She's spent her career enhancing the music of Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, Cher, Chaka Khan, Pink and others. But, as with Lisa Fischer, when Vivian Sessoms leads her own project, her towering voice and sensitive musicality shunts many bigger names into the shade. Nor is she over-eager to reveal her wares. The opening track is essentially an instrumental merely flecked with the colour of a wordless vocal towards the end, and we are into the fourth song, I Can't Breathe, before she fully unzips a voice of such staggering power that you fear for the health of the air particles between the speakers and your ears. It's a 12/8 slow-burner, with a tasty Mark Whitfield guitar solo that wisely avoids trying to upstage Sessoms, while the great Billy Kilson imbues the laid-back drumming with his unique vibrancy. She can steam into funk (One Thing Leads to Another), soothe with ballads (joined by Gregoire Maret's peerless harmonica on They Only Knew) and intrigue with genre-crossing atmospherics (As). The sheer scope of what Sessoms attempts conspires to produce some inconsistency, but her best work lies near the pinnacle of the R&B/jazz nexus. -JOHN SHAND
A CD Review for Black Music Month: VIVIAN SESSOMS
JUNE 22, 2019
A CD REVIEW FOR BLACK MUSIC MONTH
BY Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
VIVIAN SESSOMS – “LIFE II” ropeadope Records
Vivian Sessoms, vocals/producer/arranger; Chris Parks, bass/producer/arranger/electric piano/ programmer/keys; Shedrick Mitchell, piano/organ/arranger; Christian Gates, keys/programming;/ guitar/drum programming; Dave Archer, keys; Sherrod Barnes & Mark Whitefield, guitar; Donald Edwards, Eric Brown & Billy Kilson, drums; Kenyatta Beasley, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; John Isley, saxophone; Casey Benjamin, saxophones/Fender Rhodes; Adi Yeshaya, string arranger; Charisa the violin diva, strings; Meku Yisreal, conga; Gregoire Maret, harmonica.
Vivian Sessoms is a composer, producer and vocalist. She has made her mark in the music business after years of preparation and practice. As a young talent, at the tender age of nine, Vivian was already doing television and radio voice overs. Her parents saw her artistic potential and she received classical training in voice and piano. Her first major tour was with Ryuichi Sakamoto, a pianist and composer. On the road with this brilliant artist and mentor, along with a band of awesome musicians including Manu Katche, Victor Bailey, and Darryl Jones, this fledgling songbird blossomed and took flight. She even learned to sing in Japanese. Her amazing vocal ability has impressed both in the studio and ‘live,’ such artists as P. Diddy, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Sinead O’Connor, Pink, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder, to list just a few. You probably have heard her vocals on any number of commercial jingles including Adidas, Afrosheen, Burger King, Calvin Klein, Campbells Soup, Coke, Dark & Lovely, Hersheys, Hyatt, even the IRS.
Listening to her lovely vocals on “The Best Is Yet To Come” I hear shades of Chaka Khan phrasing and a penchant towards Rhythm and Blues grit. She makes the song hers, far from the Frank Sinatra version, reinventing it to a more smooth-jazz production.
There is a Hip-Hop rap interval that follows this song featuring Major TRUTH Green that protests police violence against innocent-until-proven-guilty victims. This is followed by Sessoms’ gospel fused, R&B tune, “I Can’t Breathe.” Sessoms’ vocals soar, powerful and sincere like queen Aretha. Mark Whitfield is prominently featured on guitar and Shedrick Mitchell is effective and notable on organ as the lyrics mirror the heart-wrenching plea from Eric Garner as police choked him to death. It is clear this is a political statement triggered by the continued institutional, racial violence against people of color in America.
“There are so many things happening in the world that I care about and want to see change in, but none so much as halting the killing of black people,” Vivian Sessoms states.
“If They Only Knew” clearly shows this artist’s amazing vocal gift. It’s a beautiful ballad that features the sweet harmonica solo of Gregoire Maret. This song is a fusion jazz arrangement where Sessoms showcases her perfect pitch, awesome range and spectacular ability to deliver a lyric with an abundance of recognizable emotion.
The idea of segueing into Vivian Sessoms songs with musical interludes and hip-hop rap is interesting, but on the whole, distracts from Vivian Sessoms’ talent and delivery. It breaks up the flow of this production. Stevie Wonder’s composition, “As” is painted with an unusual minor-keyed, rhythm arrangement, but Sessoms holds true to the melody with her powerful vocals. This is obviously an experimental project that sounds more like a group effort than a single artist’s project. I definitely don’t see it as a jazz project. However, I admire Vivian Sessoms talent and her artistic desire to bring about change and political protest with her voice and musical choices.
The bass propels this project, thanks to the mastery of Chris Parks, who is also her partner in this production. Additionally, they have collaborated to songwrite and produce for a number of celebrity artists on other projects.
