Jacqui Sutton: At the Edge of the Frontier

C. Michael Bailey By

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Vocalist/bandleader Jacqui Sutton has a vision that was fully realized by the time she started recording. Her vision had a long incubation period, spent in a variety of musical wood sheds all leading to her debut, Billie and Dolly (Toy Blue Typewriter, 2010). And this was only the beginning.

All About Jazz: In your press bio, you begin, "Turning 50 and starting a garage band is not the usual vocalist's narrative..." You are a child of the '70s with a most eclectic taste. What popular music did you grow up listening to and what of that spoke to you most clearly?

Jacqui Sutton: We really didn't have much music in the house, but we heard it on the radio plenty. My earliest memories of being profoundly moved by music takes me back to at least age eight. I remember vividly leaning my head against this furniture-like wooden radio that sat on our kitchen table and for some reason, it seemed that this one radio station played The Beatles' "Yesterday" every morning at the same time. I felt this heartsick, pain, loneliness; I'm surprised I don't have a negative association with eating oatmeal, because that's usually what we ate in the mornings before going to school.

Of the few records that my mother owned, I remember an LP for "Boogaloo Down Broadway," and it had foot patterns on the back so you could learn how to do the boogaloo. Later, there were the usual pop staples: The Jackson Five, The Osmonds. "One Bad Apple" was one of my favorites. As I got older, we were really subjected to the American Bandstand/Soul Train Top 40 culture that brought in those groups.

In high school, the music got "naughtier," with groups like The Ohio Players (who doesn't remember [Fire (Mercury, 1974) with] the picture of the nearly-naked woman on the cover holding a fire hose?). The music also got classier with the introduction of Earth, Wind & Fire. If I recall correctly, as they were ascending in popular culture, I got to see them perform live in our high school gym of all places. Or maybe it was the local performing arts auditorium. I seriously can't remember. I even got into Muzak, otherwise known as "elevator music." "Going Out of My Head," and "Cherish" were two songs in particular that hit me right to the bone.

The only formal childhood musical education that I received was playing the flute from around age eight to eleven. I got pretty good at it, had a couple of recitals. And then in junior high, I somehow lost the flute; and because I went to a public school (and because I had a seriously unhealthy regard for authority), I never reported the lost flute, assuming that I would be arrested if I did so. That was the end of what probably would have been a promising instrumental career.

I didn't even think about music as a pursuit until I was in my early 20s, living in San Francisco after having gone through (but not graduated) Syracuse University. To this day though, I would say that The Beatles' "Yesterday" probably had the biggest impact on me emotionally and musically.

AAJ: Your debut, Billie and Dolly, was conceptually focused, particularly for a first recording. How long did Billie and Dolly have to percolate before becoming a workable goal and what went on during that conceptive period? Did you consider any other singers as a focus and, if so, who?

JS: Billie & Dolly literally took about 25 years to brew, and the majority of that was unconscious. Even though I was singing in my early 20s (with the San Francisco-based vocal jazz ensemble Jazzmouth), I had neither the confidence nor sense of direction or passion to pursue it full-time. I had too many bad habits, mostly born from that stubborn authority fear from my youth: mainly, that I literally and figuratively "held my own tongue." I can't tell you how long it took me to feel comfortable initiating sound from my gut, rather than producing a non-offending shallow sound from my throat. I didn't understand vocal mechanics. Most of what I felt inside (physiologically) felt like so much "crush, kill, destroy" that I interpreted all those levers and pulleys as "bad"; in other words, "my voice cracked," or it sounded different in my head moving from one register to another.

It was through years of studying theater, and continuing to study voice, moving from one voice teacher to another, each adding to my understanding as I went along, until lo; 25 years and many voice teachers later, at age 50, I finally understand what the mechanics were all about. Some people are very visual in the way they understand their voices. I've always been a kinesthetic learner, so when I had a teacher that explained physical mechanics, I fared much better. I think this goes back to my years as a competitive gymnast. If I can understand something physically, I do a better job of incorporating it intellectually.

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, 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 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."

