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Vivian Sessoms: Life
by George Graham
(Ropeadope Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/14/2018)
Writing new songs can certainly demonstrate creativity, but imaginative re-arrangements of existing songs can show equal resourcefulness, especially if it involves taking familiar songs into very different stylistic territory. Some who liked the popular versions of the songs will probably object, but if done with musical astuteness and a sense of good taste, the result can be especially gratifying. Just last week, we featured such an album by Welsh singer Judith Owen, who put aside her songwriting for an album of distinctive, sultry cover songs one might not expect in such setting. This week we have another one that goes in a rather different direction stylistically, but still shows a lot of imagination in very much reinventing some familiar songs. It’s by Vivian Sessoms, and her new release, her second under hew own name, is called Life.
Vivian Sessoms’ name is probably not all that widely known, but she has been an active supporting musician, and occasional front-woman for bands, for some years now. Her resume includes work, either on stage or in the recording studio with Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, and Joe Cocker to name a few. She has also been heard on dozens of commercial jingles, some of which she wrote.
Ms. Sessoms was born and bred in Harlem, where she still proudly lives, and came from a musical family. Her mother was also a session vocalist and jingle writer, and her father played flute with such people as James Brown. She followed the family business, and was appearing in TV and radio commercials in voiceover and singing roles when she was nine. By age 14, she was composing her own material. A few years later, she began an association with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who created the soundtracks for several films and Ms. Sessoms toured with his band worldwide. In Sakamomto’s group, she worked with a number of notable jazz musicians, including Victor Bailey, and Manu Kache. Then she began a musical partnership with multi-instrumentalist and composer Chris Parks. They formed a band called Albright, and recorded an album called Sunny One Day a few years ago, which was mostly original music.
Now Ms. Sessoms is out with Life, which also features a close partnership with Chris Parks. The project started out in a jazz direction, and indeed the songs include Tin Pan Alley standards such as There Is No Greater Love, Lush Life and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. There are also some songs from 70s soul artists like the Stylistics and Stevie Wonder, along with a couple of originals. Appearing on the album are some notable jazz musicians as guests, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Shedrick Mitchell and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. But Chis Parks provides much of the instrumentation with some atmospheric keyboards and percussion loops. In addition to the songs, the album contains several short instrumental interludes, most of which feature an ambient sound. The arrangement on the cover songs seems designed to get as far from the original as possible, with most of them including a lot of reharmonization, or changing the chords, and it seems that they set out to provide atmospheric or contemplative versions of the songs that were originally upbeat, and vice versa – taking the ballads and giving them a kind of soulful beat. The results are somewhat mixed in artistic success, but it’s always interesting. Ms. Sessoms easily bridges the realms of jazz singer and soul vocalist. And the arrangements remain tasteful and free from the cliches and banes of contemporary pop. There are, blessedly, no fake hand-claps or auto-tuned vocals. The percussion, though sometimes built on loops, features a real drummer on most tracks.
The album opens with one of its short interludes, called Seventh Heaven, which sounds like a film score, but with some ethereal spoken parts. <<>>
That leads into one of the best reworkings of a song from the American standard songbook, There Is No Greater Love, which gets into the juxtaposition of an atmospheric ambiance with a dance beat. <<>>
Another Tin Pan Alley standard I’ve Got You Under My Skin is one of those songs that Frank Sinatra made famous in a big band arrangement. It is unexpectedly turned into a kind of spacey lament. It’s pretty striking. <<>>
Virtually the opposite takes place on Steve Wonder’s Superwoman, which Ms. Sessoms and her colleagues turn into a jazzy waltz. <<>>
One of the original songs on the album is called Dreaming of a Boy. It’s another interesting combination with a soul-influenced beat, new agey keyboards, a concert harp, guest soloist trumpeter Keyon Harrold. <<>>
See Line Woman is a traditional folk song that was recorded in the 1960s by Nina Simone. Ms. Sessoms’ version is an infectious mixture of funk and some tropical elements. <<>>
The Billy Strayhorn standard Lush Life has an arrangement that is perhaps a little less unexpected. The romantic ballad is given a kind of 1970s soul-fusion treatment, complete with a string section. <<>>
For me the one track that does not work as well is Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday, a song about lynchings in the South during the Jim Crow days. The original was appropriately dark to go with the lyrics. Ms. Sessom’s version is oddly upbeat, a kind of 1970s soul treatment, though her vocal performance is memorable. <<>>
Vivisan Sessoms’ new album, Life, is another intriguing record that demonstrates a lot of creativity through the re-invention of existing, and mostly familiar songs. The style is an interesting mix of an atmospheric sound with some electronic dance influence, though often played with acoustic percussion. Songs that were originally ballads are given upbeat treatments, and vice versa. With such musical experimentation, obviously some of it works better than other parts, but it’s always appealing and Ms. Sessoms’ vocals are spot on. Interestingly, with the various interludes and arrangements with instrumental parts, her vocals are not heard as much as one might expect.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The recording is clean and Ms. Sessoms’ vocals are well-captured. The use of ambience effects is well done and tasteful. The dynamic range, though, like so many contemporary albums is undermined by volume compression to make the recording artificially loud.
Vivians Sessoms has been singing other people’s music for a long time in her career as a backing vocalist for many well-known pop artists. She does include a few new original pieces on her new album, but it’s the distinctive covers that make this album notable and musically edifying.
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