On the composition, “Thing” I hear shades of Esther Satterfield and at times, a throw-back to Minnie Ripperton’s style and grace; not the range, but the phrasing. The echo effects and over-lapping voice-overs on many of the songs can become a distraction. This vocalist doesn’t need effects to enhance her already powerful vocals. I would love to hear Vivian Sessoms featured in a more authentic jazz production, perhaps like the Jean Carn and Doug Carn original project or maybe celebrating Nancy Wilson. However,I recognize this album is a mixture of many musical styles and genres.
Although I rarely review this type of production, because my column is all about jazz, I was still smitten with this artist’s incredible voice and political character. There is no doubt, Vivian Sessoms is a stunning vocalist and a voice to be heard throughout the generations. Consequently, I wanted to feature her talents during Black Music Month. - DEE DEE MCNEIL
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Singer/songwriter Vivian Sessoms’ new album, Life II, is out now via Ropeadope Records. This 12-track collection of originals and interpretations of songs by such artists as The Fixx and Stevie Wonder is a companion piece to Life I, released last November, through which she tells her story and offers a depiction of black life in America. Featuring a sound influenced by diverse elements, styles, genres and artists, Life II also includes guest appearances from such artists as Shedrick Mitchell, Chris Parks, Donald Edwards, Casey Benjamin and many more.
Sessoms spoke with JAZZIZ about Life II, the story she wanted to tell via the album, how it was influenced by the current political situation, choosing the songs she wanted to record, her encouragement of in-the-moment creativity and more. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
JAZZIZ: Why did you choose the word “life” as the title for this album?
VIVIAN SESSOMS: I chose that word because the song choices tell a story about songs that I loved, songs that I’ve listened to and that had an impact on me as a kid. It’s the story of growing up in Harlem, so it’s also a love letter to Harlem. It’s also about being black in America at this time, and not only deals with the racial divide, but also with falling in love and family, and other things like that. It’s autobiographical on a few different levels. It’s also my first jazz records, so I wanted to choose songs that spoke of things I was feeling at the time but that also showed how in some ways some of the things have continued.
Do you think it’s the role of the artist to represent life?
I feel that artists are really using their platforms now to draw attention to certain things, shine a light on certain things. And I think it’s an important role of the artist. Many black artists are using their platform for that, which I think is incredibly powerful. For me, it was a way to express heartbreak over certain things that I was feeling, and joy and happiness over other aspects of black life in America right now.
So, politics are very much a part of this album.
Yes, for sure, because I think we’ve all been a little surprised by the recent turn of events in politics. I don’t just touch on the hurtful things; I try to touch on a lot of things like love, and family, and children. Having said that, as black people, we’re surprised and shocked, but in others, we have, for a long time, known how to make the best of maybe not the best of situations. I think now, most of America is looking at what’s going on, and the racial and political divide that’s happening right now. A lot of them are surprised by it, and we’re trying to tell them this is how things have been shaping up for quite some time.
And it can be quite challenging to be heard…
It’s very challenging to be heard, absolutely. It’s also hard for people to really articulate what they’re feeling because there’s just so much emotion right now, and a lot of trying to understand and make sense of things. Yet, I think that many people across several media, like film, literature and so on, are feeling the need to really talk about these issues and draw attention to them. For one thing, it’s just to get it off their chest. For another, I think many people can sense what’s happening and feel the need to speak for others.
Was that how you felt when you wrote “I Can’t Breathe”?
Yes, when that whole situation was happening with the Garner family, it was really shocking and disturbing. It’s not that we didn’t know that sort of thing had been happening, but to actually see it was something of another matter altogether. I was really hurt by it, as so many others were, and things just began to swim in my mind. I don’t know if I thought to write about it particularly but a lot of emotion crept up when I saw that and his daughter picking up the mantle of activism and talking about it, her father and the death and the deaths of other people in America. That’s when I started to write those ideas down and it just kind of came out of me.
Do you welcome in-the-moment creativity?
When I write with my husband Chris [Parks], who’s my partner on this record, it’s a bit different because we spend so much time together. We constantly bounce some ideas off one another, or he might have written a track and he will play it for me, and I love it. Then, I’ll sit with it for a while, or I have a particular musical idea and say this is what I want. When I work with other, outside musicians, the way that I did for most of this record, I go in and I have some loose idea of what I want, and I convey that to the band. But I like to leave room for everyone to paint and bring their colors, and vibe, and ideas to it. That, I think, is part of the joy, beauty and magic of creating with other people.
That really shows on tracks like “Fool Me Once.”
That’s exactly right. That’s my cousin who’s rhyming over that, Major Green. I sort of gave him a vibe and he came back with those beautiful lyrics for me, so fitting to what I wanted to make this record about.
Many of the covers on this album are very different from their original versions, like “1 Thing.” Do you feel it’s important for you to make a song your own?
I wouldn’t say that making these songs my own is very important to me. It’s more about having fun with a song and enjoying the process of what I hear. If I like the way something sounds, that makes me incredibly happy. I actually recorded 45 songs for this record. A lot of them are jazz standards reworked, and it was really about how good something made me feel, or how well it fits in with the other songs that I was choosing to put on the record.
