“A truly beautiful voice which she uses to unearth and get to the core of really great songs.” Dermot Hussey, Sirius Radio
Born in London, of Afro-Trinidadian and English parents, New York Times critics pick Tessa Souter /ˈsuːtər/ grew up surrounded by music. Her mother (a talented amateur singer) taught her to sing when she was three, and Tessa took piano lessons from aged eight to 12, before switching to the guitar, learning by ear to accompany herself singing British folk songs by, among others, Sandy Denny and Jacquie McPhee of the jazz-folk bands Fairport Convention and Pentangle. “My piano teacher had advised me to take up singing when she heard my voice so, when around that age, my mother told me that my Trinidadian birth father had been a singer, it felt like a connection to this person I had never known,” says Tessa. When she finally met him in her late 20s, the first thing he did was sing to her in the street. “Just the sound of his beautiful tenor, vibrated every bone in my body.”
“Shimmers in the dark.” Clive Davis, UK Sunday Times
“There are many singers who can wow us with vocal prowess, yet there’s something raw and real about hearing Tessa Souter sing,” wrote John Payne in the LA Weekly. “Basically a self-taught musician, she is not afraid to take big risks in her performances with surprising takes on often just as surprisingly un-standard repertoire, from jazz arrangements of ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ Cream’s ‘White Room’ and Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ to covers of Brazilian compositions by Milton Nascimento and Dori Caymmi, modern jazz tunes by Wayne Shorter and Kenny Barron, originals such as her own mesmerizing ‘Usha’s Wedding’ and superb arrangements of classical stuff by Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy and others. Picture in Black and White explores the tangled roots of her biracial heritage. It’s the sound of an artist doing things her own way.”
At once unassumingly virtuosic and uncontrivedly emotional, Tessa has recorded five critically acclaimed CDs as a leader: the Flamenco-tinged Listen Love (Nara, 2004), the mostly standards Nights of Key Largo (Venus, 2008), recipient of the prestigious Swing Journal Gold Disc Award, Obsession (Motema, 2009), UK Sunday Times magazine Top Ten Jazz CD of the Year, Beyond the Blue (Motema-Venus, 2012), and her latest, Picture in Black and White (NOA, 2018)—an emotionally resonant invitation through music to reflect on the African diaspora experience of slavery, loss, love, redemption and the pellucid and lasting repercussions of that period in history. It is the second of her albums to be picked as a Top Ten CD of the Year by the UK Sunday Times. AllAboutJazz called it “a remarkable journey to the interior of the human heart.” It was Album of the Week in the London Evening Standard and the UK Sunday Times, and was the Number One Jazz Vocal Album of the Year for WVCR-FM’s Jay Hunter, and Ken Dryden and W. Royal Stokes in the Downbeat Critics Poll. She also appears on legendary bassist Charnett Moffet’s Spirit of Sound album, and French vocalist Pascalito’s The Picture of Rafael.
“Tessa already has naturally what people spend years trying to develop.” Howard Johnson, Jazz Tuba Legend
But hers was not a straight or easy path to becoming a musician. A wife and mother at the age of 16, and a single parent by 18, for the next 20 years she arranged her life around bringing up her son, going back to school for O and A levels and getting a degree in English Literature from London University. “Everything had to fit around his school hours so I could be there,” says Tessa, who was planning to become a university professor. Instead, after graduation, she took a job editing World Bank and United Nations reports and proposals for an engineering firm, before landing a full-time job at Parents magazine as an editorial assistant, rising to chief sub within a year and then freelancing for British Elle, Elle Decoration, Cosmopolitan, and Departures among other publications, including a brief stint as Acting Features Editor at Elle.
“Tessa Souter is a natural born singer with a beautiful voice and beautiful soul. At the top of my list of great talent. She really moves me.” Sheila Jordan, NEA Jazz Master
A commission from the doomed Sunday Correspondent magazine to write about 96-year-old Stefan Lorant, the so-called “godfather of photojournalism,” inadvertently led to her move to the States. “We had only 20 minutes in the hotel lobby before he caught his plane, but I sent him a copy of the article (which never appeared in print because the magazine folded that week) and we became friends in that way you just do sometimes,” says Tessa. A year later, after the breakup of her second marriage, he invited her to visit him in America. So, armed with three invitations—to spend a week with Lorant in Lenox, a week with another friend in New York and a week in San Francisco with a former colleague—she packed enough clothes for a month’s holiday. “But, of course, San Francisco got its hooks into me and I ended up not leaving for four years,” she says.
She spent the first two years cleaning houses in the city, until she was able to fully support herself as a freelance writer for Elle, Elle Decoration, Vogue, House Beautiful, the Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post, Guardian and more, eventually becoming one of the founding members of the Writer’s Grotto, along with authors Po Bronson, Ethan Canin and Ethan Watters, filmmaker David Munro and monologist Josh Kornbluth. “Ethan Watters told me that the rent would be worth it because it would be focusing to have a dedicated office to write in, and he was absolutely right.” Functioning as “a kind of our man in Havana” for the international press, she specialized in identifying intriguing, off-beat social trends, including cuddle parties, embryo adoption and life coaches (she wrote the first article on life coaches to appear in the British press for the Saturday Times), as well as covering a range of subjects, from health and travel stories to celebrity interviews to aliens in Nevada.
“A singer with a voice to believe in.” Stephen Graham, Marlbank
In 1998, she won a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music, which she left after one semester to study privately with jazz legend Mark Murphy, who offered to mentor her in exchange for booking his workshops. Those four years with Murphy turned into a life-long friendship. “I only stopped because I got too busy with my own career,” says Tessa, who inaugurated the Vox News column for the New York Jazz Record, which she wrote for three years, at the same time as curating a weekly vocal series at Sweet Rhythm (formerly Sweet Basil), holding down a regular monthly residency at New York’s iconic 55 Bar (which lasted for 17 years until the club’s demise, and was frequently standing room only), and touring internationally.
“The words seem to come from her soul.” Donald Elfman, New York Jazz Record
“I really have been very lucky,” says Tessa, who has performed and/or recorded with a veritable who’s who of jazz, including Steve Kuhn, Joe Locke, Gary Versace, Jay Leonhart, Luis Perdomo, Lynne Arriale, Alan Broadbent, Dezron Douglas, her husband Billy Drummond, Charnett Moffet, Joel Frahm, David Gilmore, Tom Guarna, Howard Johnson, Larry Koonse, Steve Kuhn, Essiet Essiet, Dana Leong, Romero Lubambo, Francois Moutin, Saul Rubin, Yasushi Nakamura, Clarence Penn, Mansur Scott, Marvin Sewell, Yotam Silberstein, Lew Soloff, and Kenny Werner. She has performed at venues all over the world, including SF Jazz, the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Mezzrow, the Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Pizza Express, Ronnie Scott’s, the London and Edinburgh Jazz Festivals, Star Eyes (Nagoya), Body and Soul (Tokyo), the Blue Notes in New York, Beijing and Shanghai and has appeared a record seven times at the Rochester International Jazz Festival.
“She is a complete musician . . . remarkable and very moving, completely capturing her audience.” Mark Murphy, Jazz Vocal Legend