Accomplished singer and Harlem native Vivian Sessoms, having amassed credits as a backing vocalist for Chaka Khan, Rob Thomas, Dionne Warwick, Donna Summer, Cher, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Pink, Patti Austin, Guru, Sinead O’Connor, P. Diddy, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Towa Tei and a host of others, has proven herself a fiery and forward-thinking artist in her own right. On her releases Sunny One Day and forthcoming release LIFE, in collaboration with producer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Parks, Sessoms has displayed an adventurous arranging sensibility and a refreshing disregard for genre boundaries. Her expressive, sophisticated sound draws on jazz, R&B and pop in fresh and moving ways, whether she’s presenting her own material, reinterpreting “Strange Fruit” for our own troubled times, or reshaping classic pop, jazz and soul hits with a view toward transformation and constant surprise.

Sessoms’ work has landed her on stages at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, The Beacon Theatre, The Apollo Theatre, Irving Plaza, The Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, Highline Ballroom, Joe’s Pub and many more.

The Street talked with Vivian before her Canberra show and launch of LIFE in Australia in November.



I think of the voice as an instrument, another musical instrument that adds to the conversation of a song, a performance or what have you. I imagine it is the original instrument, and there are endless ways we use our voices melodically, rhythmically, with notes or sound, with words, without words..


The things that I get most excited by are the possibilities of creating. Working with favorite musicians. Writing, producing, watching a song come together from an idea in my head. It’s exhilarating when it comes together right. I enjoy the fellowship that comes with making music with other musicians. I love the oneness that you sometimes experience when you’ve played with musicians for a while and you are no longer playing from the page, but flying together. It feels like that sometimes, these are kind of magical moments…


It’s been important to me, to write and to sing about what’s happening in the world, to give voice to what many may be feeling. That has been a theme in my work for as long as I’ve been writing. It’s also important to me to pay homage to the greats that have come before me. Having said that, I seek the beautiful moments in music although at times my work is raw or evocative. I am constantly striving to challenge myself musically.

The new cd LIFE, features some of my favorite standards including Lush Life and No Greater Love, but there are also more contemporary songs like As and Superwoman by Stevie Wonder, One Thing Leads To Another by the Fixx, and People by the Stylistics. It’s a more layered project than I’ve ever done before, in that I was more particular in the choosing of material. My aim was to choose songs from the 60s and 70s, and even as far back as the 30s, that speak to the racial divide happening today. It’s a little bit autobiographical, a kind of love song to Harlem (where I’m from, shout out to St Nick❤️). It’s a meshing of genres, eras, and soundscapes and it features some of the most incredible musicians on the music scene today. As Nicholas Payton would say, it’s Black American Music.


That’s a great question… I guess I’ll start by saying that when I started working on this cd, it was going in one direction. I was working on it for about five years, and at the end of five years it’s gone in the complete opposite direction and that is directly because of the climate and landscape in America at the moment. We have watched so many people 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. I have without question been influenced by what I’ve see and it isn’t only taking place in America. But the music also tells the story of the resilience of POC (persons of colour) in America… Of how we rebound… and how we rise…and create beauty…and inspire…and influence. And how we love…


To be honest I’m somewhat new to the jazz arena, but I will say that I have felt for a long time that women composers, producers and filmmakers and directors have for many years, not gotten the opportunities or the recognition they deserve. I have struggled over the course of my career to be recognized as a writer and producer of my own music. I wouldn’t say it’s a constant struggle, but it is a struggle none the less. A few years back I really got into the music of Betty Carter which led me to start reading about her life and what an incredible life and career she had. She formed her own record company, booked her own tours and took all the risk to record albums that she wanted to make and take herself on tour, but she also took home the lion’s share of the proceeds and it’s truly brilliant that she had foresight to do so. Her story has been tremendously inspiring to me. But I don’t know that she set out to be a pioneer as much as she probably just had a hard time working with people who stopped believing in her at a certain point in her career, in a business that was heavily male dominated at that time. I mean we’re talking about the 50s, 60s and even 70s.