Is the wealth of material the reason why you decided to make this a double album?
I did have quite a lot of material. When I was starting to talk with Ropeadope about signing with them, I thought it would probably be nice, because I hadn’t put a record out in a long time, to maybe do two. Do a double album. First, because I had a lot of material, but also because I just wanted to tell more of a story and it was important for me to include the interludes that I did, and all of the different bits and pieces. Because I just thought it told a great story, and I felt it would be easier than to try to cram ten or twelve songs on one record. I thought, “Let me spread it out and really create a palette and a storyline.”
How did you choose the songs you wanted to record?
There are probably thousands of songs that shape an artist so, it’s difficult to cram so much in one album, even if it’s a double album. It may be surprising that some of these songs, like “The Best Is Yet to Come” and songs like that shaped me, and obviously, there are some that are more important than others. Stevie Wonder is an artist who really shaped me as a kid. Another part of the reason why I wanted to release a double album is how impactful Songs in the Key of Life was for me and how much that album spoke to so many people I knew. I was a kid when it came out; it was a very pivotal point for America.
“People Make the World Go Round,” and all these songs have impacted me in different ways at different times over the course of my life. Of course, there will be other albums that I’ll do that will talk about songs that have impacted my life. But I don’t know if I’ll do lots more records where I do so many covers. So, it was fun to pick out songs that had meaning for me over the course of my life, and that I thought helped tell the story of my life being black in America, of falling in love, of tributing great artists that I love.
So, the narrative is very important.
Absolutely, it’s very important. The timing and the vibe of the record, the atmosphere that it sets. It’s all incredibly important. I think that every part of a record tells a little bit of a story about an artist, from the cover art to the lyrics to the melody to the songs that you choose and the sequencing. All of it tells a story. And me being at a particular place in my life, at this time, spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally and all those kinds of things played a part in the temperament and the evolution of the project.
Was the fact that you weren’t in a good place a reason why you hadn’t released an album in a while?
Well, no, I don’t think it’s that. I started touring with other artists and that just became my main focus for a while. But it was always my goal to put something out. The timing was just never right, but I also thought I would rather wait than rush anything. I didn’t want to push it, I didn’t want to force it. I also wanted to make sure I had the right team when I was able to release new music, and it just sort of organically came together and fell into place. I think it was the universe telling me, “The time is now.” - Matt Micucci
TO BE BLACK IN AMERICA
Vivian Sessoms has built a career in collaboration with a range of world-famous artists. P. Diddy, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Sinéad O'Connor, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Stevie Wonder all have a place on her resume. With a new Ropeadope contract in hand, Sessoms has produced a two-part album release called Life. They make an extraordinary pair, from both a personal and political perspective.
All About Jazz: There is a lot here thematically. Walk us through it.
Vivian Sessoms: It's been a really long time since I did a record. So I really wanted to talk about where I am at this point in my life. I've been singing jazz for a very long time but I've never made a jazz record. I've been working on this record for several years. Then about three or four years ago, the climate in America really seemed to change drastically. For me, Life is sort of an autobiographical record in that I chose songs that have always had a special meaning to me, songs that I loved growing up. But I started to think about revamping the album, with all that was going on. I began to take stock of what it feels like to be black in America at this time. So that really shaped the record. I won't say it's a coming of age, but it's about reaching another plateau in my life. It's about being a black woman in America, or a black person in America.
I grew up in Harlem, which is famous for jazz and a famous enclave in New York City. But when I was a kid, it was all black. I had a lot of good memories growing up there and I wanted to feature a lot of the music from my childhood. So it's a little bit autobiographical, it's a little bit of a snapshot of what it means to be black in America at this time. It's a love letter to Harlem, and a look back to songs I love from my childhood.
AAJ: There are personal, community and even national aspects to what you're describing. Is it difficult to maintain focus on something so complex?
VS: Because of the climate, it's hard not to focus. It's become difficult for it not to take up a lot of time and emotion for black and white people—white people who get it, and who care and understand what's happening.
Seeing things that were happening that were just so shocking. We've always known that these things happen, and that the world can be this way. But with the onslaught of social media, it has become undeniably clear. It felt right to talk about it in my music because it feels so disturbing to me. And hopefully I can influence people and change some minds about what's really going on here.
AAJ: The emotions on the album feel personal. Is that fair?
VS: It is fair. It hasn't happened to me, but it's hard to watch people die. If you talk to probably any black person in America nowadays, they will sound the same. It's hard, very near impossible, to see these kinds of things on television and on the internet and not be affected by it. And it's not just affecting black people. It's affecting us all.
It's shocking. Even if you're not experiencing it where you are, to know that it's happening. No one can know this and see this ever and not be changed by it in some way. So it does feel very personal.
AAJ: The track "I Can't Breathe (for Erica)" has a lot of significance.
