Sumitra: Bittersweet (Sumitra Music)

A review of the fourth album from the Los Angeles-based pianist, composer, and vocalist

Sumitra, Bittersweet
The cover of Bittersweet by Sumitra

Sumitra is a Los Angeles-based pianist, composer, and vocalist with a lot of stories to tell. Born in New York to parents from India, she grew up in the United Kingdom and Vienna, where she recorded her first album in the mid-’90s. The circuitous path of her music and personal life eventually brought her to Los Angeles, and in 2016 she released the little-heard Still, an album focusing on her original songs.

Her fourth album, Bittersweet, has all the markings of a major breakthrough, bringing together a superlative cast and her consistently engaging, often enchanting body of songs. With the incomparable drummer Brian Blade, Cuban bass maestro Carlitos del Puerto, and Austrian guitarist (and album producer) Alex Machacek accompanying, Sumitra delivers a revelatory program in the mode of a confessional singer-songwriter, addressing the eternal themes of death, love, heartache and spiritual renewal.

From the opening track, “Bittersweet,” she establishes a forthright musical identity, confiding and poetic. There is an alluring contrast between the emotional maturity of her sharply observed lyrics and the almost girlish quality of her fluid contralto. She has a gift for setting her lyrics to extended melodies that catch the ear without obvious hooks. The carefully noted details of “Make Me Whole” flow by painting a picture of love lost that’s amplified by Machacek’s melancholy string arrangement and Blade’s subtle harmony vocals. Her languorous, rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” drips with desire, while her lyrics for Béla Bartók’s “Song No. 26” turn a children’s piano exercise into a sophisticated pop tune, an adult tale of romantic recovery. By the album’s closer, the spacious ballad incantation “Another Day,” Sumitra has established herself as an artist with a winning sound and vision all her own.

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.