Jacqui Sutton
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Jacqui Sutton

Houston, Texas, United States | SELF

Houston, Texas, United States | SELF
Band Jazz Americana




"A riveting songstress"

Among vocalists, it is hard to imagine stranger bedfellows than Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. But the aim for Jacqui Sutton, an accomplished stage actress who is making her recording debut at age 50, is not to pay direct tribute to Holiday and Parton. Rather, she chooses them as paradigms, and personal vocal heroes, to represent a blending of jazz and bluegrass. Sutton calls it “frontier jazz,” citing Béla Fleck and Aaron Copland as pioneers who provided her and arranger/pianist/trombonist Henry Darragh with guideposts. The closest Sutton comes to specific homage to Holiday and Parton are an arresting “God Bless the Child” fueled by Paul Chester’s six-string banjo, a treatment of Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” that progresses from canter to gallop, and a down-in-the-Bayou reading of “Those Memories of You,” previously performed by Parton alongside Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.

Sutton has a distinct sound that is often constructed of equal parts staccato falsetto and bluesy growl. It serves her well on the playfully asymmetrical “Black Hole,” the Mark Twain-inspired “Mississippi Song,” her bossa-lined “My Man’s Gone Now” and a laidback “The Moon Is Made of Gold” highlighted by a Gypsy-jazz bridge. Occasionally Sutton settles into a comfortable midrange that, while less rhythmically extreme, is more naturally compelling. Popping up in unexpected places but most consistently evident across the spunky “Risk,” it is simply another intriguing aspect of a riveting songstress. — Christopher Loudon, Jazz Times - Jazz Times Print

"Her interpretation of jazz fusion is unlike her predecessors as she handles it with a woman’s touch."

Review By: Susan Frances

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 Darragh 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. - Jazz Times Online

"Sutton provides a charismatic focus"

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 an enjoyable and moving set of songs. Check out Sutton and company's reworking of "Those Memories of You" for a taste of their cooking. - Passing Notes

"Transcending standard jazz idioms"

Launching herself as a solo artist, Sutton's new albumBillie & Dolly has songs that were inspired by the iconic song stylists Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton, and features one track called "Black Hole" written by a friend of Sutton's. She explains how the album came together, "I have been listening to jazz and bluegrass simultaneously for about 20 years. My exposure to jazz was through a vocal jazz ensemble called Jazzmouth. It was based in the Bay Area in the early 1980s. While the vocal ensemble focused on lush choral arrangements, and I usually sang inner voice never lead, they did not perform any songs by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, or anyone else in that cannon, male or female. I listened to all of those iconic singers on my own because they moved me so much."

She expresses, "I consider Billie Holiday a masterful interpreter of songs, and I am constantly blown away by her originals including 'God Bless the Child' and 'Strange Fruit'. The pain and pathos of her style has been discussed ad nauseam, but under all of that is this honest desire for expression that moves me every single time. Bluegrass is a different story. When I moved from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon in the late 1980s, I stopped actively pursuing singing as a performance vehicle because I simply lacked the technical confidence. There always seemed to be some aspect of singing that scared the daylights out of me because I didn't have enough control over my instrument."

She remembers, "Instead, I took up acting, and then by chance I began contra dancing as a form of exercise. Soon exercise became secondary and I went to sweat, but to also listen to some of the most amazing bluegrass musicians accompany the dancers. This is probably the first time I heard the banjo in a way that made me finally understand it as an instrument. My appreciation of bluegrass vocals came many years later. Dolly Parton's 'The Grass is Blue' was a complete revelation to me. Here was some of the most soulful music and singing that I'd ever heard. I couldn't get enough of that CD. I soon started listening to others vocalists, male and female, in disbelief that I hadn't figured out that bluegrass was also soul music. These days I listen regularly to The Bluegrass Junction on SIRIUS radio, and revel in the sounds of Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, Allison Krause, and yes, Dolly among many others. So both Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton express what I call 'vocal honesty' when they sing. Billie did not have much of a range, but she sang her heart into the notes that she could sing. And it wasn't forced."

