Jacqui Sutton calls it “Frontier Jazz,” a melding of two musical styles, blues and bluegrass. It’s a jumble of logical instruments for the musical style – near as I can tell, it means a cello instead of a fiddle for bluegrass, an accordion instead of a harmonica for blues. Like that. Lush orchestration leads into a banjo for “God Bless The Child,” banjo into a jazz trumpet on the bluegrass “Those Memories Of You,” made memorable, but not exactly famous on the Dolly-Linda-Emmylou “Trio” bluegrass album 20 years ago. The banjo is one of the constants through this disc – and Ms. Sutton glides seamlessly from blues to bluegrass in her own singing – she calls it “vocal honesty,” this ability to meld the different musical styles in her own performance. I’d call the ability to do that quite a talent. Ms. Sutton has put some serious thought into the interpretation of these lyrics. She speaks in the liner notes about her own musical journey, including “Turning 50 and starting a garage band.” Whatever the journey, Ms. Sutton – it was worth it. Good stuff. Expect unexpected things with this one. Extra points for the great work on the album art. This one’s got nice “curb appeal.” Houston is fortunate to have Ms. Sutton among its community of artists, and I’ll be watching for what’s next. Very highly recommended.
Heaven knows that contemporary jazz vocals could use a shot of sense-of-humor. The scene hosts a legion of earnest singers paying tribute to their idols, firebrands intent on extending the already stretched-taut realms of scat and vocalese, and soccer moms and dads fulfilling a vanity ambition—all so serious. Sense of humor is in order, but not just any sense of humor will do; it has to be a smart sense of humor, not cheeky or rude, only clever and coy, wafting sophistication and panache.
Appearing just in time is one Jacqui Sutton, late of Houston, Texas by way of Orlando, Rochester, San Francisco, Portland and New York, claiming that …”Turning 50 and starting a garage band is not the usual vocalist’s narrative. But that’s what happened with me. It’s not just any band, but an orchestra: what I call the Frontier Jazz Orchestra: a stylistic mash-up of jazz, bluegrass and orchestral/chamber music.” That is a very promising beginning.
Sutton extends this genre mash-up into the core of her release Billie & Dolly, a tribute to singers Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. Now, what was that about “earnest singers paying tribute to their idols?” Never mind and just go with it, the two singers make such strange musical bedfellows that their pairing has to meet the fun and smart definition. And in a creative way, what Sutton is trying to do makes perfect sense. She is trying to capture what she terms “frontier jazz”—music as it spreads West, incorporating Mississippi and Aaron Copland, Texas and Virgil Thompson, Louisiana and William Grant Still.
Sutton employs a middle-sized band, an octet, as her Frontier Orchestra, nominally lead by multi- instrumentalist/arranger Henry Darragh, who also provides piano and trombone support in addition to his arranging duties. Darragh made his own splash with his uniformly fine Tell Her For Me (Self Produced, 2010). The presence of cellist Max Dyer, guitarist/six-string banjo player Paul Chester and flautist Aralee Dorough lend the orchestra its frontier flavor. Sutton favors copious amounts of Chester’s banjo, which he plays and solos like a guitar. The effect is digital sepia, old fashioned with a modern edge, which sharpens with Darragh playing the Fender Rhodes (hear the effervescent “Risk”).
The most overt homages paid to the two singers are Sutton’s Tombstone setting of “God Bless the Child” (sporting a Darragh-composed brass chorale) and a definitive reading of Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” accented by some virtuoso banjo, fiddle and accordion playing. Sutton tends to all corners of her 40 acres of music. “Keeper of Your Love/Sweep Me Off My Feet” could have been an out take from the musical Oklahoma! (1943) and shows off Sutton’s stage experience supported by duet partner Lyndon Hughes.
“The Moon is Made of Gold” (composed by Rickie Lee Jones’ father, Richard Loris Jones) is one of the several disc high points, featuring bassist Anthony Sapp and trumpeter Dennis Dotson. Sapp’s solo introduction is solid and commanding; Dodson’s sounds like Louis Armstrong sparring with Darragh’s Jack Teagarden trombone, explosive and inventive, except with softened edges, like Armstrong and Teagarden
shared just enough cough syrup before playing. Chester fully quotes “The Sunny Side of the Street” in his banjo solo, before Sutton finishes off the torch with command.
Sutton and her orchestra come from all directions at once. “The Mississippi Song” provides more Broadway by way of El Paso. “My Man’s Gone Now” is the Gershwins in the warm Gulf climes. “Those Memories of You” is Bill Monroe by way of Clifton Chenier. Sutton’s “Frontier” sound achieves its full maturity in Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears.” This is music that has no genre, belonging to all. It is uniquely American and could not have been created anywhere else.
The music on Billie & Dolly arrives fully formed and realized, sounding like the destination Cassandra Wilson has been evolving toward for the past 20 years: a bona fide, organic, earthy, fecund sound tempered with grace and good taste. Sutton’s confidence and certainty are almost palpable in every selection from this beautiful and unusual recital. Had Bessie Smith met Bob Wills and recorded with him and the Texas Playboys one dusty late Texas autumn day, the results might have sounded a lot like Jacqui Sutton and her Frontier Orchestra.
Tracks: God Bless the Child; Black Hole; Lazy Afternoon; Keeper of Your Love; Those Memories of You; My Man’s Gone Now; Risk; The Moon is Made of Gold; Mississippi Song; Sleepin’ Bee; Endless Stream of Tears.
