Club Review: Tessa Souter

July 25, 2021 | By

Tessa Souter

While her strong suits are her highly original sense of rhythm and acute use of surprising accents, jazz singer Tessa Souter ensnares listeners by embedding abundant emotion in every tone she produces.  Yet her intense expressivity is not text-driven.  She doesn’t parse lyrics to stress meanings of specific words, but rather encapsulates the entire emotional spectrum of a song into an essential feeling that pervades her voicing of every syllable.  Performing recently at Pangea, in duo with the exciting jazz pianist Luis Perdomo, Souter proffered earnest jazz treatments of 12 pop tunes and standards that spoke largely of loneliness, loss, and yearning.  Opening with “The Exodus Song” (Ernest Gold/Pat Boone)—whose lyrics Boone originally wrote on the back of a Christmas card that now resides in a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem—her contemplative program closed with the pleading “Love Theme from Spartacus” (Alex North/Terry Callier), and offered little in the way of bouncy, happy-mood singing in between.    

Sporting a black lace, ankle-length dress, and letting her long black hair hang freely along her chest, Souter exuded a bohemian quality that matches her earthy voice and decidedly non-glitzy presentation style.  A U.K. native of Anglo-Trinidadian ethnicity, whose CDs have twice been recognized as the London Times Top Ten Jazz Albums of the Year, Souter is not a showy performer.  She chats easily and honestly, yet somewhat nervously, with her audience.  She gives shout-outs and plugs for the upcoming shows of fellow singers in the room, and creates a communal atmosphere, as opposed to an I’m-in-charge and you’re-all-here-to-watch-me sensibility.  Yet while her low-energy casualness is endearing to a degree, one wishes she would put more effort into scripting and rehearsing her off-the cuff patter.  It consists mainly of dry factoids about a song (composer, arranger, others who’ve recorded it) that don’t generate any real interest, and often drifts off into unfinished thoughts or meandering stories that are unclear in terms of why or how they are preparing us to hear the music. 

Souter is a technically impressive jazz vocalist.  Her rhythmic inventiveness is arresting.  She leans into consonants with delicious resonance, and is a master of the slow, sustained decrescendo, displaying remarkable control as she lets a pitch-perfect note trail off into increasingly quiet, spell-binding silence.  Yet over the course of an evening, one needs more variety.  Souter’s choppy rhythms beg to be interspersed with flowing phrases, and she sings powerfully only within a limited range.  Often, when a melody ascends and we want her to really open up and let loose, instead of building dynamically, she backs off, softens and fades out—a tactic which at first captivates, but then grows predictable. 

The highpoint of Souter’s show was her romantic rendition of “The Island” (Ivan Lins, Vitor Martins/Alan & Marilyn Bergman), which sits perfectly in her vocal range and should please cabaret audiences as it’s one of the only selections on the program that conveys a sense of story.  As Souter sings of her relationship with a lover, she imbues her music-making with such deep-rooted passion that we can truly feel the physicality of her connection to him.   Another highlight is “Dance with Me,” featuring Souter’s original lyrics to the tune widely known as “Stranger in Paradise,” the George Forrest and Robert Wright song, adapted from Alexander Borodin music, from the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet. Souter effectively introduces the song by explaining that her words were created to entice her fiancé – jazz drummer Billy Drummond – who adamantly refuses to dance.  As she sings, we feel her pleas and understand how much she needs him to “dance” with her, or really, to take a chance on their being together. 

As she began to wrap up the evening, Souter delighted Broadway fans with her eleven o’clock number, an innovative interpretation of “Never Will I Marry” (Frank Loesser) from the 1960 musical Greenwillow.  Preceding her performance of it, in the show’s most entertaining bit of patter, we learn that Souter was told she has no right to sing this song, as she was married for 17 years, spanning 3 different husbands, starting at age 16.  Thankfully, she ignored that opinion, and her fiercely accented approach made me appreciate the close intervals of the song’s melodic lines more keenly than ever, while Perdomo’s fast, furious piano solo brought out an agitation typically absent in the smooth, prettier versions one usually hears of this soaring anthem to solitary existence.


Presented at Pangea as part of Pangea’s Hot Summer Nights Jazz Series on July 21.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of "The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s". A choreographer, critic, and historian, she has written for Back Stage, American Theatre, Film Journal International, and numerous other popular publications, encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. An adjunct professor at Columbia University and Rutgers, she is currently researching a book on the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on America’s musical theatre.

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