Young fans at Maria Volonte concert

She’s forging ties with some of region’s top Latin musicians

By Andrew Gilbert
for the Mercury News

Tango is inextricably linked to Buenos Aires. So what happens when you take one of tango’s most acclaimed vocalists and plop her down in Oakland?

For María Volonté, the result is a burst of inspiration, as she forges ties with some of the region’s finest jazz and Latin-American musicians.

While she still makes regular trips to Argentina, since late last year Volonté has been using the Bay Area as a base from which to build her reputation in North America.

She makes her South Bay debut tonight as part of the weekly SFJazz summer series at Palo Alto’s Stanford Shopping Center in a trio with two Venezuelan-born, Bay Area-based musicians: cuatro master Jacqueline Rago and percussionist Lali Mejía. Next week Volonté, who also accompanies herself on guitar and percussion, flies to New York City for her debut at Joe’s Pub, one of the nation’s premiere venues for international music.

“As I get to know this place better, I feel more and more that it communicates with so many cultures of the world at the same time, which makes this adventure interesting and defining,” Volonté says from her home in the Oakland hills.

“As I start to feel more and more at ease, I’m exploring more deeply. This part of the world connects you with other possibilities. It’s a center of so many things.”

Volonté has been a leading figure on the Buenos Aires scene since her 1996 debut recording
“Tango y Otras Pasiones” (“Tango and Other Passions”), which a major Buenos Aires newspaper ranked as one of the top 100 tango recordings of all time.

Her third CD, “Fuimos (We Were),” was nominated for a Latin Grammy and won her the 2004 Gardel Prize for top female tango vocalist, Argentina’s highest musical award.

Historically, the tango establishment of Buenos Aires has been resistant to innovation. But these days lots of young musicians blend tango with techno beats.

Still, it’s rare to find an artist advancing the form who is so deeply steeped in tango’s fearless embrace of love, obsession and loss. On Volonté’s two newest CDs, “Yo Soy Maria” and “Sudestada,” she softens the music’s jagged edges with lilting bossa nova rhythms and lush jazz harmonies.

And while she positively revels in the tango’s erotic power, she also recognizes its melodramatic sensibility, often including Tom Lehrer’s hilarious parody “The Masochism Tango” in her shows.

As Volonté continues to meet and collaborate with Bay Area musicians such as percussionist John Santos and pianist Dave Mathews, her vision of the music continues to expand. She has no aspirations to reinvent the style, but she’s seeking to express herself more directly through the music, which requires her to draw on her entire range of musical inspirations and experiences.

“A true artist has the obligation; you must be ready to evolve and leave the comfortable places,” she says. “It’s a call you feel you have to answer.”