I don’t know that I have a particular approach. For this record, I had songs I wanted people to either play on or arrange with me (Lush Life, Best Is Yet). There are a few composers that came to me with arrangements already complete (Superwoman, People). Other tunes like I Can’t Breathe was something that was floating in my head for a while, that my husband Chris suggested I flesh out with pianist Shedrick Mitchell (Maxwell, Kenny Garrett, Betty Carter). There were a couple people I asked to write something for me like Casey Benjamin (Robert Glasper, Stephon Harris, Q Tip), who wrote If They Only Knew.


Don’t give up. It’s the best piece of advice I can give to anyone aspiring. I think the business is mostly a numbers game, so be in it to win it. But keep honing and learning your craft so that when the exciting moments and opportunities come, you’re prepared. Go out, make the scene, get off your devices and make music with other people. It’s important.


I think a lot of touring. This is a double cd, with the second half coming out in the spring of 2019, so I’ll be traveling for several months in support of it. I recently secured distribution for my label, and plan to release a few artists on the label next year and possibly the year after, so I’ll be in and out of the studio some.


Writing… I’m already writing and producing new music. I’m working on a film script at the moment, and been delving into acting a little. I read a lot and get a lot of inspiration from that. I haven’t had time in a long time to just sit and read the way I used to.


A ton of stuff… This week, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Keyon Harold, Casey Benjamin, Christian Scott, Victory Boyd, Emily King, Blood Orange, Mayer Hawthorne, Dan Murray.


Vivian Sessoms Reminds Us That Black Lives Matter In ‘I Can’t Breathe’

After releasing the video for her stirring rendition of “Strange Fruit” in December, Vivian Sessoms has more to say about the killing of Black people. Her latest single and video, “I Can’t Breathe (for Erica)” from her forthcoming album, LIFE II, is co-directed by prolific producer, director and writer Epic “DC” Coles and uses intense imagery to chronicle the angst and heartbreak that families and communities suffer in the wake of the sudden and violent death of a loved one.

The clip opens with a mother cooking and grooving in the kitchen. A phone rings and in an instant her frivolity is replaced by numbness as she slowly slides down the wall. In the next scene, she is sitting alone in the dark, nursing a drink with tear-brimmed eyes. Her sorrow is accentuated by strident piano chords that slowly fade into a silence shattered by Sessoms poignant vocals, “I can’t breathe / My heart is filled with fear / Because I don’t seem able / To catch my breath now that you’re not here.”

The imagery is evocative of videos that haunt our social media timelines and newsfeeds. We see a man in a chokehold at the bottom of a pile of police who can’t breathe, a young male in the dirt clutching a bag of Skittles, a police officer slamming a young man into a fence and a mother cradling the body of her deceased child. As we reach our emotional boiling point, a preacher fervently pleads with God, “How long and how much longer,” as Sessoms agonizingly sings.

Art imitates life as a father sits with his son having “the talk” – that dreaded conversation where parents tell their children to comply with the police to make it home alive. He admonishes the young man to remember, “cops, you, hands up, safe.” In the next scene, he grips a photo of what appears to be his son as heartbreak and tears flow from his eyes.

“I Can’t Breathe” features jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. His melancholy guitar creates a somber tone and is akin to a low-pitched wail as Sessoms sings about her mother begging her to hold on. “But I ain’t got no fight left within me / And no desire to be strong,” she bemoans.

The video for “I Can’t Breathe (for Erica)” explores the devastating impact the violent killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement has on the loved ones they leave behind and their struggle to cope with the sudden and unexpected loss. Fittingly, it ends with an angelic reunion of Eric Garner and Erica Garner (the Erica referenced in the song's title), leaving those who are grieving with the hope of reuniting with their own loved one someday.” - Suzy Sonshyn


Check out Vivian Sessoms’ ‘I Can’t Breathe’ video which she released ‘to Honor Erica Garner and her dad, Eric Garner.’



