Welcome to the February 2019 issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture. In honor of Black History Month, we’re featuring projects that explore different perspectives of Black life through music.
Jazz-oriented releases include Wadada Leo Smith’s Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an oratorio commemorating the civil rights icon; Mark Lomax’s 400: An Afrikan Epic is a suite marking the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade; Marcus Strickland Twi-Life’s People of the Sun sonically traces the African Diaspora from the past to present; Vivian Sessoms’s Life is the first of a two-part project about the Black experience in America; Etienne Charles’ Carnival: The Sound of a People Vol. 1 celebrates the music of his native Trinidad; and Chicago bassist Pennal “PJ” Johnson combines genres on Pickup Groove.
Classical releases include two albums from Chicago’s Cedille Records: Rachel Barton Pine’s Blues Dialogues explores 12 works by Black composers that incorporate blues idioms; and Sisters in Song is the first collaboration between world-renowned American sopranos Alyson Cambridge and Nicole Cabell.
Gospel releases include the highly anticipated box set/hardcover book Gospel According to Malaco: Celebrating 75 Years of Gospel Music, Joshua’s Troop’s new album Another Chance, and Black from Christian rapper Mr. Del. Other rap releases include Chicago poet Mykele Deville’s Maintain, and Ice Cube’s Everythangs Corrupt.
Also included is the debut album Don’t Tread On We! from the black punk rock band The 1865; The Bookends from blues-rock guitar virtuoso Eric Gales; Siltane from Haitian/Creole artist Moonlight Benjamin; and Malian singer Salif Keita’s Un Autre Blanc that elevates awareness of the persecution of Africans with albinism.
Wrapping up this issue is our list of January 2019 Black Music Releases of Note.
“It’s difficult to know exactly where to start when talking about an artist with a resume as expansive and impressive as vocalist Vivian Sessoms. She has earned respect and acclaim throughout the music industry, working with iconic artists such as Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, and Chaka Khan, as well as Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakomoto. Now, with the help of producer Chris Parks, Sessoms presents her first full-length album in over ten years with LIFE.
On her website, Sessoms explains that LIFE is the first of a two-part set of albums about the Black experience in America, claiming “it’s the best thing I’ve ever done creatively… and it’s about us.” Drawing on her influences and experience in jazz, R&B, and pop music, Sessoms breathes new life into some well-known jazz standards and R&B classics, paying homage to some of the greatest artists to ever live. She acknowledges Stevie Wonder with “Super Woman,” Nina Simone on “See Line Woman,” The Stylistics on “People,” and Billie Holiday in a powerful arrangement of “Strange Fruit.”
Featuring a slew of amazing artists, LIFE begins with a rendition of the jazz standard, “No Greater Love,” with Casey Benjamin on vocoder as well as the group Paradigm. Immediately we get a sense of what we can expect from Sessoms. This song is almost unrecognizable (in a good way)— everything from the groove to the harmony has been completely transformed. The same is true for other stand out tracks such as “Under My Skin,” “People,” and “See Line Woman,” with Sessoms crafting her unique sound through a mixture of electronic soundscapes, jazz, and R&B. Connecting almost every track with some type of interlude, the album flows seamlessly, at times blurring the ending of one song and the beginning of another.
The final song on the album, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” is by far and away the most powerful and captivating. The passion and heartache can be heard through every note of Sessom’s updated rendition, especially in the video single that incorporates images from Black America’s darkest hours—from the lynching of Emmett Till, to the protests and riots of the Civil Rights Movement, to the death of Michael Brown.
With LIFE, Vivian not only pays homage to some of the greatest artists of all time, but strives to retell their stories through her own unique lens. Each song draws upon the joys and pains of ‘Life’ as a Black person, and especially as a Black woman, in America.”
- Jared Griffin
01 MAR 2019
Vivian Sessoms - LIFE/LIFE II
“Vocalist Vivian Sessoms has spent most of her career backing the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Donna Summer, but on LIFE and LIFE II, she makes a rare foray to center stage. LIFE is heavy on covers while LIFE II features more originals, they have their charms.
Sessoms shines on LIFE’s original “Dreaming Of A Boy”, a languid ballad about her son growing up, and her take on “See Line Woman” gives the song a modern bounce with saxophone contributed by Bowie sideman Donny McCaslin. LIFE II is the most successful of the two albums. “As” is a psychedelic journey, “I Can’t Breathe” (for Erica) a harrowing tribute to Erica and Eric Garner, and a cover of the Fixx hit “One Thing Leads To Another” feels almost like a throwaway but a fun one. Sessoms and company didn’t invent their game, but they do a solid job playing it.”