She correlates, "The same is true for Dolly, who has a considerable range plus a lot of spitfire—just joyful energy in her singing. Both singers seemed to be saying to me, 'take me or leave me, but I love myself regardless.' And because these women represent iconic figures from each of the genres that I am melding in my 'Frontier Jazz' sound, it was logical for me to honor them in this debut CD. It is their effortless, honest expression of themselves that draws me to them, and I take that as personal instruction whenever I approach a song. However, I NEVER, EVER try to imitate either of them. What I think I share with both of these women is something of the iconoclast. I've entered the music business, which is very youth-centered, at middle age, and I'm singing music that is a hybrid of two music forms that don't normally share stage space. So if I think I share anything in common with Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton, it's an understanding of where my voice truly lies and just doing it despite the skeptics."

For the recording, Sutton had an idea in mind, "My approach was to bookend the CD with 1 song from each of them, Billie & Dolly, and then choose other songs that I've always loved and record them in my hybrid style as the filler inside those bookends. In actuality, every song on the CD is approached as a hybrid. For the Billie bookend, it was easy. 'God Bless the Child' is hands-down my favorite Billie song. For Dolly, it was 'Endless Stream of Tears,' on The Grass Is Blue CD. [The song] always got me out of my seat, and I remember spending a lot of time really learning and internalizing that song. For all of the other songs I did not want to hem myself in too much as to the style or origin of the song. I just had to love it, and trust that it would be amenable to a Frontier Jazz approach."

She examines, "There are songs from the American songbook [such as] 'A Sleepin' Bee' and 'Lazy Afternoon'. Some songs are from the musical theatre and opera [like] 'Keeper of Your Love', 'My Man's Gone Now', and 'Mississippi Song'. One is a song I adore, and it's written by a friend who is a science educator [called] 'Black Hole'. [The song] 'Those Memories of You' is a bluegrass standard, with an iconic recording by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris 30 years ago. And 'Risk' is an original tune written by a friend that started out as a straight-up bluegrass tune, but that once the Frontier Jazz Orchestra was finished with it, it became a fun and funky version of its former self."

She asserts, "I handled every aspect of the project: selecting the music, identifying the musicians, organizing the rehearsals, hiring the studio and mastering engineer—and I paid for every single bit of it out of my own pocket. The hardest part of organizing this project was that I did not have a musical home until I put this band together. I am a vocalist with limited instrumental abilities, so I can't play the guitar or piano well enough to accompany myself."

She points out, "The decisions were many. I decided as a sign of respect to pay all of my musicians scale for every rehearsal and recording session. Since I knew I wanted to work with Houston's finest jazz and classical players, paying them, and paying them well, was a no-brainer."

She considers, "My decision was to always leave room for soloing. I did not need to be singing every minute of every song. I felt that my contribution as a vocalist should be strong enough to stand up to what my musicians had to offer, so I trusted that it would be a level playing field."

She determined, "It became clear as the band matured that the sound is always going to be quasi-orchestral. So when it came time to record, I worked with the engineers to recreate a warm, recital-hall quality in the mix and mastering sessions. The other risky decision but one that has paid off, is whether to record in silos, or live. I decided that I wanted to be in the room with the musicians, singing with them on every single song instead of in a separate recording booth. Mind you, there were often 6 pieces, including horns, plus me in a 20x20 session room. The bleed of horn or bass lines into the vocal mikes was a real challenge to deal with, but my engineers did a spectacular job keeping the sound clean and fresh. I truly think this decision has created what I think is a warm, accessible and fun sound that I don't know could have been achieved if we'd all be in separate booths."

She recollects, "One decision that was forced upon me, and I am glad it worked out this way, is that I really wanted to have a fiddle and mandolin player on the project. Try as I might, the musicians I'd identified for those instruments both dropped out. So I decided to hire a cellist instead. This ended up being a great decision because Max Dyer was able to use a smaller cello -- a fiddle cello for the tunes where I needed a more bluegrass fiddle sound, but use his standard cello for the songs that required a more orchestral feel. The real pressure of producing my own album as it regards singing is that because I was wearing so many hats, I did not always have a gauge on how well (or not) I was singing technically once it came time to record. I don't think it complemented the role, but complicated it. On the other hand, I'd rather deal with that complication than have a label standing over me choosing my songs, my musicians, studio, etc., on top of determining my style. I really don't believe that a regular studio would have looked at my proposal to blend jazz and bluegrass and let me have my vision of it. First of all, I had enough trouble explaining my vision to my friends who had a difficult time hearing the two sounds together in their heads. A label with money at stake was not about to take that chance—and for a woman in her early 50's. Really? So the complication of wearing several hats was worth it, but frustrating at times."

