The simplest thing to say is that Jacqui Sutton is a jazz singer, and Billie & Dolly is a jazz album. The band backing her includes drums, stand-up or electric bass, keyboards, trumpet and trombone. Seems fairly normal. But now add flute, cello and banjo. The keyboards are usually piano, but sometimes electric piano, and occasionally accordion. Sometimes, the drums are replaced or abetted by Latin or African percussion. So things are definitely interesting. Jacqui Sutton and Henry Darragh, who plays keyboards and trombone here, are responsible for “musical direction”. They take these disparate musical elements and turn them into something that is both fascinating and coherent. The result is somewhere between classical art songs and jazz. Sutton tops all of this off with a voice that is high and clear. On her website, she refers to her voice as a lyric soprano, and sometimes it is, but she can also reach down and use her voice as more of a jazz instrument. Either way, she finds the emotion of each song with a light touch. And everyone involved sounds like they are having a great time making this music, which makes it a pleasure to listen to as well.
The album begins with a version of God Bless the Child, which was one of Billie Holiday’s signature tunes, and has been done by everyone. The closer is Endless Stream of Tears, which Dolly Parton did on one of her bluegrass albums. So those are the Billie & Dolly of the album title, two singers who are big inspirations for Sutton. But Sutton claims these songs for her own. There are no original songs here, but originality is everywhere in the arrangements and in Sutton’s delivery. Many of the songs here will be new to most listeners in any case. Black Hole was written as a science song for kids; as done here, the song is a hoot, but there is also a tale of a relationship in trouble. Sutton manages to smile and also express the heartache at the same time. Lazy Afternoon is the song for me where everything comes together perfectly. Here the love of two people alone together becomes an altered state, in which the rest of the world does not exist. Both Sutton’s delivery and the arrangement make this happen. Elsewhere, Those Memories of You turns into an exuberant New Orleans dance party. Mississippi Song is a short song to be split as it is into three movements, and the arrangement does a fine job of evoking a raft ride down the Mississippi River.
Endless Stream of Tears has Sutton singing in an alto range, with occasional octave jumps into her usual soprano. This turns out to be great idea for Sutton; Her voice in this low range is at its most expressive. In fact, the two songs that proceed it, Mississippi Song and A Sleepin’ Bee, find Sutton singing at the very top of her range, and these are her weakest vocals on the album. Of course, her weakest is still pretty good, but I wonder how these songs would sound sung lower in her range. This is Sutton’s first album, so, from this wonderful beginning, she‘s only going to get better. The future looks bright indeed.
Jacqui Sutton: Lazy Afternoon
Jacqui Sutton: The Moon is Made of Gold