VS: When I saw what had happened to Eric Garner, I really was shocked and stunned. It made me feel ill for several days. But it wasn't until maybe a year later, when I saw Erica Garner speaking and I began to read about her and saw that she had become an activist in the wake of her father's passing. I really admired that. I thought, out of something so tragic, she's taking a stand. It's not only about justice for her dad, it's for other people. I thought that must be an incredibly difficult thing to do.
So I started playing around with some words, thinking about how much strength it takes to be able to fight that way after you've lost someone so dear to you. I thought that her pouring herself into this was a good way to combat the feelings of pain and heartache.
AAJ: Why did Eric's story resonate so widely?
VS: Because we saw it play out. To see that play out on television, I think it was the first time a lot of America really understood that there's a problem. Very often you read about something like that, and there are details about perhaps resisting arrest, or causing trouble, or they had had a difficult past, or they'd been in trouble before with the law. Somehow it seems in many people's minds that it was justifiable. But when we saw that, it brings this home to you. It's clear that this person was not harming anyone, and he absolutely did not deserve to die.
AAJ: And the video shows so much of what happened. It starts before the situation escalated, and confirms what we've been hearing from people of color for so many years.
VS: It's the realization that you don't really have to be doing anything. Many times, black people have said I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't running away. And still people get shot, and sometimes get killed.
AAJ: Let's change gears. I grew up in the 1980s, and The Fixx was one of those bands we were excited about. How did you come to cover them?
VS: I always loved that song. I had done a demo of that song for a commercial a few years earlier. I always loved the demo, and I wanted to one day include it on a record. When I gave the demo to my husband Chris [Parks], he said he had an idea for an afro-beat. So he was really at the helm of that song. He came up with the horn arrangement. He played keys, guitar, bass and did some programming.
I thought it was a very appropriate tune for the times, and for the political climate of the country at the moment. It's a perfect tune for now.
AAJ: What was it like to work with Ryuichi Sakamoto?
VS: I adore Ryuichi. I look at him and my years with him as something of a mentorship. He really sort of groomed me. He helped me grow in a unique way and caused me to really be OK with stepping outside of the box.
I was very young. It wasn't my first tour, but it was an early tour for me. And he put me with very accomplished musicians and I really had to mind my Ps and Qs. I worked really hard, and I will forever be grateful to him.
His music is unlike anything I've heard before. Very beautiful, very lush but very provocative. I call it head music. I loved working with him and I hope I get to do it again.
AAJ: You've played both The Tonight Show and The Knitting Factory. That's range. What is it about what you do that works on those two very different stages?
VS: A lot of the television stuff I've done is in support of other artists. And even The Knitting Factory; I've played there on my own but I've also played there in support of other artists. I've had a strong career singing background for other artists and writing with other artists. I've always worn a lot of caps. So I have found myself on all kinds of stages, and that's always been the career I wanted.
AAJ: Do you have a favorite?
VS: Ryuichi is definitely one of my favorites. Joe Cocker is another beloved artist who I've worked with. Patty Austin. I've had a lot of favorites, but those are at the top.
Jazz practitioner Vivian Sessoms has made a name for herself as an international vocalist, composer, and arranger. Three separate skill sets which she employed on her compilation Life, consisting of Life I (released November 2, 2018) and Life II (released May 17, 2019). She has a lot to say about Life, how the recordings came to be, who joined her on her expedition to make them, and what the music on them will tell audiences about herself.
She examines, “I called the project LIFE because it is a reflection of my childhood, and a reflection of being black in America at this time. It’s an homage to Harlem, where I grew up. It’s an homage to several of the great artists and writers whose music has inspired me along the way. It’s music about life, love, family and memories.” She capitulates, “It’s also a signal that we as black people like and listen to all kinds of music and we always have.”
Her musical influences are vast, crossing over genres, decades and generations. She cites the artists who shaped her songwriting acumen as “Ashford and Simpson, El DeBarge, Stevie Wonder, Patrice Rushen, Gordon Chambers.”
The list of artists that has affected her as a vocalist, composer and arranger are far more expansive as she shares, “I grew up listening to all kinds of music as a kid, including a lot of jazz. My grandmom was playing Nina, Sarah, Billie and Ella, Nancy and Gloria Lynne. My uncle was playing Marvin, Stevie, Al Green and EW&F. In addition, both my parents were musicians, so when I say I was surrounded by music that is the literal truth. When I was growing up, it was a time when many jazz artists were crossing and blending genres between Soul and Jazz, R&B and Jazz, and even Rock and Jazz. My mom was listening to Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds, Labelle, Herbie Hancock, Norman Connors, Santana, Steely Dan, and Joe Cocker, all genre defying artists. So I think many of the brilliant artists that I was listening to as a kid have inspired me, including my mom and dad.”
According to Sessoms’s biography on her website, her “mother was a session/jingle-singer and her father was a flautist/percussionist (for James Brown among others).”
