There are two types of fine jazz singers. On the one hand, there are those who take a tune, swing it and play with it in various ways, whether with scat, shifts in accent and harmony, or even with deconstructions that re-interpret the song entirely. The man who started all that was, of course, Louis Armstrong
. Frank Sinatra
, Sarah Vaughan
and Kurt Elling
, in different and more sophisticated ways, also fall into this category. On the other hand, there are those who adhere closely to the melodic line and intent of the song and sculpt it into something quite their own in a nuanced way, of whom Billie Holiday
and Johnny Hartman
are classic examples.
Tessa Souter belongs to the second category. With a smooth soprano voice, a minimum of vibrato, clear articulation of lyrics, and steadiness of intent, she makes the song her own with subtle shifts of dynamics, timing, sonority and phrasing. That makes her a true artist. And as an artist, she is an impressionist and a minimalist, giving the music a modern feel.
Souter offers her wares on two CDs, spaced four years apart, each consistent within itself but very different in approach from the other. In Listen Love she is a "thinker's singer," exploring the complex human meanings of songs, each of which has its own special twist, and with a bare minimum of instrumental accompaniment. In Night Of Key Largo she offers straight ahead singing, mostly romantic ballads, with a standard quintet backdrop and, in some cases, a light and pleasing swing effect. Both albums come off very well and introduce us to two different sides of a songstress who is faithful to her art and performs with a minimum of window-dressing, combining precision with a memorable afterglow.
In this, her debut album, Tessa Souter brings our attention to the lyrics by holding back on the timing and using the least amount of accompaniment necessary to bring out the flavor of the song. There is no drum set, only slight percussive accents to some of the songs, and often with only one instrument joining in. And with slight shifts in emphasis and tonality, Souter explores a nuance of meaning or tells a more extended story. For instance, in "The Peacocks," a Jimmy Rowles tune with Norma Winstone lyrics, she offers a laid back, reflective version of a ballad with only piano accompaniment, illustrating her minimalist approach. Then, in a way which pleasantly surprises the listener, she takes a classic tune by guitarist Pat Martino, "Willow," sets to it her own lyrics that have more to do with "blue" than with "willow," adds some nice guitar work by Freddie Bryant and the lucid bass lines of Essiet Essiet, and simply reminds us of the gentle side of the legendary Martinowho usually functions in hard drive, but is also capable of sensitivity and tenderness. In John Lucien's "Listen Love," Chambo Corniel provides a pianissimo percussion backdrop, and the music intensifies with the only instance of scat choruses on the album and a breathless ending.
The mood changes with Sting's "Fragile"; a tragic song about anger, pain and suffering and their resolution: "The blood will flow...," "How fragile we are." We have here a musical version of the biblical Ecclesiastes, showing how Souter is capable of taking on some difficult subjects. In "You Don't Have to Believe," a Souter original, the singer starts out with a middle eastern chant and develops an erotic dance with a bitter lyric: "Even though you're not mine, the stars shine." By contrast, "Daydream" and "Insensitez" offer mild Brazilian flavorings. Then Souter renders a Mal Waldron/Billie Holiday song, "Left Alone," placing her own brand on it, enhanced by Freddie Bryant's beautiful guitar accompaniment.
Finally, Souter again surprises us with a spiritual chant: "The Creator Has A Master Plan" by Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas, in which the theme from John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" serves as a mantra.
Nights Of Key Largo
In contrast with the shifts in mood and intent that characterize Listen Love, Nights Of Key Largo, released on Venus Records, a Japanese audiophile label, yet recorded at New York studio sessions, offers a straight ahead post-bop format with quintet backup, emphasizing romantic ballads which are meaningfully interpreted via Souter's sophisticated musical understanding. While there is absolutely no reference to the Humphrey Bogart gangster flick, it would be easy to "imagine" (note the John Lennon tune at the end) being at a small club on an even smaller island, and hearing a very fine vocalist and her equally gifted group of musicians playing to clinking glasses and tropical breezes.
The first track establishes the setting, "The Island," a romantic bossa nova adorned with laid back instrumental backup and well-expressed guitar and saxophone choruses. With the Johnny Mandel tune, "Close Enough For Love," Souter shows her interpretive skills via a slowed down, almost whispered version, featuring an artful bass solo by the great Jay Leonhart. "Moondance" brings in a swinging feel, and then the listener is taken through a series of songs that evoke steamy nights of love in the tropics. How John Lennon comes in at the end of a series of such standard ballads is hard to "imagine," but somehow Souter makes it fit.
Overall, this CD offers some fine straight-as-an-arrow listening pleasure and, like Listen Love highlights the talents of a singer totally committed to the art of song and who takes the listener to genuinely meaningful experiences and places.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: The Peacocks; Willow; Caravan; Listen Love; Fragile; You Don't Have To Believe; Daydream; Insensatez; Left Alone; The Creator Has A Master Plan.
Personnel: Tessa Souter: vocals; Freddie Bryant: guitar; Essiet Essiet: bass; Chambo Corniel: percussion; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Mark Berman: piano.
Nights of Key Largo
Tracks: The Island; Close Enough For Love; Moondance; So Many Stars; The Look Of Love; You Only Live Twice; Key Largo; Slow Hot Wind; Moon And Sand; I'm Glad There Is You; All Or Nothing At All; Morning Of The Carnival; Imagine.
Personnel: Tessa Souter: vocal; Joel Frahm: saxophones; Kenny Werner: piano; Romero Lubambo, guitar; Jay Leonhart: bass; Billy Drummond, drums.