The sumptuously gifted Brazilian jazz singer Claudia Villela has been a scarce presence on Bay Area bandstands for far too long, but that doesn't mean she hasn't been making music.

The longtime Santa Cruz resident has spent much of the past three years tending to her family back in Rio de Janeiro or hunkered down at home weathering a dark period in her personal life. Left to her own devices, she's spent a lot of time at the piano, playing and composing.

As she's re-emerged in recent months with a series of sold-out shows, Villela is revealing a newly focused musical persona by accompanying herself at the piano.

"I've been a singer for a lot longer than a pianist, so it's very challenging for me," says Villela, who performs with her new quartet Sunday at Stanford University's Campbell Recital Hall as part of the Stanford Jazz Festival.

"It's a process that keeps unfolding," she says. "There are a lot of new compositions to explore. I was depressed and taking time off from everything, and this was the pearl that ended up coming out."

Since the late 1980s, Villela has earned an international reputation as the most adventurous Brazilian singer in North America. She's collaborated with an adoring coterie of jazz giants, from Toots Thielemans and Michael Brecker to Bela Fleck and Kenny Werner, while maintaining close ties to fellow Brazilian masters.


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While she's a sensuous interpreter of bossa nova standards and knows her way around the voluminous Brazilian songbook, Villela has set herself apart with an extensive repertoire of original tunes combining jazz's harmonic vocabulary, poetic Portuguese lyrics and propulsive Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

At home the piano serves as her muse, and onstage the instrument transforms her delivery. Rather than standing unfettered at a microphone, hands caressing the air as she conjures honey amber sighs and burnished trombone tones, percussive clicks and rain forest chirps, Villela necessarily sheds some ornamentation while sitting at the bench.

She isn't at the piano for every piece, but it has repositioned her in relation to the band, putting her smack dab in the middle of the rhythm section rather than soaring above it (she's also liable to pick up a frame drum pandeiro).

"There's an element that's very folklike, like a jam," Villela says. "And the more I play, the more I relax. One thing leads to another. I don't want to compete with Diana Krall. I don't intend to be an instrumentalist.

"Some people think it's better, that the music is more focused. I think, let's do both."

One musician who thinks that accompanying herself reveals new dimensions to Villela's voice is guitarist Jeff Buenz, who's been performing with Villela as part of her new quartet with bassist Gary Brown and drummer Celso Alberti.

He first met her shortly after she arrived in the Bay Area in 1984. Playing at De Anza College with Cañoneo, a popular six-piece Latin fusion band led by percussionist Michael Spiro and keyboardist Paul Potyen, he glanced to the side of the stage and noticed "a really foxy young Brazilian chick, and she was actually singing along with all the melodies. She had this amazing quick ear, and my mind was blown. She's such an incredible singer."

Like the other musicians in Villela's quartet, Buenz has worked with her intermittently over the years, but this particular configuration is new. Adding her piano into the mix, Villela has "a different personality," says Buenz.

"When she accompanies herself, I think it adds a depth and focus," he says. "It's less of a jazz thing where the band is burning, and she's doing her thing. At the piano, she's an integral part of the soundscape."

In addition to the new quartet, Villela performs in several different configurations, including a duo with guitarist Bob Basa. She returning to Yoshi's on Sept. 2 with the brilliant Brazilian guitarist Alessandro Penezzi, and is spending much of the summer on faculty at various musical conclaves, including Maine's Jazz Meets Samba workshop in Bar Harbor, and Sonoma County's Brazil Camp in Cazadero.

Surrounded by longtime friends and confederates in the quartet, Villela is feeling re-energized and eager to explore again. "The guys keep telling me I need to solo more," she says. "Even though we've all known each other for 30 years, the band is in the beginning."

CLAUDIA VILLELA

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Campbell Recital Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: $45; 650-725-2787, https://stanfordjazz.org