Discovering something new about your ancestry has to be an awakening experience. I would imagine that learning the truth about your heritage would hit you like a bucket of cold water, instantly washing away past assumptions and putting your personal history in sharp focus.
When singer Tessa Souter found out in 1984 that her birth father was from Trinidad, it changed her life dramatically. She quickly realized that she had roots in Africa, the Caribbean, ancient Britain and Spain—all of which needed to be explored or at least considered. Born in London in 1956, Tessa studied piano and taught herself guitar at age 12. At 16, she left home, married, had a son, and in 1992 moved to San Francisco to pursue a journalism career.
She also began singing at the city's clubs. Soon, jazz consumed her and she relocated to New York in 1997 to attended the Manhattan School of Music. Her jazz vocal mentors were Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan.
On her new album, Picture in Black and White (NOA), her fifth release, Tessa tells the story of meeting her Trinidadian father and all of the feelings that were awakened. The 12 songs on the album, many of them originals, form a vocal odyssey that sends Tessa on a quest to learn about her background and to clarify her identity. She's joined on the album by Yotam Silberstein (guitar and oud), Adam Platt (piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), Dana Leong (cello), Keita Ogawa (percussion) and Billy Drummond (cymbals and drums).
As we listen to Tessa's pain and elation, we feel as if we are with her as she rummages through a trunk of emotions for the first time. While it's impossible to guess how someone feels after learning something significant about a parent, we can only assume it's a spiritual game-changer. Dwelling on one's cultural lineage and one's ancestors would naturally become an obsession.
In this regard, Picture in Black and White feels like the kind of journey saxophonist Wayne Shorter has taken on albums such as JuJu and The Soothsayer. Brava, Tessa!
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