Talking about herself, her bio states, “By the time she was nine, Vivian had begun doing television and radio voice overs. With the help of casting agent Mikki Powell (The Wiz), she made the rounds of auditions for various Broadway shows, all while receiving classical training in voice and piano. Somewhere around the age of 14, Vivian began composing her own music, following in the footsteps of her musician parents.”
She reveals that the appeal of jazz has stayed with her over the years. “I think in my mind it was always something I planned to do. I love the freedom of it. There just seems to be more room to create in the Jazz arena than in any other form of music. It is the music of my people. It’s the expression of the black experience in all of its many facets. Obviously, it’s grown and culminated into something that everyone can partake in and be part of but that is the origination of it.”
Her compilation consisting of Life I and Life II has Chris Parks on board as a co-producer and co-arranger. “Chris is a magician,” she praises. “He’s an alchemist… I love magic. Together, we make a pair. A pair of what I don’t know, but I would say he is equally a catalyst and a collaborator. I think we have mentored each other. We both strive to bring out the best in each other without ever having said those specific words or having that specific thought. But I do think that we have a similar love and reverence for music. In that respect, we continuously challenge each other to make a song better with an underlying rule that no track is finished unless and until we’re both happy with it.”
Additionally, the musicians selected to play on the tracks were specifically chosen by Sessoms and Parks. “Most of the musicians we asked to play on the project just because we love them and their artistry,” she asserts. “Some we asked based on a particular song or a feeling we wanted for that song. Some are musicians we’d been wanting to do something with for a while, we were just waiting for the right moment.”
Each track is a standalone number as well as an integral part of the overall theme of the compilation. For instance, the airy and atmospheric arrangement “Eden” is different from the other numbers because Sessoms does not sing on the track, and yet, it fits into the overall concept of the compilation. She discerns, “Eden is the place that we think of where all Life began. I wanted to include some pieces that spoke to life on the spiritual or esoteric side, which was the impetus for ‘Eden’ and why it, and the other interludes were included on the project.”
“The Best Is Yet to Come” is another aurally gorgeous number. She remarks about the tune, “That track and another track on the cd [called] ‘As’ were the longest to come together because they were done in layers,” she explains. “A lot of the songs were done this way, in an effort to accommodate people’s schedules. But these two took the longest because of the multitude of layers. With ‘The Best Is Yet To Come,’ I wanted to capture the vibe of how the original kind of keeps rising in intensity, culminating in a second half which was just riding a wave. Reaching a lovely moment and riding that wave.”
She discusses the process for putting the song together, “I usually come to the studio with a sketch of an idea in my head. I talk through the vibe I’m going for and where I want the track to go. Once, we really got down to working out the nuts and bolts of the arrangement, after talking and playing it through a couple of times and then recording it, the guys got to a lovely place and kept on going. It was a very beautiful moment.. we had about 15-16 minutes… it was so hard to cut it down because it was really special.”
“In my mind,” she elucidates, “I always wanted the horns to be the focal point on the track, but the horns were added later so a bit tricky putting everything together in the beginning without the horns. I also knew I wanted a very specific, very lush sound for the strings, so there was a bit of balancing act to keep the space in there.”
Her re-imagining of the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” has jazz elements that allow listeners to hear the song in a new light. “For me,” she proclaims, “this has always been a political song. I’m a big fan of The Fixx, I guess that’s a holdover from my MTV days. This track was definitely a more of Chris production, meaning he was more at the helm of this particular track. We trade off a lot, one of us will have an arrangement in mind and the other will help flesh it out. He had the idea for the arrangement, played guitar, keys and bass, and arranged the horns.”
The beautiful moments of making the recording are relived at each stop along Sessom’s promotional trail for the compilation. “I definitely plan to tour to promote LIFE II,” she promises. “I’ll do some touring in the states over the summer, and then go to Europe and Asia in the fall. And of course, we’re promoting everywhere we can digitally.”
In closing, she imparts some lifelong lessons, “Do your best and put everything in writing, lol…”
Lastly, she embraces, “I think having the parents I had, who were so involved and in love with music helped shape me. Performing with the kinds of artists and musicians that I have, has helped me to grow and expand my vocabulary musically, and of course, having Chris as a partner.”
What audiences discover about Sessoms in the Life compilation is everything that has entailed her life. From her influences to her partnerships and family, the music displays her likes, her emotions, and her love of jazz. Everything that has happened to her, affected her, and shaped her musical leanings has a place on her Life compilation. - Susan Frances
JAZZIZ proudly presents the premiere of the official video for internationally-celebrated vocalist Vivian Sessoms’ sultry and seductive version of Amerie’s 2005 hit song, “1 Thing,” featuring Sherrod Barnes and instrumental backing from Paradigm. Sessoms calls this one of her favorite covers from her new album, LIFE II, a 12-track collection of reimagined gems and her own dynamic original compositions. LIFE II, out now, is also the follow-up to her acclaimed LP, LIFE, which was released last November.
