I shared an evening of song with Tessa Souter, a charming, willowy Englishwoman who now lives in New York. Dressed in a floor length black/gold dress, her hair piled high in a top knot on her head, in silhouette she is reminiscent of a Roman or Egyptian goddess. She also creates a very warm atmosphere in which one feels like her guest, or a member of her family invited round for cocktails.
But what really draws you into the warmth is her performance. The melodies may be (mostly) uniformly melancholy, but she presents them with pride, strength and above all, style. And she writes intense and evocative lyrics, putting words to the feelings we all share but cannot necessarily articulate.
The stand out song for me was I know with time (Iwill forget). Her English lyrics to Léo Ferré’s song Avec le Temps describe many feelings just after a relationship break up – all of the love (the physical/sexual absence) that can incorporate even the negative “the cage you kept me in” as longing reminiscences – the contradiction and masochism of lust and love.
Another emotionally powerful moment came towards the end of Ana Maria by Wayne Shorter. She has written insightful words to Shorter’s tune, reflecting on the untimely death of Shorter’s wife in an air crash in 1996 – the ever present space that is left in our lives when our loved ones leave. “You are the light of morning, you are the new day dawning”.
This was also the moment when she stopped holding back her strong and warm voice, stopped merely hinting that she has power in reserve, and truly opened out her instrument.
Nikki Iles’ sumptuous piano accompaniment was as comforting as a big duvet spread over the room, combined with the gravity and reliability of the rhythm section (Mark Hodgson on double bass and Winston Clifford on drums) they helped give Tessa all the focus and intensity she delivered into her songs. Stuart Hall provided an edgy seasoning to most numbers playing a flamenco style guitar, violin and bouzouki – his birdlike stature and wide-eyed energy honed in on each member of the band in encouraging instruction.
The evening culminated with Wise One, a musing on the wisdom of new born babies – how we unlearn all the trust and instinct we are blessed with at birth. Nikki Iles expanded on the finesse she had exhibited in her other solos by throwing back the covers with a series of strides and scales across the keyboard. The band closed the show aptly swinging That’s All.
But it is Tessa Souter’s warmth, and the powerful images of attraction which stay in the mind, as in a particularly haunting line from the title track of her CD Obsession: “you’re like a wind that blows in front of a storm.” I was blown away.