Miami was consumed with Univision’s Premios Lo Nuestro the week of February 24th. But in the Wynwood Design district, far from the reggaeton and urban fare that dominated the award show, Univision profiled a very different sort of artist. As part of its U-Lab project — an “incubator” of new talent run by producer and Berklee College of Music professor Javier Limón (and aided by the likes of Alejandro Sanz) — three artists performed original works at arts and music studio Space 52.
Tonina Saputo, Nella Rojas and Desmond Scaife Jr. make music far removed from the predictability of commercial Latin airwaves. Although billed as U-Lab’s “first class of emerging artist,” their sound is wildly different from each other, but they share beautiful execution and very refined musicianship, a Godsend in our current rather arid musical landscape. These are artists to ooh at, but also to relish.
Don’t let her flamenco-tinged pop/jazz fool you; 27-year-old Marianella Rojas hails from Isla Margarita, Venezuela. But the genre-bending singer/songwriter with bell-toned vocals revels in taking her music in many directions. For her U-Lab debut, Nella navigated Spanish coplas and fusion folk with traces of improvisation and jazz.
Desmond Scaife Jr.
Scaife’s musical roots are grounded in gospel and soul. He was raised in Alabama where his father was a Methodist minister and his mom the choir director and pianist of the congregation. Scaife, who sings and writes at the piano, is no rookie; he auditioned for season 13 of American Idol and has been an active performer at Berklee, performing a mix of soul, R&B and jazz. It’s no coincidence that this original tune, “I Need To Know,” is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, one of Scaife’s influences along with Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.
Saputo brings a throaty, jazzy, syncopated vibe to her readings of Latin covers and beyond. A sultry, intriguing voice that floats effortlessly over the beats, evocative of Billie Holiday, she commands that kind of pull. Check out her version of “Historia de un amor.”