Assisting her on the recording is jazz pianist Henry Darragh who was referred to her by a friend. She admits, "I am not an arranger or composer but I knew that I heard certain sounds or textures in each of the songs I had chosen. Henry Darragh was referred to me by a bass player friend named Patrick Turner here in Houston, TX. Patrick had taken me under his wing when I first moved here a couple of years ago—trying to educate me about the music scene in general, and which venues might be amenable to my jazz/bluegrass fusion. When it came time to start rehearsing the CD, I told Patrick I needed a pianist and arranger. He immediately said, 'you need to call Henry Darragh.' At the time, Henry was completing his Masters in music at the University of Houston. He is a pianist, trombonist, vocalist and big band arranger—the latter of which I really needed to shape the music, now that I had all the songs selected."

She recounts, "Henry and I had a couple of conversations about the project and the first thing that impressed me was that as a jazz musician, he didn't run away when I said I was blending jazz and bluegrass. He said, 'I totally dig bluegrass.' I told him what the song list would entail, and then we had our first rehearsal together; just me and Henry at the piano in a rehearsal room at University of Houston. It became clearly immediately that he heard what I was trying to do and wanted to work with it. From there, I asked him to refer me to the other musicians that I would need to fill out the band. Paul Chester, Dennis Dotson, and Max Dyer were all referred by him. Most strikingly, when it came time to sit down and start working the arrangements, he really took the task to heart. If I said, 'I hear syncopated horn hits and an Afro-Cuban rhythm on the bridge of 'Black Hole'.' He came back with fantastic horn parts. The same goes for 'Risk'. Even though it was originally a bluegrass song, I kept hearing horns. When he heard me referring to the group as an orchestra, he showed up to rehearsal with brass chorales for 'God Bless the Child', and 'My Man's Gone Now'. And he also didn't shy away from doing straight transcription of songs that I just couldn't find the sheet music for, like 'Endless Stream of Tears', and 'Those Memories of You'. So, given all of this? The choice was easy," she enthuses.

Sutton professes, "The most challenging song is also the one that I find is one of the hippest: 'Black Hole'. It is a very range-y song, and requires note-by-note concentration technically, especially on the bridge where there are multiple near-octave register switches. The other songs really did not present quite that level of challenge; and it's certainly not the case that I don't enjoy singing 'Black Hole'. I just have to remember that I can't space out while I'm singing it! As for tailoring the music, I feel fortunate that I can express myself as a soprano or as a quasi-alto. I'm a lyric soprano but I have some warmth in my lower registers. 'Mississippi Song' is sung in the original show key and I like singing it in that key. It has a very soprano quality to it and I just let that be. 'God Bless the Child' is in a key that is comfortable for me, but one that is probably higher than some jazz lovers would prefer. I've gotten heat from some reviewers who don't like hearing jazz tunes sung above alto. I can't be bothered with that; I just sing the song where it's most expressive for my voice. You should see the wide array of keys on the sheet music! It's not done for any other reason than that's where it's the most comfortable and expressive for me."

Billie & Dolly was released on Sutton's own label Toy Blue Typewriter Productions. She reveals that the name "refers to a plastic, toy blue typewriter that my mother bought me when I was around 8 years old. I was obsessed with writing and somehow she thought I'd respond to a typewriter. She was right. I adored that typewriter and guarded it like a hawk. I remember putting a sign on it saying "this is not a toy." Ironic. The reason that typewriter is so important to me is that typing, writing, editing, these functions have always played a part in my ability to maintain survival jobs throughout my artistic career. When I was an actor, I had office jobs, usually in the medical arena. At one point I thought I'd be a doctor, so medical language is almost a second language for me. In 2003, I wrote, starred in, and produced a television pilot with the hopes of getting the attention of HBO or Showtime. I decided to call my production company toy blue typewriter productions in honor of that typewriter. So when it came time to produce Billie & Dolly, the masthead did not need to change! The entity is now engaged in music as opposed to screen and stage works."

She evaluates, "Jazzmouth would be the first time I'd ever perform live aside from my stint as a gymnast. And with theatre necessarily being a live experience, I'd say that the majority of my performing experience has been live. When I filmed the TV pilot, it was still live as far as I was concerned, despite the flexibility to use choice takes. You still have to commit to the work and be believable. And as I said earlier, my decision to record the CD live, baubles and all, belies my general tendency towards live performances, nerve-wracking though they are."

