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Venissa Santi: plays La Peňa Cultural Center on Sunday.

Innovation is overrated in jazz. Developing your own voice is far more important than the often quixotic quest to break new musical ground, and over the weekend several artists perform around Berkeley who are in the midst of crafting a highly personal sound.

Venissa Santi is a Cuban-American vocalist from Philadelphia who celebrates the release of her second album Big Stuff: Afro Cuban Holiday (Sunnyside) with a performance Sunday at La Peña featuring pianist Murray Low, bassist Saul Sierra Alonso, drummer Francois Zayas, and special guest Roman Filiu, a former member of the great Cuban band Irakere, on alto sax.

Born and raised in Ithaca, New York, Santi studied jazz at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Like many first generation Americans, she grew up answering her parents’ Spanish with English, and it wasn’t until she started teaching at the Asociacion de Musicos Latino Americanos, a community music school in gritty North Philly, that Santi reclaimed her other birth language. She connected with her Cuban heritage through music, particularly when she started to explore the songs of her material grandfather, the noted Cuban composer Jacobo Ros Capablanca (her paternal grandfather was the architect and artist Mario Santí, who designed the Santiago tomb of beloved Cuban patriot and writer José Martí).

“I did go to school for jazz and fell in love with the songbook, but started to do my own arrangements,” Santi said in a recent phone conversation from her home in Philadelphia. “But singing straight ahead jazz was not stimulating, calling tunes on the bandstand and everything that went along with that did not feel good. That’s when I had someone play for me my grandfather’s compositions. I realized that I wanted to do some of his songs, which have a lot of jazz harmonies. I realized that there was so much more repertoire I could be doing. I felt a big responsibility to learn the songbook from Cuba.”

She’s made numerous trips to Cuba over the past dozen years, studying rumba, Santería rituals, and Cuban rhythmic forms in Matanzas and Havana with masters like Jorge Salazar, pianist Orlando Fiol, and Elizabeth Sayre. But some of her most valuable instruction came from her Cuban family, like a first cousin who gained intimate knowledge of Santería chants from fellow inmates during 19 years spent as a political prisoner.

She delivered an impressive debut album with 2009’s Bienvenida (Sunnyside), an album showcasing her original arrangements and passion for an array of Afro-Cuban grooves. Her new album is a fascinating session inspired by a 2010 Kimmel Center concert put together by the great Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez. He invited her to join an all-star cast including Kurt Elling, Sheila Jordan, Lizz Wright and Claudia Acuña as part of a celebration of Billie Holiday, and working with her drummer Francois Zayas she interpreted several Holiday-associated standards set to Cuban grooves.

They refined the concept on Big Stuff, which features memorable pieces like “On The Sunny Side of the Street” as a guaguancó, and “That Ole Devil Called Love” set to son. Santi made her Bay Area debut last year at Yoshi’s and the Fillmore Jazz Festival, where she attracted the attention of flutist/arranger John Calloway, a key figure on the Bay Area’s Latin jazz scene for more than three decades. He hooked her up with bassist Saul Sierra Alonso and pianist Murray Low, the region’s most sought after accompanist for Latin jazz vocalists. In anticipation of Sunday’s gig, he wrote that Santi “has a unique voice in the genre, and the arrangements seriously kick-ass!”

Tiffany Austin: plays the Jazzschool on Friday, Aug. 23.

While Santi is crafting her own musical approach by delving into her heritage, East Bay vocalist Tiffany Austin is finding her way as a jazz singer by tapping into classic soul. The Los Angeles native moved to the Bay Area in 2009 from Japan, where she spent five years working as a singer. While studying at Boalt Hall School of Law she found her way to the Jazzschool and earned a full scholarship, working most closely with the great Brazilian pianist/composer Marcos Silva.

Over the past few years Austin has performed widely with bassist Marcus Shelby, who accompanies her Friday with his trio at the Jazzschool for her show “Soulful Songbook.” The program reflects her interest in “bridging current pop, hip hop, and electronic music with old school blues and swing, fusing all of that together,” says Austin, who plans to take the bar exam next year.

“The challenge for me right now in my study is how to de-genrefy. I’m spending a lot of time listening and collaging. I really really love the work of Duke Ellington, but I’d like to bring some of the flavor of Aretha and Donny Hathaway. I also do some contemporary songs, like Fiona Apple’s ‘Extraordinary Machine,’ but I make it a swing tune. That’s the kind of intersection I’m interested in.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....