February is Black history month, inextricably linked to Rodney King, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner - The list of victims of US-led violence continues. Vivian Sessoms takes up and shows the private side, which changes behind the headlines, the lives of the affected families forever. Erica was the daughter of asthma sufferer Eric Garner, who pleaded with the words “I Can’t Breathe”, to release the stranglehold of the policeman who maltreated him but clearly in vain. After the death of her father she dedicated her public life to the fight against police violence - the behind-the-scenes impact is the theme of Vivian’s new single, which also herald’s the second installment of the LIFE album, which will be released in May. Deep, highly emotional, and great soul art. This video is a must!


Harlem, New York native Vivian Sessoms might not be a household name. But you've probably heard her voice or seen her live—and not even known it.

Sessoms has provided vocals for such stars as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Sinead O'Connor, Diddy, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taylor Dayne, Rob Thomas, Joe Cocker and P!nk. With such a stellar and diverse resume, it's no surprise at how powerful and masterfully Sessoms' voice connects with any song she sings.

In conjunction with Black History Month, Billboard presents the video premiere of Sessoms' new song, "I Can't Breathe (For Erica)," featuring jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield. The track is the first single from the singer's Life II album, due May 17 on Baby Buddha/Ropeadope. Sessoms wrote the song with Shedrick Mitchell and executive produced and co-directed the video with Epic "DC" Coles, who has worked with Jay-Z among others.

The song originated as a response to the racial injustice and violence confronting the black community. Sessoms "wanted to show what happens in any family when one member is taken away. The whole family struggles with that loss, especially when it's unexpected or due to violence. The whole family is very often changed forever."

Following the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer, Sessoms says she "cried for what happened for his family." It was the same way she reacted to what happened to Rodney King, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, all of whom were also involved in controversial interactions with authorities. "A day or two after watching the Garner incident," says Sessoms, "I started to write down my thoughts."

She started putting together the Life albums in 2014, the first of which was released last November. "In the back of my mind," recalls Sessoms, "I thought, maybe just maybe, I'll do something with those jumbled words and incomplete sentences."

Those words formed a compelling narrative after Sessoms read about Erica Garner seeking justice for her dad. "I listened to her speak," says Sessoms, "and afterward I think I kind of finished it for her. I was awestruck by Erica. Watching her made me incredibly proud of her strength and resilience in the face of such a heartbreaking tragedy."

Praises Whitfield, the video's featured artist and a veteran of Billboard's jazz charts for over three decades, "Vivian possesses a rare gift: the ability to transcend genres and moments in time by using her timeless vocal stylings to express deep emotion and sentiment that immediately translates to everyone. I'm ever so proud to have played a small role in helping her deliver this latest message of protest in the form of hope for our future as a whole and freedom from despair as a people."

Adds Sessoms, "I want to honor and remember Erica and Eric Garner—and so many others." - Alex Vitoulis

Looking for some Monday motivation? We’ve got you covered! From a searing rendition of a protest song that’s still hauntingly relevant to this day, to musical experimentations that mix modernity and tradition, here are five new jazz songs that you can listen to right now. Start your week the right way.

Having earned her stripes as a performer with such acclaimed artists as Ryuichi Sakamoto, P. Diddy and Michael Jackson, accomplished Harlem-born singer Vivian Sessoms brings her vast array of experiences on her inspired, socially aware, jazz-influenced new album, Life. Her first LP in over ten years proves her a fiery, forward-thinking artist in her own right, and includes a searing rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching poem-turned-song made famous by Billie Holiday. “It was still relevant 30 years later when Nina Simone re-recorded it and we could never have foreseen that it would still be as relevant today,” Sessoms explains. “It literally haunted me and rang in my head every day until I decided to record it.” - JAZZIZ

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.


Vivian Sessoms - LIFE

“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



                   VIVIAN SESSOMS ‘LIFE’ CD (ROPEADOPE) 4/5

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

Vivian Sessoms – Life

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 🐾🐾🐾 🐾🐾