Vivian Sessoms - LIFE II
“I Can’t Breathe,” the absolutely stunning lead single from Vivian Sessom’s upcoming album LIFE II, references the final words said by Eric Garner in 2014 when he was placed in a fatal choke hold while being arrested by police for illegally selling cigarettes. However, the mixture of blues and gospel does not tell the story of Garner, but of his daughter who became an activist in the wake of her father’s death. Erica’s Garner’s story is a one of courage and tragedy. She found her voice after her father died and she pushed for justice for Eric Garner, as well as for other black men and women who died under similar circumstances. However, the weight of the tragedy that befell her father and the larger society’s indifference to it, proved to be suffocating and the stress of it likely a factor in her death.
Sessoms, who said that she started writing this song after watching the coverage of Eric Garner’s death, pours herself into a song that is a powerful exploration of the everyday toll that violence takes on those left behind. The gospel piano chords that open this track and give the song a mournful feel serve as the foundation of the many levels of loss experienced by survivors that Sessoms expresses through her heartfelt rendering of the lyrics. “I Can’t Breathe” tells the story of a daughter who lost her father during an encounter with police but the universality of the track and the pain that comes through Sessoms’ searing vocal performance makes this a number that can apply to mothers, wives and siblings who have experienced similar losses.
Sessoms, the child of a mother who herself was a session and jingle singer, and a father who was a percussionist and flautist who played in James Brown’s band, is a jazz singer who is equally influenced by gospel, R&B and hip-hop. LIFE II reflects that fact. The album has original compositions such as the aforementioned “I Can’t Breathe,” and sparse keyboard and voice driven ballad “If They Only Knew,” an intimate track that finds Sessoms musing about the thoughts and troubles that she keeps hidden from the world.
As a jazz singer, Sessoms is also an interpreter of the pop music canon. She grew up listening to and performing with artists such as Pink, Stevie Wonder, Cher, and George Duke, just to name a few, and her musical canon reflects that range. Covers on LIFE II include Amerie’s “1 Thing,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” a song made famous by Frank Sinatra; “One Thing Leads to Another” by The Fixx and Stevie Wonder’s “As.”
Sessoms’ reimaging of “One Thing Leads To Another,” a funky cut from the 1980s British new wave band The Fixx shows her creativity. Sessoms gives the track an Afro-Caribbean beat that is deeply percussive. The tune opens with a kalimba before moving into a funky shuffle that is punctuated with harmonic horn play. The arrangement of “As,” a song that Sessoms likely knows well from her time working with Stevie Wonder, with has an otherworldly feel due to the Bernie Worrell styled synthesizer work that undergirds the track and provides the foundation for tempo changes and a improvisations by guitars, drums, bass and Sessoms vocal contortions that move from conversational, to staccato to gospel.
Sessoms says that one thing that determines whether she will record a song is if the tune makes her feel something. “You have to feel something about what you’re saying if you want anyone else to buy into it,” she notes. Sessoms sells passion, honesty and creativity on LIFE II, and she deserves to find plenty of buyers. Solidly Recommended. - Howard Dukes
Women. Soul. Jazz. Pop. Or is it “just" music? And the best that has been heard so far this season? Of course, we have long known that we have not been able to get past Tahirah Memory and Vivian Sessoms. But since we have not appreciated either "Asha" or the "LIFE II" albums in an adequate way, we have a special need here and now, once again to announce an urgent Sonic Soul recommendation. Both women are as different as their music. Vivian prefers a great performance, always stylish and playing with all the soul-and-jazz brilliance - sparkling, radiant, great. Her musical accompaniment is exceedingly exquisite, the mostly, and gladly so, sumptuous arrangements are refreshingly different, at any time equipped with surprises and decorated with multilayered subtleties. Great jazz - soul cinema.
Vivian Sessoms has released two great albums inside six months – the second, LIFE II, led by an incredible single, I Can’t Breathe. Chris Wells finds out how she did it.
In July 2014, Eric garner died in Staten Island, New York City, after an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold whilst arresting him on suspicion of selling “loosies” [single cigarettes] from packs without tax stamps. Like a lot of other events these days, the incident was caught on film. Bystanders maintained going to his innocence and that he had actually just broken up a fight between two other persons, who had fled the scene. In the film, widely available online, Garnett can be heard gasping, “I can’t breathe”, 11 times while lying face down on the sidewalk. He loses consciousness and remains lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes while the office is wait for an ambulance to arrive. An hour later Gardner is pronounced dead in the hospital.
Subsequently his 24-year-old daughter Erika became an activist and critic of the NYPD, leading twice-weekly marches to the scene of her father‘s death. She also marched for Black Lives Matter. In August 2017, shortly after the birth of her second child [named Eric, after her father], Erika Gardner suffered a heart attack. Four months later she suffered a second heart attack, thought into a coma and died, aged just 27.
