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, 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 with 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.