own. Both vocalists infuse every song they interpret with a sense of discovery, unafraid to enter the fecund, overgrown precincts where music can go, if you’re willing to pass through the mysterious door.

“I realized recently that as a kid the book The Secret Garden made a huge imprint on my psyche,” Dyer says. “I’ve sort of lived with the whole image from that book, of finding the wall that’s covered with ivy and discovering a door and looking for a key, and finding this whole world–that’s sort of what it feels like to try to make this music. Improvisation is part of the adventure aspect. Once you go through that gate, it becomes this whole exploration, looking under rocks, behind bushes, and finding what’s in there. I think Maria and I both have that sense of curiosity.”