A jazz vocalist who is ‘original in every way’ readies for rare performance


When a respected singer gives a tipoff about an unknown vocalist, it’s prudent to investigate.

Kate McGarry was one of the best Los Angeles jazz singers before she made a place for herself in New York. She reached out in 2002 to urge her Angeleno friends to hear Tessa Souter’s local debut at Catalina’s.

The passing years have only further borne out McGarry’s instincts. Souter is an assured original in the overcrowded field of female jazz singers.

She’s fine-featured and stands tall, usually in sleeveless dresses that expose willowy arms and flawless skin. Add to that the seductively serpentine manner that Souter wends through a song.

Her clear alto is almost devoid of vibrato and always sounds natural. The lack of contrivance in her presentation quietly creates an uncommon communication as she redesigns familiar material and introduces her own songs.

She leaves her audiences feeling as though they’ve just experienced something very special.

Souter performs a rare, one-night concert Monday in the intimate Carriage House Performance Series.

It’s in a private home and she’s in the estimable company of the protean pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle.

The 59-year old Souter came to jazz-singing late. Raised in a single-parent home in London, singing bonded her with her mother.

For years, she sang folk songs as diversion while raising her own son. “Singing was this absolute release,” Souter declares from her home in New York.

After working as a journalist, she sang karaoke, which led to a weekly restaurant gig in New York. The feedback was so positive that she began to work in earnest with vocal jazz icon Mark Murphy.

“I studied with him for four years,” she says. “Every time he spoke about singing, he was dead right. He felt that you can’t teach people to sing; you can only tweak their singing.” Murphy, a take-no-prisoners improviser who can change direction on a dime, challenged Souter’s folk instincts. “He dirtied me up where I needed it,” she chuckles.

Souter favors languid tempos and her songs have a floating quality.

“I love Middle Eastern and Flamenco music,” she explains. “Also, I’m not coming from a traditional jazz background. For example, I do Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’; it’s so beautiful. But then I go into ‘Eleanor Rigby’ — a song about two people who can’t admit their feelings for each other. I try to approach songs in a meaningful way; what does the song say to me?”

The Jazz Bakery’s Ruth Price has presented Souter more than once and is taken with the latter’s sui generis quality.

“She’s really original in every way,” says Price, from her Beverly Hills office. “In the way she sings, of course, but Tessa even makes her own stage clothes. She’s elegant in every way but she also very warm in the way she engages the audience. That warmth makes it easier to present her original material.”

Her nontraditional trajectory raised eyebrows over Souter’s recent album, “Out of the Blue” (Motema, 2011).

She composed lyrics for rearranged themes and pieces by classical composers like Brahms, Beethoven, Borodin and Schubert. She’s taken some of the most beautiful melodies and given them new clothes made from her personal experience, which puts them in an entirely new light.

“For me,” she points out, “the jazz is provided by the musicians. I like to ride their wave. It might turn out to be a train wreck, but if you relax and get into the moment, the song itself will usually tells you what needs to be done. You have to trust the music.”

So has McGarry’s endorsement panned out?

“Tessa’s singing who she really is,” Kate insists, “and what she’s lived. It’s that same combination of childlike openness and gumption that she’s survived with that comes out in her songs. And people love that.”

What: Tessa Souter (with Josh Nelson, piano; Dave Robaire, bass; and Dan Schnelle, drums)

Where: Carriage House Performance Series; address to private home provided with ticket purchase; South Pasadena

When: Oct. 19, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $20 (plus service fee)

Contact: (917) 903-7761,


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.