Accomplished singer and Harlem native Vivian Sessoms, makes an almighty return in the company of some of the world’s finest musicians and stakes a claim to a sound all her own on her new album LIFE. Having earned her stripes as a performer with Ryuichi Sakamoto, P. Diddy, Cher, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, P!nk and many others, Sessoms and co-producer/creative partner Chris Parks bring her vast array of experiences to bear on an inspired, jazz-influenced set that proves Sessoms a fiery, forward-thinking artist in her own right.
“Although LIFE started out as a jazz record,” Sessoms recalls, “there was a lot happening here in the U.S. and in the world, and that really started to influence my choice of songs, which I think pulled the record in a direction that was more socially aware.” Whether she’s recasting material by Billy Strayhorn, The Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Cole Porter or Isham Jones, Sessoms is consistently powerful and very much at home within these finely crafted and surprising arrangements. The acoustic and electric blend, the expansive harmonic concept of keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell, the grooves anchored by drummer Donald Edwards and the numerous interludes: it all coheres to make LIFE something confident and unique, a definitive statement. Sessoms expressive, sophisticated sound draws on jazz, R&B and pop in fresh and moving ways,
Political consciousness is never far from the surface on LIFE, Sessoms first full length in over ten years. Certainly in Sessoms’ searing rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching poem-turned-song made famous by Billie Holiday. Vivian explains,”'Strange Fruit' is a song I never performed until very recently because it was very painful. One of my favorite movies is "Lady Sings The Blues" with Diane Ross. I remember seeing that film as a kid and asking my mother what did “blood on the leaves mean” and her explaining to me that the song was about lynching and what that meant. I was stunned into silence that things like that could happen to people, so hearing that song has often made me want to cry. In the wake of tragic incidents like Michael Brown, Akai Gurley and several others, I was moved to start singing the song in reverence. I’ve since talked about the civil rights movement and how Billie received death threats when she recorded the song. 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. It literally haunted me and rang in my head everyday until I decided to record it..
The theme is also present Sessoms cover of The Stylistics’ inspired and brooding R&B masterpiece “People Make the World Go Around,” written by the legendary Thom Bell and Linda Creed and arranged by Ray Angry. “People" has always been one of my favorite songs,” says Sesssoms. “A lot of what this album is about, was having a chance to record some of my favorite music or the work of my favorite composer while embracing the challenge of meshing different styles and genres together. I looked at reinterpreting some of the standards in more modern ways and skewing some of the more contemporary tunes, giving them a little more brevity. Many songs I grew up singing have now taken on much different and deeper meanings. I listen now and realize the lyrics of these songs were layered and timeless."
On the album’s inaugural single, the ultra-funky “See Line Woman,” we hear tenor sax great Donny McCaslin (of David Bowie’s Blackstar band and the Maria Schneider Orchestra) rising up with tremendous power and characteristic grace. Concedes Vivian, “I can’t take all the credit for 'See Line.' I’ve worked for several years with a composer and arranger from Denmark, whose work I admire - Mads Baerentzen. A while back I hired him to do some arrangements, one of which was "See Line Woman.” He came back with a rough idea which the 3 of us - Mads, my partner Chris and I then fleshed out in the studio until we were happy. That recording was the genesis of this album, LIFE.”
LIFE also features celebrated harpist Brandee Younger, trumpeters Keyon Harrold and Kenyatta Beasley, trombonist Vincent Gardner, saxophonist Casey Benjamin (on vocoder for “No Greater Love”) and more.
Niece of the legendary Nancy Wilson, the classically trained Sessoms also ventures the plaintive and lyrical original “Dreaming of a Boy,” co-written with Parks — “a piece I wrote about realizing my son was growing up.” she explains.
“In our work together, Chris [Parks] and I have done a lot of moving around from rock to soul to jazz,” Sessoms observes. “But I think the underlying thread is it’s all kind of funky or it leans toward soul. Our first project was a rock record with a band called Vivid, a nod to my favorite band Living Colour, but even that had a kind of funk-rock vibe. We have radically different ideas about production sometimes — it’s like a poker game, ‘If you do this, I’ll do that.’ But somehow it works for us!.”
Shedrick Mitchell’s arranging role on LIFE also proved decisive. “I’ve known Shedrick a long time, before I knew Chris even,” Sessoms says, “and he’s on my previous album "Sunny One Day" (2007). I had all these ideas in my head and Chris suggested bringing him in as a good fit. All I can say is - he brought the magic!” Indeed, listen to his and Sessoms’ treatments of Billy Strayhorn’s iconic “Lush Life,” which enters a completely new harmonic zone and rhythmic feel while never losing connection to the meaning and intent of the original. The appended vamp outro, titled “Love Sick,” features some of Sessoms’ most inspired singing on the album.
Across the board, arranging is one of LIFE’s key strengths: Dave Archer and Sessoms work similar magic with the Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and Mitchell endows Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman/Where Were You When I Needed You” with a beautiful, flowing waltz feel and unexpected deviations in the form. "You could say that this fits nicely in the genre of jazz, but in the words of Nicholas Payton - it’s Black Music,” notes Vivian when discussing the mastery involved in producing LIFE. She continues, “If you’re familiar with my previous releases, I think you can see a natural progression.”
Vivian Sessoms, with her unerring pitch and dynamism, conjures captivating moods and melodic departures on every song, in ways that couldn’t suit the music better. These elements sum up so much of what is special about LIFE in its risk-taking and endlessly resourceful spirit.
As a young girl from from a rich musical pedigree, Sessoms expressed the sense of her presence in history, and as she began to seek career opportunities and landed a gig with the great Ryuichi Sakamoto; it was an experience that would match a vast musical curiosity with her talent. As an ethno-musiciologist, Sakamoto introduced Sessoms (singing in Japanese) to a unique perspective: rather than expanding out from the root, begin from a classical background and add multicultural styles elements. It is exactly this approach that brings LIFE – into perspective. The roots are there in powerful form, and yet a worldly, diverse, and universal aspect is presented in every arrangement and composition
Of LIFE, Vivian offers, “Ultimately, I think the album tells a story of Black life in America. It takes the temperature of civil rights and race; tackles themes of pain and loss and also the restorative power and beauty of falling in love.”
Vivian Sessoms’ work has landed her on renown stages at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall,The Beacon Theatre, The Apollo Theatre, Irving Plaza, The Knitting Factory, Bowery Ballroom, Highline Ballroom, Joe’s Pub and many more. She has performed, written and or produced dozens of jingles, has toured internationally and made TV appearances on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The View, The Wendy Williams Show, Soul Train, The MTV Awards, MTV Unplugged and many more.
Vivian and her band are currently on a world tour in support of LIFE.