It just so happens that "Lady of the Harbor" moves me as much as "Freed" does, as much as "Summertime" does. There are songs by the metal band Evanescence that I'd like to cover. Gosh, that woman's voice cuts right through me. So I guess any future cracks or crevices will correlate with what moves me. Lately, I've been learning Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," and some of his hermit songs. I've also had a songwriter send me a country song called "Sweet New Love" that I'm learning because it has such a great hook. Somehow, I wonder if all of my CDs should be subtitled "A Musical Journey."

AAJ: Notes from the Frontier: A Musical Journey presents two compositions by the American "classical" composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011). What was it about Hoiby's music that warranted including two of his pieces on this recording and what artists might you look to in the future for material?

JS: I partially answered this question earlier, but specifically regarding Lee Hoiby, "Lady of the Harbor" and "Where the Music Comes From," have this magnificence—a sense of yearning and striving. Hoiby was such a beautiful composer, and he knew how the voice worked, and what lines a vocalist would want to sing. They are technically difficult, but make absolute sense musically. I've never lost my place in a Hoiby piece.

I've spoken of Samuel Barber. But I'm also internalizing a medley of "Danny Boy" and "Peggy Gordon," as both songs have a similar sense of chord changes and mood. And there's a bubbly jazz tune called "Summer Sun" that I want to try my hand at. See? It's all over the map.

AAJ: Rumors are that you are working on a project of entirely original material. Considering the tight focus of your last two projects, can you comment on this new project?

JS: Yes, I'm collaborating with composer Danny Ashkenasi (he wrote "Mississippi Song" and "Keeper of Your Love" from Billie & Dolly). I approached Danny a year ago about the possibility of collaborating. He's cast me in several of his musicals, so he knows my voice. He's a wonderful composer so I thought that it would be interesting for us to create something together. He was completely open to it.

The working title of the CD is American Anthem. It's intended to be a CD of anthemic odes to segments of our society who have not necessarily felt included, or felt that their story or song has been told sufficiently. While the "Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful" are considered songs for the whole country, there are times when I've felt left out of that equation, culturally, politically, and emotionally.

What really sparked my desire to write these "separate" anthems—not so much to balkanize American experience, but to tease out the ingredients and let our taste buds experience them as discrete, but part of the whole—was the constant accusations that President Obama was not American. I began asking myself "Who gets to define what it is to be American then?" I also was reacting to a lot of right-wing insinuations that if you are liberal you are not patriotic. Who gets to decide that?

So I started writing sketches of different stories. The process so far is that I write the basic melody and song (sometimes it's only a motif), and then Danny and I work together to fully shape the songs compositionally.

One example is a song I wrote called "Grass Dolls," which is based on a story my aunt told me about growing up poor in Florida (this would be the early 1940s). They literally lived in a shack, and literally had no toys to play with. So the girls would go out to this field of long grass; they'd claim a patch, and sit in the grass braiding it as if it was doll's hair. The effect was to render the earth underneath as the scalp of the doll, which was this huge female earthen doll. This story spoke volumes to me about the power of imagination to lift you out of your environment to create something beautiful.

I was also deeply saddened by the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia a couple of years ago. Those are some hard-working people, working in dangerous conditions. (Our vets and first responders do the same, but they are celebrated more). I kept hearing a melodic trumpet motif that sounded like a Siren song, except that it keeps echoing down in the caverns of the earth. Mariners are drawn to the sea by a watery siren; it seems to me coal miners are drawn deep into the belly of the earth by a different kind of siren. It takes a special kind of person to do that work. So I call this song "Holler: Siren Song of the Coal Miner." Another song has a heavy driving bass motif with a big band feel, which is called "De-Life"; it's a celebration of patriotic LGBT Americans.

There are several more. The stories are of believers, atheists, miners, Black girls braiding grass, LGBT military. It's all a work in progress, and I suspect Danny and I might have something ready for FJO workshop by spring sometime. He and I will be working on them some more during my next trip to NYC.

Selected Discography

Jacqui Sutton, Notes From The Frontier: A Musical Journey (Toy Blue Typewriter, 2012)

Jacqui Sutton, Billie & Dolly (Toy Blue Typewriter Productions, 2011)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Jacqui Sutton

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