She recalls that her interest in music began, "In grade school, I played the flute from about age 8 to 11. The only reason my flute career ended was that I lost the flute and was afraid to report it, fearing I'd be arrested. True story," she declares. "So I switched gears and was a math and science student all the way through college. As an aside: My college career is patchy. I left Syracuse University thinking I had earned a Bachelor's in environmental design—these days called interior design, where I wound up after abandoning computer programming and only did it because I was starting to feel artistic leanings, but had no idea which direction to lean. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco in 1982 (I was 23 years old), that I abandoned all pretense of pursuing a career in interior design and out of the blue, one of my roommates came home with an audition notice for a vocal jazz ensemble (the previously mentioned Jazzmouth), and insisted that I was a jazz singer and I should do it. (He was clearly seeing something I wasn't). But I did it. I had never sung before although I could plunk out notes here or there on the piano."

"At any rate," she resumes, "my roommate helped me prepare 'Summertime' for the audition. It was a nightmare because I couldn't find my starting note, due largely to the fact that I'd never been accompanied by a real jazz musician before and Jennifer Clevinger was sailing across those keys like a Catamaran. Despite my bad ear training, my voice must have somehow come through because I was given a slot in the group, with the admonition that I really needed to study! Which I did. After singing around the Bay Area with Jazzmouth for 4 years, I left San Francisco and moved to Portland, Oregon where I immediately abandoned singing and took up acting."

After honing her chops in Jazzmouth, Sutton discerns, "Singing in Jazzmouth was exciting because we were in the San Francisco jazz scene of the 1980s. Bobby McFerrin, Tuck & Patti, the Manhattan Transfer were on the rise. Vocal jazz was appreciated and in a wide variety of formats. Jazzmouth actually opened up for a little-known comedienne at the time: Whoopi Goldberg. The other exciting thing about singing in Jazzmouth was that the quality of the music that we sang was exceedingly high, and challenging. I went from having no vocal experience to singing dense inner harmonies in very hip vocaleses or straight-up choral pieces. So even though I was older than usual jumping into the music scene, I was getting hard-wired for a level of play that has stayed with me since. Acting was exciting in a different way: it was the first time I'd performed in front of people in a theatrical sense. In high school and college I was a competitive gymnast, so I understood the pressures of performing and having to be exacting. Acting is an inexact activity that still allows you to be hugely rewarded for your work. No two evenings on stage is ever the same; even on nights where you can forget a line or miss an entrance, the reward for sharing your talent to the audience could still be high. And inhabiting characters and pushing yourself to dig deeper, right there in front of perfect strangers was at once unnatural and completely freeing at the same time."

She reflects, "Despite the fact that I started my performance life as a singer, I really considered myself an actor before I'd ever call myself a singer. That was largely due to lack of confidence. But I did get cast in musicals and somehow I hobbled along in them and got better at musical theatre. I think if there is any versatility at play here, it is simply the willingness to jump in and immerse yourself in the particular task. Especially as an actor, even though you get butterflies before every performance, there is so much 'business' to do on stage, following stage directions, staying alert for cues, remembering your lines, navigating a challenging costume, that within your first words, you've forgotten the fact that you're up there and soon the show is over and you're either getting applause or not. Singing is similar in that regard, although it is more emotionally naked because it is your voice that represents you. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten came from my voice teacher Cynthia Clayton, who I still study with, who says 'your job is to sing one note at a time. That's it; which is very liberating. You don't have to 'get down' or get lost in the emotion or imitate anything else. Just sing one note at a time. It requires so much focus, just like with all the business you have to stay aware of with acting, that the time flies. This doesn't mean that singing and acting shouldn't be physically or emotionally satisfying. Quite the contrary! It's a form of moving meditation, in a way. Besides, when you're exchanging all that oxygen, your DNA has to get rearranged somehow in a positive direction!"

