Since her 2004 recording debut, Tessa Souter has established herself as a fearless innovator in vocal jazz—“broadly imaginative” (New York Times), “expressive . . . full of passion” (Philadelphia Inquirer), “direct and soulful” (Village Voice). NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan places her “at the top of my list of great talent.” On Souter’s new Beyond the Blue, her fourth CD and second for Motéma Music, the London-born Anglo-Trinidadian New Yorker has raised the bar once again. Souter assembled a dozen classical melodies by composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin. Three of the songs are familiar standards: “The Lamp Is Low” (Ravel), “My Reverie” (Debussy), “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (Borodin). The others are new standards, with lyrics by Souter. All express the album’s leitmotif—exploring the shadows and light of love and intimacy.
The concept for the project came from Venus Records’ Tetsuo Hara, who co-produced the date with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Todd Barkan and who suggested that Souter work with pianist Steve Kuhn and his trio (David Finck, bass, and Billy Drummond, drums). Augmenting the trio were tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, vibist Joe Locke, and Gary Versace on accordion. It was Venus that originally released Beyond the Blue last year, in Japan only; now Motéma Music is releasing the CD to the rest of the world.
“Although this is a semi-classical project, it turned out to be the most impromptu recording I’ve ever done,” says Souter. “I was finalizing lyrics up to the very last minute, and the first time anyone—including me!—had laid eyes on the full program was when we all met in the studio. This meant everyone had to be super sensitive and creative, really listening and responding to each other in the moment, in the true spirit of jazz.”
The album’s title track is drawn from Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor (which in 1963 also inspired Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Insensatez”). The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which was featured in the film The King’s Speech, opens the album as “Prelude to the Sun.” And closing the program is Fauré’s Elegy, or “Brand New Day.” “I wrote those lyrics for Japan,” says Souter, “which had just suffered the devastating tsunami of March 2011.”
“In the larger sense, the source of the melodies is unimportant,” writes critic and CD annotatorWill Friedwald. “What’s important to [Souter] is narrative and swing. She is a storyteller above all.”
Tessa Souter never planned for an eventual career in music. When she moved to San Francisco from London in 1992, with a background in journalism (including six months as Chief Copy Editor at Elle Decoration and a stint as interim Features Editor for British Elle magazine), her plan was to be a full-time writer. Over the next two years she gradually developed a successful freelance practice writing for major magazines and newspapers, and helped found the Writer’s Grotto, which has become the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant literary scene.
By the time she relocated to New York City in 1997, Souter was ready to take the plunge into what would become a new career as a singer, with the great Mark Murphy serving as her close mentor. Her self-produced 2004 debut album, Listen Love, led to acclaimed headline performances at major jazz venues in Los Angeles, New York, and London, as well as in Russia, where she now regularly performs to sold-out concert halls.
She followed with 2008’s award-winning Nights of Key Largo (Venus Records) and, in 2009, her stunning Motéma debut, Obsession, about which JazzTimes’s Christopher Loudon wrote: “Souter’s crystalline contralto and impeccable phrasing are mighty arrows in her quiver, but it is her ability to become one with a song . . . that enables her to score successive bull’s-eyes.”
Souter, incidentally, is also the author of Anything I Can Do, You Can Do Better (2006), whose subtitle is “How to Unlock Your Creative Dreams and Change Your Life.” She knows whereof she writes.
Tessa Souter is looking forward to taking the music of Beyond the Blue to clubs and festivals. She’ll be appearing 6/4 at the Blue Note, New York (Kenny Werner, p; Joel Frahm, ts; Will Holshouser, acc; Sean Smith, b; Billy Drummond, d); 6/22 at the Rochester (NY) Jazz Festival; and 7/21 at the Marblehead (MA) Jazz Concert Series, Unitarian-Universalist Church. Midwest and West Coast dates for late summer/early fall are in the works.