These tragic events provide the inspiration for Vivian Sessoms recent song, I Can’t Breathe [For Erika], A powerful, moving and intensely delivered soul ballad, a stand-out track on her new album, LIFE II, just released by Ropeadope Records. It’s accompanied by a video — one of six Sessoms shot to go with her recent albums: LIFE was released last November, making her projects a staggered-release double set — that seeks to show the terrible and wide-ranging effects of violence perpetrated on African-Americans, often by police and mostly due to racism, on families across the US.
“I got it down, just some lines, back then, when it happened. It was an answer to what I had witnessed on TV.... just a few thoughts”, she explains when I inquire about the songs gestation. “Maybe a year later I saw Erica, marching and protesting; she’d given an interview, talking about the injustices happening to black people here in the US. I was moved by what she said and I also thought she was incredibly brave and powerful because she had turned something so painful into a voice for activism. That’s when I finished the lyrics. There was so much violence back then. There still is violence now. Everyone was shellshocked and overwhelmed; there was heartbreak and anguish everywhere.
“I wrote this song for someone else really — maybe India Arie? I was working on a jazz record of the time and I didn’t know if it would fit. But I decided to record a version of Strange Fruit and then People Make The World Go Round, and my husband said to me, “y’know, you should just record that song on this album.” So we had the guys come in and I kept pretty much the first take of what we did.
It’s an extraordinary vocal performance, one that many of us already familiar with Sessoms last two albums Sunny One Day from 2007 and the first volume of LIFE, weren’t really aware she had under the hood. I mean, we knew she could sing, but this was just ferocious. It’s no surprise that she didn’t go back and try it again.
“I don’t really perform it that much, ‘cause it’s hard,” she knowledges. “As for the video, I knew that I wanted to tell the story, not so much of the anger, but the heartache that people feel at that type of loss. When you lose people to violence, it’s like a double edge sword. It’s a pit you fall into. Very often when black people suffer that kind of violence they are vilified and made to feel as if they are somehow responsible in some way; that they did something to deserve it. So many people have died or suffered violence and then we don’t hear that much about it. I wanted to show how the violence affects the whole family, the neighborhood, how sometimes families never recover from it. I wanted to humanize us for people that don’t really understand we are just people trying to live our lives and raise our children, just like everyone else.”
Sessoms grew up in Harlem in the projects. Her parents and grandparents were social activist — her mom and grandma both marched with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — and although she reports having a happy childhood in a neighborhood where families looked out for each other, she also says with a touch of understatement, “I saw a lot of things that the average kid doesn’t normally see.”
The first time any of us over here might have noted her name would’ve been amongst the credits to Keith Sweat’s debut album, Make It Last Forever, back in 1987. She’d been in the group Jamilah along side Sweat and helped him out, alongside Jackie McGhee, on background vocals for the Teddy Riley-produced hit album. Sessoms was supposed to sing the duet on the album’s title track, but was unable to do so because she was seven months pregnant by the time of the recording date, and so McGhee stepped in. She did sing on Sweat’s first three albums though, and later performed with such as Lalah Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, P. Diddy, P!nk, Ryuichi Sakamoto [and via the latter Aztec Camera], and many more. Her first “own” recording was a rock project but the one most readers of this magazine would have added to their collections came in 2007, under the name Albright featuring Vivian Sessoms, entitled Sunny One Day. It took her 11 more years to make another.
“I recorded maybe 45 songs for this album,” she reveals. “I had a lot to choose from - different genres too. I really started working in earnest on this record... well, first of all, I had been asked to perform for a jazz vesper program inside a church in Brooklyn. The organizer asked me to put together something that honored black women and Black History Month, so I put a program together that featured Betty Carter, Nina Simoneand Billie Holiday and one of the songs I performed was Strange Fruit. I had never done it before. It’s a painful song to me and I I had always shied away from it. In fact, I had shied away, during my adolescent years, from my parents’ activism — it was talked about so much in our household, I found it overwhelming.
“Anyway I performed Strange Fruit to a packed church and it was a pivotal moment for me. I knew from that point I had to record that song. A few months later I came up with the arrangement and that’s when the tenor of the entire album changed for me from being just a beautiful jazz album with strings and stuff... and we went back in and cut 15 other songs.”
It wasn’t planned to be a double album at the time, but once Ropeadope came into the picture and its top man Louis Marks professed an interest in releasing the project in two helpings some six months apart, it came together pretty fast.
“I remember when Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life came out,” says Vivian on the subject of the effect of the double-album, “it was all we talked about for the next year. We were hearing new things from that album all the time. Well, I wanted my album to have a similar longevity. In this age where music has become so disposable, we wanted the music to stay on peoples minds for a while, to keep people interested.”
