Jazz vocalists have increasingly sought to move away from set lists consisting exclusively of decades-old standards and jazz compositions, though one of the greatest challenges is finding songs with both strong melodies and lyrics in pop and modern theater Tessa Souter has a rich contralto voice and an adventurous spirit, while she is confident enough of her abilities to include three rock songs among the first four tracks of Obsession. Her hypnotic setting of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" has little jazz content, but the novelty of her arrangement, utilizing violin, guitar, and accordion, makes it work. Other jazz vocalists such as fellow Brit Claire Martin have covered Nick Drake's "Riverman," but Souter digs deeper into its lyrics in a sophisticated arrangement. Cream's "White Room" was a hit in the late '60s, and guitarist Jason Ennis' Brazilian-flavored scoring make this once-monotonous piece cook, though its weak lyrics are hardly "poetry" as Souter describes many of the songs on this release. Whatever one thinks of Souter's journeys into rock, there is no room for debate about her handling of jazz material. Her subtle yet sizzling take of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" interweaves the bassline of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" (played mostly by bassist Gary Wang, though Ennis also incorporates the latter into his solo), while Souter shimmers in her performance of Kenny Barron's engaging "Crystal Rain" (originally titled "Sunshower" prior to the addition of lyrics), with violinist Todd Reynolds adding rich textures in the background behind the singer and Ennis. Alex North's moving ballad "Love Theme from Spartacus" is forever associated with pianist Bill Evans' overdubbed piano trio recording, though Souter's take on it, backed only by acoustic guitar and bass, proves that less is more. The vocalist also makes a major impression as a composer/lyricist with her wistful "Now and Then" and infectious chanting "Usha's Wedding." While Tessa Souter was well-known to jazz aficionados in New York City for almost a decade prior to the 2009 release of this CD, the free-spiritedObsession should introduce her to many new fans worldwide.
by Ken Dryden