She establishes, "I trained as an actor, and continue to train as a singer. I was a founding member of the Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company in Portland, Oregon. We received rigorous stage, text and even combat training for dealing with the rigors of performing Shakespeare. That training, plus many years 'on the boards' represent my training. I had considered applying for conservatories but it seemed that the older I got, the less sense it made to go through that kind of process. I didn't really have any acting mentors, so to speak, and probably for the very reason that I didn't put myself through a conservatory where you're more likely to meet someone who would take you under their wing. As a singer I've been studying with individual technicians and coaches since I lived in the Bay Area. Each one got me a step closer to where I am now. My current voice teacher is Cynthia Clayton, an amazing soprano who teaches at the University of Houston, and who also appears in opera and concert work. She sang the lead in Houston Grand Opera's 'Madame Butterfly' last fall. She has managed to help me understand my voice more than any other teacher I've had, so I'd say she is my mentor. She is no-nonsense, and doesn't get all flowery in helping you understand the mechanics of singing. She speaks my language."

She endorses, "Billie & Dolly is only the beginning! I'm already planning my next CD project. Now that I've introduced listeners to the Frontier Jazz sound, I'm going to be recording more original pieces but continuing in the Frontier Jazz vein. Because I produced Billie & Dolly on my own, and was able to perform with the artistry that I felt accurately represented who I am, the sensation of such artistic completion is beyond gratifying. While this is a solo project (in that my voice is the focus of the CD), it required working with talented, patient and generous musicians. It's been heartening to be received by the music community in such a (generally) positive light; that my crazy vision of melding jazz and bluegrass landed on ears that got it, and that reviewers who were so moved, decided to put their positive experience of my music in writing. No one can ever take away the fact that I produced Billie & Dolly, and it only inspires me to keep exploring my voice and the musical universe."

Like her predecessors Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton, Jacqui Sutton has emerged into a song stylist earmarked by her album Billie & Dolly. But don't presume that her interests in acting and producing are peripheral roles for her. On the contrary, Jacqui Sutton weighs all three talents equally with each acting as a catalyst for the other and showing that Jacqui Sutton's breadth as a liver performer is not only expansive but wonderfully honed. - Yahoo!

"Jacqui is a singer with good vocal range and a distinctive style"

Jazz and Country? Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton music in the same CD? Seems like an odd combination. Billie & Dolly is the tittle of Jacqui Sutton new album, but in reality just two songs are from Lady Day and the Queen of Country, God Bless the Child and Endless stream of tears. The rest of the album is a unique fusion of Jazz and Bluegrass. I know that musicians like Bela Fleck has been doing something similar, but it is the first time I hear a singer trying this fusion in a whole album. And the results are pretty good, Jacqui is a singer with good vocal range and a distinctive style. Jacqui cites both Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday as two major influences on her, and you can hear both on Jacqui voice, mixing the blues and swing of jazz and the yodeling of bluegrass in songs like God bless the child and The moon is made of gold.

The use of the banjo and cello accentuate that bluegrass, country feeling in songs like Memories of you, Keeper of your love and Mississipi Song. Pianist/trombonist/composer/singer Henry Darragh did the arrangements for all the songs on this album and also played piano and trombone. - Jazz'n Bossa Review

"And now for something completely different"

And now for something completely different. Sutton is a jazz vocalist that really likes to genre bend, comparing herself as a vocalist to what Bela Fleck does as an instrumentalist.

While this might look like a tribute to Billie Holliday and Dolly Parton, there's actually only two songs really identified with those two disparate vocalists and the rest are chestnuts that fall somewhere in the middle. Genre bending, with an ear toward Hot Club, Jethro Burns and Joe Venuti, this is cocktail music for the 21st Century where today's kids finding themselves getting tired of being hipsters want some sophistication and don't know how to get it or find it. Just when you think we don't need another interpretation of "God Bless the Child", Sutton kicks off this set with it and removes the tortured artist effect turning it into a roller coaster of a show stopper---and that's how things get started. Sutton is an innovator and knows how to put her ear to good use. A sweet set that takes something familiar and makes it new and different without falling too far from the original tree. Check it out. - Midwest Record

"Houston is fortunate to have Ms. Sutton among its community of artists"

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. - Girl Singers

"Every once in a while, a star emerges that makes them hard to categorize"

Every once in a while, a star emerges that makes them hard to categorize. After hearing Jacqui Sutton's "Billie & Dolly," I'll not only call her a soul singer, I'll also call her one of the best.

Blending the uniquely spectacular legends that are Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton, Sutton introduces to her longtime fans some of the songs that helped fuse her own brand of music. She handles both icons with poise and brilliance, and the results are possibly the best bet for holiday music I've heard yet.

