Tessa Souter adopts classical airs
The jazz vocalist Tessa Souter, who released her fourth CD, “Beyond the Blue,” last week, has always had an eclectic, even adventurous, approach to repertoire.
Alongside songbook standards and Brazilian classics like “Manhã de Carnaval,” she’s delivered scintillating takes on spiritually intense works like Pharoah Sanders’s “The Creator Has a Master Plan” or Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.”
And in echoes of her own upbringing in London in the 1960s and 1970s, she has interpreted her own arrangements of period songs like “White Room,” made famous by Cream, or Nick Drake’s melancholy ballad “River Man.”
What Souter had yet to do, until now, was an album featuring lyrics of almost entirely her own writing. “Beyond the Blue,” whose release brings Souter to Scullers on Wednesday with a quintet including the pianist Steve Kuhn, does that and more.
It’s an album with a concept that took Souter to an entirely new place: Each song is based on a piece of European classical music, from a Brahms symphony movement to an Albinoni adagio, Schubert’s “Serenade” or a Chopin prelude.
Many of these will ring a bell with listeners, Souter says from her home in Manhattan, in the same way that they did for her when she picked them.
“I chose songs that were familiar, but not too familiar,” she says. “They were things I half-knew from when I was a child. They would come to me, and sometimes I would change them quite a lot, because I was remembering them wrong — which is fine, because there’s no such thing as wrong — and then they would become adaptations.”
There was more to the process than that, of course. When producer Tetsuo Hara first suggested Souter write lyrics to classical pieces and record them with a group led by Kuhn, she instantly took to the idea. She had told Hara, whose Venus Records released one of her previous albums, that she enjoyed a version of Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor” that Kuhn and his trio had recorded on their Venus disc, “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”
What she hadn’t mentioned was that she had already felt moved to write a lyric for the song, which would end up becoming the title track for “Beyond the Blue.”
“I was just listening to it over and over as I was walking around, on my iPod,” she says. “Lyrics started coming to me — that’s how I write songs. I sat down, mostly on the subway, listening over and over again and writing in my notebook.”
What came out was a love song — its lyrics poetic and concise, as is the case throughout the record. Souter, who devoted herself to music after a first career as a journalist and was in her early 40s when her first record appeared, writes in much the same way that she sings: with great poise, attention to space, and little ornamentation.
It’s a confident approach, and one that Kuhn says the musicians on the session — which includes his trio plus vibraphonist Joe Locke, saxophonist Joel Frahm, and Gary Versace on accordion — could appreciate.
“She gives a lot of space to the musicians to improvise,” Kuhn says. “It’s very considerate. Some singers tend to overdo it, maybe to assuage their ego. She just does her thing — there’s more instrumental improvising on the record than there is of her singing.”
In fact, the album is a balance of three forces: Souter’s voice, the band, and the music itself, which comes freighted with history — not just of its original composition, but also, in some cases, of other interpretations in jazz.
The three songs for which Souter did not write new lyrics are standards: “The Lamp Is Low” (from Ravel’s “Pavane”), “My Reverie” (from Debussy’s “Reverie”), and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (from Borodin’s “String Quartet in D”). Ella Fitzgerald, among others, interpreted the first two; Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, the third.
And Souter’s “Dance With Me” is written to the same Borodin air as the 1953 Tony Bennett song “Stranger in Paradise” — which Souter says she only realized after recording: “If I’d known about it I probably would have just cheated and used that!”
The fact that jazz adaptations of classical songs have such a long history was in a way reassuring to Souter. “It’s not a new concept, and that made me feel a bit more comfortable,” she says. “I would have felt a bit cheeky if it had been all me.”
Yet the process of selecting songs and finding the right lyrics was inherently personal. It involved scouring a vast classical repertoire — through much browsing of YouTube, Souter says — to find not just music she liked, but airs that moved her to write.
“I can’t write anything unless I really mean it,” she says, “and that meant an awful lot of scrabbling around, because I had to find things that I could feel something about.”
By her own reckoning “Beyond the Blue,” which came out in Japan last year on Hara’s label but is now in international release with Harlem-based Motéma Records, is Souter’s most personal album — perhaps nowhere more than on “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor,” the adagio by Spanish composer Rodrigo that many will recognize from Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s “Sketches of Spain.”
Her lyric to that haunting piece is one of love and regret, stemming from the death of her birth father, who came from Trinidad and whom she never knew well.
But it’s really the whole record that has Souter feeling exposed, in a way that is mostly good, but trepidatious too.
“When you write the lyrics or the song, there’s no hiding place,” she says. “It’s laying yourself kind of bare, and then thinking, ‘Oh dear.’ I really hope people like it, because it’s so personal.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddhartha