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Jacqui Sutton: At the Edge of the Frontier

By Published: December 3, 2012
So, add to the tortuously circuitous technical route, the fact that I was listening to jazz and bluegrass, and loving both for many years, and you can see why the meld might take some time to sort out. Also, with a sidetrack into musical theater, classical vocal music began to filter in as well. I love it all. Besides, there were no vocalists that I knew of who were mashing up styles. I was either listening to jazz vocalists or bluegrass/folk vocalists, or classical vocalists. Everyone was in their own stylistic silo. And the only musician that I knew who was melding these styles was Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
, with his amazing banjo.

It wasn't until I moved to Houston four years ago, still continuing with vocal study (and I still do, and will until I take my last breath) that I started to hear the styles in my head as having some kind of integrity. It was here in Houston where I met the musicians that now make up the Frontier jazz sound, and who were talented and adventurous enough to take the journey with me. And I'm only in Houston because my husband [Edward Porter] is pursuing his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at UH. I seriously doubt whether the Frontier Jazz sound could have been created anywhere else. It seems so contingent upon circumstances...and my husband will tell you, I came here kicking and screaming.

Once I knew what I wanted to do, there were really no other artists who embodied the spaces of jazz and bluegrass as fully as Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
and Dolly Parton. They were my first and last choices to honor as springboards for the Frontier Jazz sound.

AAJ: Your "garage band," the Frontier Jazz Orchestra, is a really splendid ensemble, distinctive and solid. How long were you in Houston before you began assembling this band and what were the nuts and bolts of that assembly?

JS: I was in Houston for a little over a year. We arrived six weeks before Hurricane Ike hit, so our first year was concerned with a new place, a hurricane, my husband's PhD studies, and my work adaptation. I was telecommuting to my current job, which is based in NYC. At some point, one of my husband's colleagues at UH (Brandon White, an accomplished R&B guitarist and composer) randomly asked Ed how I was doing, and Ed responded, "She's really bummed. She's not making any music connections, and she just wants some kind of community." Brandon said, "Listen, I'm recording my CD right now. Tell her to come to the studio and I'll introduce her to some people." Those people turned out to be my current recording engineers. At the time, I was just sitting and listening. I told the studio owner about my idea of fusing jazz and bluegrass and he was intrigued by it.

In the meantime, another of Ed's colleagues (F.M. "Patrick" Turner, who wrote "Risk" on Billie & Dolly) also knew that I wanted to experiment with this jazz/bluegrass thing. He was studying at UH at the time, and when I told Patrick that I needed an arranger, he quickly recommended Henry Darragh, because he was a big band arranger, also at UH. I contacted Henry and had a couple of rehearsals with him just to run the idea by him. Then I asked Henry if he could recommend other musicians; I was specifically looking for a banjoist. He immediately recommended Paul Chester.

So, it was a combination of Henry making recommendations, and me searching people out on my own. For example, I found Anthony Sapp after being introduced to another bassist here in Houston (Keith Vivens). When it came time to plan rehearsals, Keith had just had a baby, and I think our rehearsal schedule required him to commit too much time to the project. He said, "My go-to man is Anthony Sapp," and Anthony is right there, to this day. Aralee Dorough is my neighbor, and we met through a series of conversations that started with me admiring her rose bushes. I had no idea that she was the principal flutist at the Houston Symphony, or that her father is the Bob Dorough of Schoolhouse Rock.

AAJ: AAJ reviewer Dan Bilawsky said, of your new recording, Notes from the Frontier: A Musical Journey (Toy Blue Typewriter Productions, 2012), that ..."true musical spirits aren't satisfied [with simple novelty]; they never stop searching. These musical pioneers explore the cracks and crevices between styles to find something new and meaningful to say..." What are some of the musical "cracks and crevices" you have been interested in and what are some you would still like to explore?

JS: I realize this is a harder question to answer than I thought. Those cracks and crevices really are not stylistic; they are emotional. It's about what moves me to my core that I want to sing every note of the song, and that I could sing it over and over and over again without fear of boredom settling in. I think it goes back to the intense feelings I had listening to "Yesterday" or "Cherish" or "One Bad Apple."

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