Billie & Dolly
Among vocalists, it is hard to imagine stranger bedfellows than Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton. But the aim for Jacqui Sutton, an accomplished stage actress who is making her recording debut at age 50, is not to pay direct tribute to Holiday and Parton. Rather, she chooses them as paradigms, and personal vocal heroes, to represent a blending of jazz and bluegrass. Sutton calls it “frontier jazz,” citing Béla Fleck and Aaron Copland as pioneers who provided her and arranger/pianist/trombonist Henry Darragh with guideposts. The closest Sutton comes to specific homage to Holiday and Parton are an arresting “God Bless the Child” fueled by Paul Chester’s six-string banjo, a treatment of Parton’s “Endless Stream of Tears” that progresses from canter to gallop, and a down-in-the-Bayou reading of “Those Memories of You,” previously performed by Parton alongside Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
Sutton has a distinct sound that is often constructed of equal parts staccato falsetto and bluesy growl. It serves her well on the playfully asymmetrical “Black Hole,” the Mark Twain-inspired “Mississippi Song,” her bossa-lined “My Man’s Gone Now” and a laidback “The Moon Is Made of Gold” highlighted by a Gypsy-jazz bridge. Occasionally Sutton settles into a comfortable midrange that, while less rhythmically extreme, is more naturally compelling. Popping up in unexpected places but most consistently evident across the spunky “Risk,” it is simply another intriguing aspect of a riveting songstress.