- Dustin Krcatovich
17th JAN 2019
With great excitement, Vivian Sessoms unveils her new album ‘Life’ and while the name may be new to some, it will serve as a welcome return for many as this marks her first full-length project in eleven years.
Born in Harlem within a musical family that included her mother Sharmaine Sessoms, who worked as a session vocalist in the 1960s, and her father Lemuel Smith who can boast having worked for James Brown as a percussionist, the singer-songwriter-producer has clearly had enough inspiration to draw upon when pursuing her own musical aspirations.
‘Sunny One Day’ released back in 2007 was the project that comprised then collaborators Vivian Sessoms with producer Chris Parks as the R&B/neo-soul collective Albright, named after Sessoms’ grandmother. Perhaps the time in between projects wasn’t an entirely bad thing though as the absence has gifted fans with this incredible new album and a new partnership with the accomplished and revered record label, Ropeadope Records.
Now approaching their twentieth year, the Philadelphia-based Ropeadope continues in their successful role of champion for new and innovative styles of jazz. Perhaps best known for their projects by jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy, trumpeter Christian Scott, Grammy-winning pianist, Eddie Palmieri or the more eclectic jazz-electronica styles of Mark de Clive-Lowe, naming just a few. ‘Life’ serves as the perfect continuation of Ropeadope’s ethos in releasing inventive and bold albums from a year that also saw projects by improv jazz outfit, Bright Dog Red and hip-hop/soul band, ILL DOOTS.
On paper alone, the contributors to ‘Life’ should have you scrambling for your copy immediately due to the jaw-dropping list of musicians and collaborators appearing throughout the album. The most notable however would be that of Chris Parks – longtime musical partner to Sessoms and also now husband – so although an entirely different project from the work set out during their time as Albright, ‘Life’ still works as a befitting extension to that album’s achievements.
Motéma Music saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, appears on the cover version of ‘See Line Woman’ and Detroit’s funk and soul hero, Amp Fiddler, lends production and keys to the cover of The Stylistics’ ‘People Make The World Go Round’ (renamed here as simply ‘People’). Keyon Harrold also serves as another strong contributor to the album, guesting on a handful of tracks – the trumpeter whose star continues to rise thanks to his ever-growing list of collaborations with artists including Maxwell and Gregory Porter, not to forget his contributions to Don Cheadle’s 2016 Miles Davis biopic, ‘Miles Ahead’, as the man behind Cheadle’s trumpet playing. A final worthwhile mention goes to the consistently brilliant Casey Benjamin, whose exceptional vocoder work on the vibrant soulful house-esque album opener, ‘No Greater Love’, helps deliver the album’s strongest number.
The concept of collaboration has always been key to Vivian Sessoms’ spirit. Since her early days writing and producing for other artists, providing backing vocals to an A-list selection of singers, the very concept of the Albright project, and now ‘Life’. It’s this nature of collaboration – with Chris Parks and a staggering array of musicians – that help to propel this album into something truly special: the music is luxurious and rich; aptly placed interludes act as beautiful segues as we’re led from one song to another, and Sessoms sounds as great vocally as she ever has done. The album perhaps relies that little too much on covers, with ‘Lush Life’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ also revisited here too – it’s a decision potentially at odds with how innovative the album is in other areas but really only serves as a minor gripe.
‘Life’ is an excellent project that takes great strides to reintroducing Vivian Sessoms to listeners old and new. Fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long for the follow-up this time round.
- Imran Mirza
05th DEC 2018
LIFE is a trans-generational document that manages to speak directly to this time on earth. All of the ingredients of a worldly mix of styles are present, with the groove and feeling of the church, the popular music of her time, and players that make it fresh. Led by Vivian and her husband, Chris Parks, LIFE features a diverse cast of musicians, beginning with her persistent collaborations with Saxophonist Casey Benjamin and Pianist Shedrick Mitchell and followed by appearances from Brandee Younger, Keyon Harrold, Donny McCaslin, and Gregoire Maret, among others.
While there is no shortage of acclaimed musicians included in this project, it is clear LIFE is a labor of love, and not just titles. Ever present in the creation of this record is Chris Parks, Vivian’s husband. Every recorded album is a document - a testament to life at a certain time, or perhaps in a series of times. It would be easy to state that Vivian Sessoms’ voice is transcendent, but LIFE, the album, takes that voice and takes it higher; the songs on LIFE are for all of us, built of collaboration, of love, and of purpose.