Jacqui Sutton appears as the face of what she calls “frontier jazz,” a blend of jazz and country styles that is signified well in the title of her CD, Billie and Dolly. A mix of the vocal sensibilities of Holiday and Parton, Sutton provides a charismatic focus for a group that manages to create a distinctive sound by blending banjo, accordion, flute, cello, and a variety of percussion with bass, piano, and trumpet. Full of new textures and musical surprises, Billie and Dolly offers a enjoyable and moving set of songs. Check out Sutton and company’s reworking of “Those Memories of You” for a taste of their cooking.
Billie & Dolly
Jazz fusion, which is predominantly the domain of men, is crafted from a fusion of rock guitar and jazz, but vocalist Jacqui Sutton interprets jazz fusion with a woman’s touch creating a coalescence of cabaret jazz with shades of country and bluegrass, and she makes the mixture sparkle. Her new album Billie & Dolly from Toy Blue Typewriter Productions puts her own stamp on songs written by soul songstress Billie Holiday and bluebell crooner Dolly Parton. Demonstrating the ability to bridge blues, soul, funk, R&B, Zydeco-tinged bluegrass, and prairieland country, Sutton creates a new kind of Americana music, one that expands the frontiers and invites listeners to appreciate musical expressions that have been kept apart since their inception.
The comfy rhythmic swells of “God Bless The Child” and “Black Hole” have country overtones with swing- inspired nuances, and the bluesy quills of “Lazy Afternoon” are garnished in exotic chimes as the silky texture of the strings are contoured by the gentle flutter of the banjo performed by Paul Chester and the placid riffs of the flute played by Aralee Dorough. The billowy knolls of the bass by Anthony Sapp in “Keeper of Your Love” is blanketed in middle eastern accents and breathy atmospherics crafted by the flute and strings.
The jovial twits of the horns and the piping of bop-laced organ patterns penned by Henry Darraph in “Those Memories of You” have a New Orleans style swagger coupling a funky rhythm with country traits. The floating sensations adorning “My Man’s Gone Now” are woven with elegantly braided piano keys as Sutton’s vocals move up and down the scale with the finesse of an emotive singer. The bass solo opening “The Moon Is Made of Gold” has a torchlight sheen as Sutton’s vocal slides meld into the tranquilizing ambience. The flouncy pickings of the banjo in “Mississippi Song” have a catchy rhythm and the drowsy flickers of “A Sleepin’ Bee” caress the senses.
Produced by Sutton, Billie & Dolly is a pleasing blend of uptown jazz, southern blues, prairieland country, orchestral rivulets, and bluegrass vibrations. The one denominator threading these elements is that they all have roots in America’s heartland, which is where Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton’s music was fashioned from and spoke of to audiences. Sutton combines these elements with the instincts of a sage and the affection of a woman who has this music in her blood. Her interpretation of jazz fusion is unlike her predecessors as she handles it with a woman’s touch.
Personnel: Jacqui Sutton – vocals, Henry Darragh – piano/keyboards/trombone, Paul Chester – 6 string banjo, Max Dyer – cello, Anthony Sapp – bass, Ilya Janos – percussion, Dennis Dotson – trumpet/flugelhorn, Aralee Dorough – flute; Guests: Lyndon Hughes – background vocals, Randy Dunn – Theremin, and Allen Huff – accordion
Tracks: God Bless The Child, Black Hole, Lazy Afternoon, Keeper of Your Love, Those Memories of You, My Man’s Gone Now, Risk, The Moon Is Made of Gold, Mississippi Song, A Sleepin’ Bee, Endless Stream of Tears
What do Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton have to do with each other? Well, in short, it is the brainchild concept of debut vocalist Jacqui Sutton, and she brands her unique sound as Frontier Jazz and calls herself a Jazzgrass Chic. Jazz and bluegrass melding is not a new concept completely, it has been performed instrumentally by Béla Fleck, but what Sutton offers is the next step, a vocal reading that you can hear the joy in her voice coming through each cut.
Sutton employed composer Henry Darragh to assist
her with putting her ideas down on paper. The two have cooked up a jambalaya of tasty sounds and textures. Even though the CD is named Billie&
Dolly the two namesakes only bookend the release, Billie’s “God Bless the Child” is cut #1 and Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” closes out the journey. In between the bookends are songs from the American Songbook, from the world of musical theater, and a science song written for children.
“Black Hole” comes from a collection of songs about the science of astronomy by contemporary composer David Haines, Sutton gives it a swampy feel supported by horn lines and the swank of banjo.
“Risk” from bluegrass man F.M. Turner a cut featured on his album Igniter is re‐treated by Sutton at a slower pace with elements of R&B grooves splashed across the canvas to create a new work of art. The songs from composer Danny Ashkenasi are included in this embodiment of work,” Keeper of Your Love”, ” Sweep Me Off My Feet” and from the play, beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN “Mississippi Song” is included from the Ashkenasi catalog and given a swampy torch song feel, with the twang of the banjo. Sutton soars vocally as sounds of plucking and high register delights fill this delicate cut, joined by the cello and hints of horns dancing in the background, the listener is transported to the banks of folklore.
More than just a CD, Billie & Dolly is like listening to a play, with each cut having its own story. I could easily see the theme set to a play, almost a story of America.