The Charleston Grill is an elegant stand-out in downtown Charleston's restaurant scene, revered for serving rich, refined Southern and international cuisine. Jazz fans love the venue, too, for it's almost nightly jazz series.
The weekly roster features some of Charleston's greatest jazz talents, including trumpeter Charlton Singleton, drummer Quentin Baxter, pianists Richard White and Gerald Gregory, and many others in rotation.
A stand-out on the venue's schedule is singer/guitarist Duda Lucena, whose combo has enjoyed a regular Wednesday evening gig at Charleston Grill for several years. With a mix of bossa nova, samba, choro, and baião styles, Lucena provides a uniquely exotic treat for downtown music fans.
"At the Charleston Grill, people come in from all over the world," says Lucena. "They like having one night that's not so swingin'."
Lucena's combo lineup is a tag-team of bassists Jake Holwegner, Kevin Hamilton, and Ben Wells, drummers Quentin Baxter and Ron Wiltrout, and pianist Gerald Gregory and other guests.
"For years, these guys have heard me say, 'Play two beats instead of four beats,' and I'm sure they're tired of me already," Lucena jokes about his gallery of sidemen. "But Brazilian songs like he ones we play are mainly in 2/4 time. They have to feel right with two beats, and these guys sound great doing it."
The musicians groove within authentic rhythms, but they collectively work jazzy aesthetics into the songs, too. It's a natural tendency.
"People put the jazz tag on it — maybe because they associate bossa nova with jazz — but it's basically folk music with some improvisation over it," says Lucena. "I think adding elements to my music can make it more beautiful."
Lucena's bandmates inevitably bring their own instrumental style to the stage, but they each have broad musical vocabularies. It's quite easy for them to relate to the rhythmic feel of the various Brazilian styles. Lucena admires this versatility within the collaboration.
"I'm lucky I have all the sheet music already for all the songs, so it's not too complicated for anyone," says Lucena. "Maybe by the second song in each set, we find out how we sound together, you know? I like to play with different musicians. I have not found the musicians in Charleston who can play these songs by ear — you know, the ones who just follow by magic. That's very usual in Brazil. Here, it's always by reading the sheet."
In Brazil, groups handling the standards utilize extra hand percussion (like wood blocks, hand drums, and tambourine-like pandeiros, as well as four-string mini-guitars called cavaquinhos). Here, it's a more traditionally American jazz set-up.
"The audience hears new things but still have the jazz thoughts," says Lucena. "If Quentin uses his brushes or mallets over the cymbals and drums, it has a familiar jazz style to people who might think the rhythms sound strange. The way the bass, drums, and piano sound together help give the music a jazzy feel"
Lucena's musical journey began when he was 12 when he started composing tunes on his first acoustic guitar. In the 1980s, he studied at the Music Conservatory of Pernambuco and started performing at venues around his hometown of Recife (in the Northeast state of Pernambuco).
In 1987, he relocated to Rio de Janeiro and studied at CIGAM, a school affiliated with the Berklee College of Music.
In recent years, he toured around the globe, collaborating with various musicians from the Americas and Europe and doing solo shows.
Throughout his career, he's plucked and strummed a nylon-string classical guitar.
"I like to hear electric jazz guitar, but I won't take the risk of playing one in public," he laughs.
Lucena moved permanently to Charleston in 2007. He quickly acquainted himself with some of the most diligent musicians in the local jazz and blues community, many of whom were excited to collaborate with a Latin player and songwriter.
"I don't thing my style has changed very much since I got here," he says. "The shape of the music overall is a little different. I feel better now because I play with some really good guys. My technique has improved. I do what I do a little better, but, you know, I'm not really a jazz musician."
Duda Lucena performs Wednesday evenings at the Charleston Grill. He will perform as a special guest at Latin Night, presented by the Jazz Artists of Charleston at the Charleston Music Hall on Sat. Sept. 25.