- Fat Beats
She has worked with Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, P.Diddy, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Michael Jackson, Cher, and many others and released the album “Sunny One Day” in 2007. Now she comes up with “Life”, an album of standards old and new plus original compositions – just about the perfect repertoire for an admirable album. The arrangements on the album here are both unique and innovative, spot-on and delicious, like on the album opener “There Is No Greater Love” or on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. Chris Parks and Dave Archer are responsible for the haunting, mystical arrangements. The former classic gets a pumping, driving force working effectively with two drummers (Eric Brown and Adam Jackson) with Casey Benjamin on vocoder and the latter is almost not recognizable anymore thanks to the fancy interpretation and mixture of acoustic (very cool piano solo by Dave Archer) and electric.
Vivian’s voice is especially strong and powerful on Stevie Wonder‘s “Superwoman” where she’s easily taking it to the skies, underscored by fantastic drum work courtesy of Donald Edwards and piano by Shedrick Mitchell. She can both sound like an angel, but also more of a siren where necessary, but never takes it too far which is highly appreciated. But she’s not only a brilliant singer, but also a veritable songwriter as witnessed in the heavenly “Dreaming Of A Boy” where her tender and soft spot comes to the fore and where she’s accompanied by trumpeter Keyon Herrold and harpist Brandee Younger. The combination of Rhodes, harp, and trumpet and her angel-like voice is truly a highlight on the album and a 6:30 minute masterpiece.
The intro to the Nina Simone classic “See Line Woman” sounds like a Masters At Work production with its minimal percussion/electro workout and the track itself is treated more like a jam or a groove than a proper song (and features Donny McCaslin on tenor sax) and is yet another showcase for Vivian’s immensely fluctuating voice. Here’s another highlight: I have rarely heard such an amazing version of “People Make The World Go Round” than the one on this album. Warm Rhodes (Shedrick Mitchell), very hip drum work (Chris Parks/Martin Valihora) and Vivian is shining bright on this one. Just to hear her sing the one word “people” in the second chorus of the song is just so funky.
Her fresh take on “Lush Life” is another amazing add to this collection – it is easily the best version of the Billy Strayhorn classic I’ve heard since Donna Summer‘s Quincy Jones-produced interpretation from 1982. Here again, many singers would have struggled with the word “too” which Vivian easily bends and stretches and floats around with, with Rhodes and brass/string arrangements just adding a lot of urgency and immediacy, turning the outro into something highly mesmerizing. Still relevant today is the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit” – not only (and disappointingly so) because of its lyrics, but also because Vivian has come up with a haunting, formidable arrangement putting things into perspective.
Rating: 5 Paw Prints 🐾🐾🐾 🐾🐾
18th JAN 2019 JAZZ QUAD
Vivian Sessomes hails from Harlem. This is not just a geographical detail, but a fact that defines a lot in a person's life, whatever they may do. Vivian is engaged in music, which seems to be predetermined by her family traditions. She grew up in a musical family (her father played flute and percussion instruments, for several including James Brown, her mother also sang), and in addition is the niece of the legendary Nancy Wilson.
From an early age, Vivian Sessoms began to sing. A tour with Ryuichi Sakamoto played a great role in the formation of the singer, where she had to learn to sing in Japanese! Then there were episodes with Cher and Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan and Donna Summer - very different artists and in very different styles. Her last album Sunny One Day, was released back in 2007 and here, after a long break, in November 2018, Ropeadope released a new project on Vivian with the shortened name LIFE.
The image of Vivian on this cover evokes the 70’s and draws from many African American vocalists of different styles – from jazz and rhythm and blues to disco music. I must say that the LIFE program is quite varied. Next to classical jazz standards such as Strange Fruit, (inextricably linked to the name Billy Holiday), Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) or Under My Skin (Cole Porter), one can discover the rhythm and blues - People Make The World Go Round, or the funky See Line Woman. There is also a composition by Vivian entitled Dreaming Of A Boy, written in collaboration with her longtime music and life partner Chris Parks, who has brought to the project a number of his skills and plays on the album on several tracks.
A lot of great musicians were involved in the project, and participated in the recording of certain compositions. I can name at least the famous saxophonist Donnie McCaslin, whose solo in See Line Woman clearly adorned the album, the harpist Brandee Younger or the very interesting pianist Shedrick Mitchell.