Together with husband / creative partner / producer Chris Parks, Sessoms recorded the music for the two albums in batches, but not sequentially. Dreaming Of A Boy from LIFE for example, was recorded on the same day as Strange Fruit and I Can’t Breathe, both of which appear on LIFE II. An impressive list of musicians are scattered across the two sets —names including Keyon Harrold, Shedrick Mitchell, Donald Edwards, Donny McCaslin, Billy Kilson, Kenyatta Beasley, Vincent Gardner, Amp Fiddler, John Isley, Casey Benjamin, Adi Yeshaya, Charisa “The Violin Diva” Rouse, Sherrod Barnes, Mark Whitfield, Jeremy Gaddie, Meku Yisrael, Gregiore Maret, Dave Archer, Tony Lewis, Eric Brown and Kali Zain Jafari.
“The albums are very layered,” she says. Part of them discusses Black Lives and black people, but on another level the project is a love letter to Harlem, where I’m from and grew up. It had its pitfalls about it, but it was also an amazing place, filled with beautiful people. So it’s about being a black person in America and reaching adulthood. I wanted to pay homage to some of my favorite writers, some of my favorite songs from my childhood, in addition to writing a few of my own songs.
“I know it’s difficult to make a living from your recordings now and you may have to add in your writing, your filmmaking, some commercials and so on, to make it all work, but I was burning to put this out there. I wanted to say, “Can we just take a moment to consider our human-ness?
For me, the need to get that message out superseded a requirement for money.” - ECHOES 2019
This past November vocalist, composer and producer Vivian Sessoms released LIFE, her first full album in ten years, to much acclaim and now the much-anticipated companion, LIFE II, follows. It’s a jazz-influenced piece that carries elements of R&B, spoken word, and hints of classical. Sessoms is one who likes to push the boundaries and this installment goes further in that direction than the previous. There is an immediate sense of urgency on this one amidst both the vibrant and mellow R&B. Sessoms is fearless, not shying away from some of the most difficult emotional subjects to write about, especially “I Can’t Breathe” which we’ll describe in more detail later.
Sessoms is indeed rather incomparable in both her approach to the music and her stunning vocal range. Her talent demands the cast of stellar musicians who have joined her with a different configuration on each track. They are Shedrick Mitchell (piano), Chris Parks (bass, guitar, keys, programming, production), Donald Edwards (drums), Billy Kilson (drums), Kenyatta Beasley (trumpet), Vincent Gardner (trombone), John Isley (saxophone), Casey Benjamin (saxophone), Adi Yeshaya (string arranger), Charisa “The Violin Diva” Rouse, Sherrod Barnes (guitar), Mark Whitfield (guitar), Jeremy Gaddie (drums), Meku Yisrael (conga), Gregoire Maret (harmonica), Dave Archer (keys), Tony Lewis (drums), Eric Brown (udu) and Kali Zain Jafari (vocal chant).
Sessoms is a veteran performer with a rich pedigree which includes stints with Ryuichi Sakamoto, P.Diddy, Cher, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Pink and many others (notice the absence of jazz names on that list and you get a further indication of her sound).
What drives her on this outing, is an end to violence, especially the killing of black people that is at the heart of the linchpin track, “I Can’t Breathe,” one of the most heart-wrenching vocal performances you may ever hear on record. Her wailing voice in the high register will send chills through you. It features the bluesy guitar of Mark Whitfield in the backing quartet as Sessoms takes the narrative of a daughter whose father was just killed. Amidst the aftermath of several deaths of black people, Sessoms grieved for their families, but it was Erica Garner’s response to her father, Eric’s death that moved her to write the song.
Rapper Major “TRUTH” Green joins her crying for justice in “Fool Me Once” and has her own take on the politically inspired “One Thing Leads to Another” originally by The Fixx. She reinvents Stevie Wonder’s “As” with a bit of trepidations – “I feel it’s almost a sacred song for us and to us. It’s one that’s so timeless, and the message is so crystal clear.” Mostly Sessoms writes with Parks or Mitchell but some of the backing musicians also have writing credits for these originals mixed with the covers. One of her favorite covers that features Sherrod Barnes and vocal backing from Paradigm is “1 Thing”. The album just moves through different moods, musical configurations, and rhythms, stamping Sessoms as a bold, dynamic risk-taker. The lush ballad “If They Only Knew,” with wonderful harmonica from Maret, follows the pulsating “One Thing Leads to Another” being just one of several examples.
Life II is a bit more expansive than the previous which was more heavily cover oriented and arguably more jazz-centric, but both retain the similar themes and outlook. Speaking about her work with Parks and Mitchell, Sessoms says, “You could say that this fits nicely in the genre of jazz, but in the words of Nicholas Payton, – it’s Black Music. If you’re familiar with my previous releases, I think you can see a natural progression.”
Sessoms is Harlem born with an incredibly rich musical pedigree which began from a classical background when she sung in Japanese when playing with Ryuichi Sakamoto. Later she added the multi-cultural styles and elements as he suggested. She’s performed on the world’s greatest stages, major TV late night and award shows, you name it. Yet, as you hear on LIFE II her explorative spirit for arranging, composing, and vocalizing knows no boundaries. Sessoms is an explorer. - Jim Hynes