Venezuelan Jennifer Zea has rebooted her music career in New Zealand to great hip-swaying effect, writes Lydia Jenkin
Dark eyes twinkling, Jennifer Zea is gleefully explaining how her song Gato Negro is about a black cat who turns into an elusive man, and the frustrations of the woman who cannot catch him.
The audience laugh as she wiggles her eyebrows knowingly. Intro over, her band - made up of a four-piece rhythm section, three horn players and keys - tease their way into a deep Latin groove.
Zea whirls around the stage looking like a feline herself. And though it sounds like we could be in a lively barrio in Caracas, it's actually a chilly Thursday night in Britomart, where Zea is throwing a party for her new album, which combines her vibrant voice with production by Nathan Haines and the playing of top Kiwi jazz musicians.
Zea might have grown up in Venezuela and lived all round the world, but it's taken her coming to New Zealand to embrace her Latin soul, which, fittingly is the name of the album.
Music has long been part of the singer's life.
"We'd listen to music all the time, in the barrio or in the neighbourhood, after work or during the weekend, everybody puts their stereo on big time. And there are buses that'll be driving through town with cumbia blasting at full volume, salsa at full volume. That's our thing - happy music. You forget your problems."
She grew up in Falcon, a conservative state powered by the oil industry. It was full of fisherman and goats, and parents who were most interested in salsa and traditional music, but an older brother who loved disco, Motown, and R&B.
Despite Zea's passion for singing, her family thought she needed to follow a sensible career path, so she went to university to train as an architect.
"It was actually at the school of architecture that I found the members of my first band. It was a heavy metal band of all girls, with me singing" she laughs.
"After that I moved on to a ska band called Desorden Publico. And those were amazing years - they were a well-known band, so we got to tour the Caribbean and go to New York and play in LA and Puerto Rico."
She continued her studies in between touring, finished the degree and worked for four years as an architect while also performing, but eventually something had to give. So she chose to leave architecture, and spent the next years touring, recording, and refining her skills in different musical genres like bossa nova, or chanson - which she learnt while living for a couple of years in France, where she also met her husband.
"Different styles mark the different parts of my life when I lived in different parts of the world. So for me, music, more than being something that you listen to, it was more an existential thing, something that you live, in each place that the music was made."
After living in Melbourne and giving birth to her daughter, Zea and her husband moved to Auckland four years ago. They settled in a house in Kohimarama, which is adorned with architectural art, her daughter's toys, and a paddleboard sitting out front for daily exercise on the water. They clearly love it here, but when Zea arrived, she knew no one, and it took her quite some time to make the necessary connections with the right local musicians.
"It was like starting from scratch, even though I already had so many years of working professionally as a musician. But it was a great experience, because nothing is sure, and it's good to reinvigorate yourself creatively. Sometimes, we get too comfortable with one style or one set of people or one idea, and if there are no exterior elements to promote change, you end up staying right where you are."
She eventually met pianist Kevin Field, and percussionist Miguel Fuentes, who became her key collaborators, and then later on, acclaimed pianist Jonathan Crayford, and Haines.
Zea is effusive about the joy and satisfaction she experienced on finding the right people to collaborate with, because her enthusiasm for collaboration is essential to the success of her album.
"It's this magical moment, when you're creating music, when everybody comes together, and then the music flies by itself. It's not what you're doing, not what the others are doing, but what you're creating together, and recognising yourself in the other people."
Improvisation and experimentation have been a large part of the process, particularly when it came to working with Crayford. The first time they performed together Crayford set aside her charts, her songs, and simply started playing.
"It was like a rollercoaster, I started putting words to what he was playing, and it was stressful, but so fun. It's a real voyage to work with him, he's a catalyst, he provokes sensations and ideas."
Spiritual, sensual, and playful, the album is a reflection of Zea herself - a melting pot of influences, underscored by Latin, with the warmth of someone who has the ability to gather great musicians around her. And she funded it herself, off the back of her many live performances.
She works under different guises - as part of jazz ensembles, with DJ Bobby Brazuka as a duo, and also as Latin Aotearoa with Brazuka and trumpeter Isaac Aesili - often performing three or four times a week.
"It's fun, and hilarious, and great to get people shaking their booty shamelessly. It's wonderful. When people come up and say 'oh, you really made me dance!', that's amazing, that's reward for your work. Because that's the whole point, to entertain."
Who: Jennifer Zea and the Antipodean Collective
New album: The Latin Soul
Where and when: Ponsonby Social Club, Saturday