Vivian's vocals are completely subordinate to the mood and style of a particular song and each can be very different. As the singer admits, the real test and challenge for her was the performance of Strange Fruit. Sessoms sings this thing quite differently than Billy Holiday (and thank God!), but quite convincingly. Not similar to the classic jazz "Divas", Vivian Sessoms gives an example of "blurred" stylistics, which can easily be accepted by fans of different genres, which certainly expands the potential audience of LIFE’s listeners.
- Leonid Auskern
04th DEC 2018
Vivian here with the premier of my new video Strange Fruit from the LIFE CD.. Will you help me get the word out?
Let’s see if we can make this go viral!
Please like, and share.. Stay tuned for the next video!!
“Vivian Sessoms remakes "Strange Fruit" and she uses the song and accompanying music video to explore injustices both past and present.
With all the political and civil discord, it almost seems as if the experiment that is America is ready to come apart at the seams. Of course, for those of us for whom this country has never been a safe space, this news is nothing new. In fact, it's pretty old hat, with songs like "Strange Fruit" documenting the atrocities that have been a constant feature of life for marginalized groups in the country. Perhaps that's why the song keeps coming around over the decades as new voices opt to wield its power.
The latest in the line of singers bringing their own take to the song is Vivian Sessoms, who uses the song and an accompanying music video to explore injustices both past and present. To illustrate just how long we've been dealing with the issues stemming from systemic racism in the U.S., Vivian dons garb from several different eras — including the turn of the 20th century, the 1920s, the 1960s and present day. They help tell the tale of her soulful, modern take on the track backed by the emotive piano playing of Shedrick Mitchell. Interspersed within the clip are also clips of news reports, protests and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. We also see Vivian acting out a few images of our painful past, including portraying a mourner dressed in black and a particularly provocative scene of her lying face down on the ground with her arms behind her back.
Along with giving us the video to premiere, Vivian also told us a bit about what inspired her to cover the song and the direction of the video. "To be honest, 'Strange Fruit' was not a song I ever thought I would record but after performing it for the first time four years ago, I realized I had to do it," she told us. "My aim was to choose songs from the '60s and '70s and even as far back as the '30s and '40s that speak to what’s happening now, to show a timeline of how long we have been talking, singing, writing marching and fighting about the atrocities we have faced, had to live with and survive as a people. Not many songs tell that story better than 'Strange Fruit.'"
Further elaborating, she said, "We’ve watched so many of us succumb to violence, absolutely unnecessarily so. We are looking at one of the most politically dividing times in our lifetime and possibly in our history, the racial divide seems to be widening instead of closing. Women’s rights are under attack, LGBTQ rights are under attack, voting rights are under attack and everyone is feeling the stress. People are experiencing PTSD. "You can find "Strange Fruit" on her new album, LIFE, which finds her collaborating with Casey Benjamin, Keyon Harrold, Donald Edwards and others as she takes on songs from yesteryear to reinterpret them for modern audiences.
Watch our exclusive world premiere of the video for "Strange Fruit" below and pick up Vivian Sessom's latest album LIFE via Bandcamp now.”
- Soul Bounce
15th DEC 2018
Vivian Sessoms deserves a Coffee Gallery :) Unbelievable talent/artistry/spirit! I put the call out the other day on Facebook - and Mark Rini answered it. The intention: shine a spotlight on a wondrous individual whose music you need to hear. Especially during this gift-giving season. The answer was clear: Vivian. This woman...my GOD! It's as if she has held in a lifetime of grace and giving and feeling and fearlessness. In a voice that comes from the depth of her soul. She has a feel for Jazz, to be sure. As opposed to "cool", however, this singer is HOT. She injects that heat into everything she does. As organic a vocalist as yours truly has heard. She is overflowing with the joy of singing.
It was inevitable. Mom and Dad were jingle/session singer and flautist/percussionist respectively. In Harlem, music was everwhere. Vivian wore it like second skin. By NINE, she was doing TV & Radio jingles. A casting agent paved the way for Broadway auditions - meanwhile, she was classically trained in voice and piano. Around 14, she began composing.
