By Don Heckman
Tessa Souter’s performance at Catalina Bar & Grill Wednesday night was billed as an introduction to her new CD, Obsession (Motema). And she devoted a good portion of her program to readings of material from the album. Characteristically, each song was enhanced by new interpretive views. But Souter is too adventurous an artist to limit herself to a single group of material, and she seasoned her long set with a few intriguing additions — reaching from Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” to her own gripping, English language rendering of Léo Ferré’s French classic, “Avec le Temps.”
The result was an evening of music — supported with remarkable empathy by guitarist Jason Ennis, bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Joe LaBarbera — revealing the extraordinary length and breadth of Souter’s creative interests. in the combination of “Afro Blue” and “Footprints,” for example, she found surprisingly compatible common ground between two seemingly disparate songs. Her versions of Milton Nascimento’s “Make This City Ours Tonight” and “Vera Cruz (Empty Faces)” touched the inner hearts of a pair of compositions by a composer who clearly vibrates in the same universe as Souter. And, in Nick Drake’s “Riverman,” she displayed her ability to take the story of a song and make it her own.
Between numbers, Souter was outgoing, articulate and humorous, occasionally providing some background or a whimsical anecdote, sometimes simply allowing a song to speak for itself. Greeted by a less than full house (on a night when Chick Corea was performing nearby at the Hollywood Bowl), she made light of it, noting the increased intimacy with her listeners, and then proceeding to affirm the connection in every tune.
As I noted here in an earlier review of her new CD, Souter has a way of inhabiting a song, and this performance was no exception. Aside from an occasional tendency to push her notes a bit too intensely into the microphone, she joined her complex vocal timbres to Ennis’ roving guitar lines and the buoyant drive of Price and LaBarbera in a way that embraced the essence of the contemporary jazz vocal art.