The album's pinnacle is Sutton's take on Holiday's "God Bless The Child." She shares her gifts with her audience while modernizing the musical gem. Rarely, if ever, will you hear a better cover song, regardless of genre.

In the end, we all need to feel good sometimes. Great music can not only ease the mind, but help us all relax when we get a chance. Give the gift of "Billie & Dolly" to that special someone who can't remember when they last kicked their boots off. - Cashbox Magazine

"More than just a CD, Billie & Dolly is like listening to a play, with each cut having its own story"

Reviewed by: Harriet Goldsmith, Senior Contributor

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. - All Vocals

"Sutton's confidence and certainty are almost palpable in every selection from this beautiful and unusual recital"

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; Dotson'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. -- C. Michael Bailey, AllAboutJazz - All About Jazz


Notes From the Frontier (c) 2012
Billie & Dolly (c) 2010; Now playing on Pandora



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 come together in my debut CD "Billie & Dolly"—an homage to my two vocal heroes, Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton.

As a singer, getting there wasn’t a straightforward trip. I was born in Orlando, Florida, the second of six children. In the 1960s, my mother (newly single, and pregnant with her sixth child), was determined to make a better life for all of us. She moved us to Rochester, New York. Think: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Beatles, integration, school busing, and the Jackson 5. It was about crossing lines. That sense of boundary trespass filtered into my world as I found myself drawn to experiences that were the opposite of my own. I could never get enough of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, nor the Beatles’ Yesterday. We had one of those old-fashioned, what I call “kitchen table radios”, with the round wooden body, fabric over the speakers, and a crackly dial. I’d lean against that radio and be consumed by the sadness of Yesterday. Later in life, even certain songs that I heard on Muzak radio stations could make me stop in my tracks. It just had to sound beautiful to my ears. (Musical theater would take longer for me to appreciate, but I got there eventually.) As a musician, I had a brief stint in grade school as a flutist—recitals and everything—which ended abruptly at around age 11 when I lost the instrument and was terrified to report it. Around 1982 (my early 20s), I realized that there were no flute police in the Rochester City School District, and I could well have gone on to have some kind of instrumental career. I made this revelation during my time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bobby McFerrin and Tuck & Patty were on the rise. As soon as I got there, I cast aside what I thought was my dream to be an environmental designer and at the insistence of one of my roommates, I auditioned for Jazzmouth, a vocal jazz ensemble led by Molly Holm. I had been a competitive gymnast for 11 years, but nothing seemed more dangerous, physically precarious or, paradoxically, beautiful than singing. My roommate helped me prepare one song: Summertime. After several false starts in the audition room (I couldn’t find my starting note, and finally pleaded to sing it a capella so I could get the heck out of there. Embarrassed, I bolted as soon as I was done. Molly called me up and asked me to join, with one admonition: “You’ve got to study.” I did. A lot. Well, Jazzmouth came and went. I moved to Portland, Oregon and got lured into the world of stage acting—from Shakespeare to dance theatre. Acting felt safer than singing because I was part of an ensemble—and besides there was “work to do.” I could distract myself—plus, there was all that cathartic emoting! When I performed in shows with music, I was regularly miscast as an alto because I have a low speaking voice, and I didn’t have the technical savvy to navigate my range. I was stuck performing in musicals that forced me to sing consistently out of my range—I developed a strong low end, a shaky transition, and rarely understood my high end. The whole thing just felt unreliable and scary, but I knew I enjoyed singing. Things changed after I moved to New York. I began studying with Jane Burbank, who finally diagnosed me as a lyric soprano. That was a partnership that lasted my entire stay in New York—15 years. When my husband and I moved to Houston, Texas in 2008, the foundation that Jane gave me helped me fully appreciate the last steps that were needed to help my voice become reliable. And I took those steps with Cynthia Clayton, an amazing, no-nonsense instructor who helped me love singing for the first time in my life. Not the idea of singing, but the act. Now you can’t shut me up! She gave me the freedom to create a vocal style and sound that produced what I think of as “vocal honesty”—something I hope that is authoritative, and my own.

In many ways, I feel grateful that I’ve discovered my voice now rather than when I was in my 20s. All those years languishing in oblivion forced me to respond to music in a more mature way. "Billie & Dolly" is the beginning of the journey for me. I’m curious to see where this all will lead. Stay tuned …