As our guest made her way into the competitive music world, a unique mentor came her way: ethno-musicologist, Ryuichi Sakamoto. He taught Vivian new ways to perform, how to nurture her songwriting and musicianship, and how to sing in Japanese. Another partnership that was and still is intensely valuable is one with fellow visionary Chris Parks. Their chemistry blossomed with "Sunny One Day" - the predecessor to the current "LIFE" project. Fleshing out their previous journey, this new album features the freshest takes on time-honored anthems. And the NEW music is inspired.
Her vocal abilities are second to none. As a songwriter and producer, she soars. The new body of work is a revelation. So is her website. The collaborations with household names - Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to name a FEW. The jingles that she has done...there is no DOUBT that you have heard her. Where she has played is mind blowing. ALL of this = a veteran professional who has turned heads for YEARS. When you hear this music, I promise: you will stop in your tracks.
Live or in the studio, Vivian has worked with household names and beyond. Countless jingles, venues, television appearances. ONE listen - and you'll know why. She is a GIFT.
Whew! I'm listening for the second time and I CANNOT KEEP UP with this vocal energy! Harlem roots, the niece of Nancy Wilson, and cooking with creativity that you might not expect. Treasured favorites and NEW music - this album is called ‘LIFE’ and that is exactly what Vivian Sessoms does: breathes LIFE into song. Bring a towel - this heat is STRONG.
- Trish Hennessy
When the Soulful vocalist Vivian Sessoms visited in June last year, we were stunned by her voice and by her powerhouse delivery. We seldom get to experience American R & B styled vocalists in New Zealand and if we do we never see them in intimate settings like the Backbeat Bar. Her voice carries the history of her music and her vocal range and control are approaching the operatic. Sessoms is a vocalist with serious chops and an interesting backstory. Last week she returned.
Since her last visit, she has released a Soul/Jazz album titled ‘LIFE’. The album is receiving favorable attention and it is not surprising that she has been picked up by the Ropeadope recording label. During her two Auckland gigs, she performed a number of tunes from the album; including a few that were recorded at the same time and will likely appear on a future release. The first set opened with her take on the MJ/Stevie Wonder classic ‘I Can’t Help It’. This was pure R&B, but the set swiftly dived into bold reharmonisations of Jazz standards plus one or two pop tunes (‘Love Is A Losing Game’ – Amy Winehouse and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ – Prince).
The Standards in that set were the lovely ‘Stella By Starlight’ (Victor Young), ‘Lush Life (Billy Strayhorn) and ‘The Waters Of March’ (Tom Jobim). All of the above were reharmonised and made fresh. ‘Lush Life’ conveyed that sad world-weary vibe that Strayhorn penned so well and ‘The Waters of March’ (Aguas de Marco) was sung in English. Jobim wrote both the Portuguese and the English lyrics and the song is a masterpiece. Sessoms infused it with a subtlety reflecting modern American life. When she came to the line ‘the shot of a gun, in the dead of the night’ you picked that up immediately and understood her message.
Sessoms is an activist for civil rights and this thread runs through all of her shows (and the ‘Life’ album). Last time she came to New Zealand it was her ‘I Can’t Breathe’ number – this time it was her take on ‘People (Make The World Go Round)’, a tune made popular by the Stylistics (composed by Thom Bell + Linda Creed). Before the tune, she spoke a little of her life growing up in Harlem and how normalised that daily struggle was to African-American people at that time. This tune in her hands was a plea for people to do better and to fight on until equality is a reality, not just a distant hope. An interesting song choice which got the Sessoms treatment was ‘I Who Have Nothing’. We associate it with Shirley Bassey or Joe Cocker but long before that Ben E King released it. Actually, it is an old Italian song titled ‘Uno Dei Tanti’ (by Carlo Denida).
This time Sessoms had her husband Chris Parks touring with her. Parks is a well-known bassist and producer on the New York scene and on the album, he is co-credited in all of the arrangements. Parks played a punchy electric bass, Jonathan Crayford and Ron Samsom were the band members for this gig, Crayford having accompanied her convincingly last time she came.
The album is widely available and I have included a Spotify clip from ‘Life’. Her take on Strange Fruit is the standout for me. A harrowing song based on the poem by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday. In light of recent comments made during the US primaries and on the banners of the Alt-Right, these issues are scandalously still with us.
Life Tour: Vivian Sessoms (vocals), Chris Parks (electric bass), Jonathan Crayford (keys), Ron Samsom (drums) – Backbeat Bar for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 22nd November 2018). - John Fenton
Her new album is ‘LIFE’ with brilliant new arrangements on classic songs and standards. - Jazz FM