Lettau Returns Older, Wiser, Better

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singer Kevyn Lettau's performances tonight and Saturday at All That Jazz in Rancho Bernardo come at a crossroads in her career.

Lettau's debut album, "Kevyn Lettau," released earlier this month, is an auspicious first effort, a light, bouncy Brazilian-flavored blend that showcases her smooth, polished vocals. She plans to record another next month with Braziljazz, a trio also including husband Michael Shapiro on percussion and San Diegan Peter Sprague on guitar, and she is already writing and gathering material for her own follow-up album, to be recorded later this year.

Her voice has come of age since the late 1970s, when Lettau, who has supported herself since she was 16, was a waif-like teen-ager singing on Del Mar street corners on Sunday afternoons.

On the album, she moves gracefully through a variety of settings, whether playing off Brazilian Dori Caymii's light, acoustic guitar, re-creating Charlie Parker's sax solo on Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" or swaying through songs that show the influence of the time she has spent alongside Brazilian singer Gracinha Leporace in bands led by Leporace's husband, Sergio Mendes.

Now in her 30s, Lettau has pursued a music career since the late 1970s. A turning point came when she met Shapiro, who also works with Mendes, three years ago, and married him in 1989. She credits Shapiro with giving her career direction. When one recording deal fell through in 1990, he put together a new demo including some of her music with the Brazilian group Velas and Mendes, and shopped it around. Nova Records nibbled but didn't bite.

Still without a deal, Shapiro, serving as producer, assembled a crew of top players including Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante, saxophonist Gary Meek and synthesizer man Mitchell Forman. Lettau and Shapiro booked studio time and recorded the 10-song album last summer. By autumn, Nova had picked it up.

Lettau has never visited Brazil, but the spirit of Brazilian music, a light, tropical mood, runs through much of her work.

"The first Brazilian record I heard was (Stan) Getz and (Joao) Gilberto, and I thought, 'Wow, these rhythms, these melodies, I was intrigued. I always loved the music, but for years I was more into straight-ahead jazz and saxophone players.

"My theory is that I started singing when I was so young, I didn't know myself very well, so my concept of singing a lyric, a love song, a blues, or a sad song--I didn't know what those were about, so I latched onto the instrumental approach to singing right from the start. As I got older and matured and got my heart broken and had been through some things, I realized the true value of lyrics.

"I was also studying Ella and Sara and Betty Carter, six hours a day I would sit and just listen and listen and listen, but I was so young and inexperienced that for me to interpret lyrics the way they did, I don't think I was mature enough to handle that."

Today, she sings with genuine emotion, the result of a life tempered by some pain.

Her father, a writer, left the family when she was 2, and her mother, a teacher, moved her three daughters to Berlin when Lettau was 6. She lived there for nine years, and the place left a deep impression.

"Berlin is kind of a hard city," she recalled. "At that point, it was surrounded by a wall, you always saw the wall. I grew up to a harsh reality. Also, because I didn't have a father at home, and I saw my mother struggle with that, I grew up fast on the outside, but I was a dreamer on the inside. I think that's what drew me to music, because I can just be in my little world."

Although Lettau had no childhood inkling that she wanted to be a singer, there was something about a large, enthusiastic audience that struck a chord early on.

"We lived in West Berlin, and mom took us to East Berlin to opera and plays and stuff, and I remember being really blown out by being in a huge, huge theater with so many people clapping. To this day, when I'm in a situation like that, I get overwhelmed by the applause, the energy the audience shows the artist. I never forgot that feeling. I was totally fascinated."

Lettau returned to the States at 16 and lived briefly with her father in Del Mar before moving out on her own. She set out to be a dancer, but gravitated toward singing after Sprague heard her at a talent contest at Torrey Pines High School and asked her to join his band, Dance of the Universe.

"That was a terrific summer. I had just graduated from high school. Every day I was working cleaning houses, and every night I would go over to Peter's, and Peter and (his brother) Tripp would teach me standards. I was still ferociously dancing, but I made a choice to stop because I realized if I wanted to be a good singer, I would have to put in a lot of time."

Through the early 1980s, Lettau played a variety of local clubs with Sprague and other top San Diego players, including pianist Butch Lacy, keyboardist-singer Carl Evans Jr. (now of Fattburger), and singer-guitarist-pianist Ronn Satterfield (now of Checkfield).

In 1984, she joined a group called L.A. Samba, which included members of Sergio Mendes' band. After hearing Lettau sing with the group at an A&M; Records party, Mendes asked her to join Brasil '86. She still works with him a few times a year.

Although Lettau's new album was recorded with a large, all-star cast, she is playing San Diego with Braziljazz. Based on critical response to recent live dates in Los Angeles, her music comes off even better in a small group setting, where her voice has more room to shine.

In the weeks ahead, Braziljazz will tour the West Coast in support of Lettau's album, and Shapiro hopes to line up dates across the country this spring, followed by work in Europe and Japan during the summer.

Lettau moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and lives in Van Nuys, but she misses North County.

"My heart is still there, when I drive down and I see that ocean, oh boy, it hits me, it definitely hits me," she said. "I always make it a point to just go and look at the ocean, catch a few deep breaths, watch the birds. I really do miss it a lot. There's nothing like living on the edge of the world like that."

Music Friday and Saturday nights at All That Jazz starts at 8. Lettau returns to town for an album release party at 9 p.m. March 6 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, joined by Sprague, Shapiro and a cast of top local and Los Angeles players.

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