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With the 2010 release of her debut CD Billie & Dolly, Jacqui Sutton has achieved critical acclaim for deftly blending jazz, bluegrass, classical, musical theater and folk music into her signature sound which she has coined “Frontier Jazz.” Essentially this is jazz as it meets the American frontier. Billie & Dolly (so named in honor of her two female vocal heroines Billie Holiday and Dolly Parton), rode the CMJ jazz charts for six weeks, reaching its peak as the #7 jazz CD in the country during its promotional campaign. Not bad for a first time indie producer and bandleader.

Frontier Jazz is a sound that Jacqui believes could have only been created in Texas. It’s not what she expected when she and her husband moved from New York (by way of Madison, Wisconsin) four years ago, but much to her surprise and joy, the Houston-based musicians who make up the Frontier Jazz Orchestra turned out to be the perfect band-mates to help her interweave the predominantly jazz/bluegrass sound with the musical influences that she has been attracted to most of her life.

Jacqui draws on over 20 years of musical and stage experience to leave her personal stamp on her favorite songs. She got her start as a singer as a member of a vocal jazz ensemble called Jazzmouth—founded by Bay Area vocalist and composer Molly Holm in the early 1980s. At the time, heavyweights like Bobby McFerrin and Tuck & Patti were ascendant, and these, among many other Bay Area musicians, were her influences as she sought to master the jazz idiom. When she moved to Portland, Oregon 4 years later, she was exposed to bluegrass music while learning how to contra dance. The sound of the banjo, mandolin and fiddle would continually intermingle with jazz in her ears, and over the ensuing 20 years, this melding coalesced into the Frontier Jazz sound.

A continuation of the Frontier Jazz experiment can be heard on Jacqui’s second CD Notes From the Frontier (September 2012), and the range of songs is as varied as American music itself: Classical songs by Lee Hoiby converted to jazz or rock-influenced tunes; a Neo-Soul remake of “Summertime”; an acid-inspired interpretation of “Dear Friend”, a song from the musical She Loves Me!— normally done very sad and sweet turned 3:00 in the morning jaded; the bluegrass tune “Hummingbird” converted to a mixed-meter homage to Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”; a straight-up bluegrass gospel tune with a testifying plungered trumpet; a tango “Nature Boy”; a bluegrass ballad full of regret; and a sparkling sip of champagne in the jazz waltz “Better Than Anything”.

Not content to sit still, Jacqui is already working on her third CD American Anthem, which will be her first CD of original songs. She has teamed up with composer Danny Ashkenasi to reframe the nature of an anthem to ask “what does it mean to be American, and whose anthem anyway?” The lives of a cross-section of Americans will be explored: poor southern Black girls with powerful, rescuing imaginations; coal miners in Appalachia; believers; atheists; and everybody in between.

While Jacqui may have found her voice at middle age, her journey is well ahead of her. She brings intimacy, power and a sense of curiosity and possibility to the jazz idiom in her self-defined Frontier Jazz style.