A Remembrance of John Coltrane

DownBeat / Andrew Gilbert
Jazz Improv / William Collins
San Francisco Bay Guardian / Derk Richardson

Andrew Gilbert

She captures the spiritual urgency of Trane’s music while pushing her voice into ecstatic overdrive.

For jazz musicians hustling to keep their careers moving, strength can be found in numbers. While the San Francisco-based vocalist Suzanne Pittson and pianist Jeff Pittson have carefully maintained separate musical identities through their 19-year marriage, they’ve also played key roles in developing each other’s musical concepts. When drummer Wally Schnalle joined the mix in 1998, the triad created a potent, synergistic alliance that resulted in three rewarding and very different recordings.

Particularly distinctive is Suzanne’s self-produced Resolution: A Remembrance of John Coltrane on the Pittsons’ Vineland label. Building on the vocal technique she first explored on her 1996 debut, Blues and the Abstract Truth, Pittson interprets songs associated with Trane, such as “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” The heart of the album though is her stunning vocalese versions of the second and third movements of Coltrane’s landmark 1964 album A Love Supreme (the Coltrane estate wouldn’t give permission to release the Pittsons’ version of the first movement, “Acknowledgement”). As Suzanne sings her and Jeff’s lyrics shaped to the original solo on “Resolution,” she captures the spiritual urgency of Trane’s music while pushing her voice into ecstatic overdrive. For Pittson, who received a Masters in classical piano, the path from European concert music to bebop and beyond has taken her down less traveled jazz vocal byways.

“I just started singing difficult Charlie Parker solos, Freddie Hubbard solos,” she says. “I came in knowing I was going to approach it as an instrumentalist and I wanted to become a better and better soloist. Jeff really hipped me to the idea that like Toots Thielemans, I had to create a new genre.”

Part of what makes Resolution such a successful session is that both Jeff and Schnalle studiously avoid directly echoing the commanding styles of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.  The pianist and drummer have had plenty of time to hone their musical relationship, both backing Suzanne and on their own projects. Before they made Resolution, Pittson recruited Schnalle for his captivating duo album, Go Where It’s Dangerous, also on Vineland. The album ranges from straightahead drum/piano workouts, such as “Tony,” Schnalle’s tribute to Tony Williams, to beautifully textured pieces where they make tasteful use of samplers and electronic sound design. The San Francisco-born pianist, who’s worked with everyone from Joe Henderson and Tony Williams to Kenny Garrett and Craig Handy, uses the electronics to add texture and shape to his compositions, without detracting from the duo’s spontaneous studio interaction.

“The piano and drums were played live to tape,” Schnalle adds. “We could hook it up to the computer and add bass lines and other sounds post-playing, but all of the tracks are first and second takes.”

Schnalle and Pittson also teamed up on the drummer’s straightahead quartet session, That Place, on Schnalle’s Retlaw label. Featuring bassist Rob Fisher and alto saxophonist Charles McNeal, whose tone occasionally calls to mind Arthur Blythe, That Place was recorded in Schnalle’s home studio with the musicians listening to each other through headsets in different rooms. Schnalle composed all 11 tunes, displaying a talent for writing seemingly simple but momentum-inducing lines.

“On my first two albums there are a lot of difficult arrangements,” Schnalle says. “I had some six-page charts for the horns. So I decided to go back to more free and open kind of playing with this one. I wanted to have charts that fit on one page. I could keep my compositional voice, but it’s almost like we’re playing standards.”

While the Pittsons and Schnalle work in myriad contexts, their multitrack collaboration has enabled them to materialize their particular musical visions. By pooling resources to promote their albums they’ve been able to get a bigger bang for their buck, but it’s the support they provide each other as artists that has enabled them to thrive without the support of labels.

“That’s why we have this ad hoc group making records,” says the pianist. “Independents have the responsibility to bite the hand that feeds us.”


William Collins

Her scat singing alone is so good that had she been the forerunner and not Ella Fitzgerald, Suzanne would have become the Ella.

If you consider yourself a jazz aficionado and only have so much room in your library for the good stuff, throw something out to make room for this CD and buy it.  No need to read on.

I could stop there, of course, but reviews are supposed to give you an idea of what to expect before you plunk down your hard cash. So…

You have to love what you’re doing, you have to have dedication, and you have to have passion to undertake to translate someone else’s mark on the world to your own signature. Suzanne Pittson has the love, the dedication, the passion, and the expertise to do just that—to translate Coltrane to voice. Her scat singing alone is so good that had she been the forerunner and not Ella Fitzgerald, Suzanne would have become The Ella.  What’s more, she demonstrates a higher level of precision than Ella, even though the imprecision made Ella, Ella. The future is obligated to improve on the past, is it not?

The voice training is evident everywhere, even in the smallest, subtlest couplets. Expanded runs and embellishments only emphasize her mastery, never exceeding her range or capability. She and all the musicians constantly stretch, but never go beyond. Very, very solid. What she does, comes off as easy to the listener simply because she is so within and on top of her skills. I suspect that this skill pushed the combo to higher than anticipated levels. From the added lyric by husband Jeff Pittson (and Suzanne), to the screaming jams with across the board great solos, fills, drives, shadow-licks, and comps, and then to beauty at slow tempos, the group is superior. In brief:

  • Liberia — Ballad start gives way to up-tempo, pure jazz and great scat. In every one of the pieces on this CD, the combo is outstanding. Consider it said in each of the following.
  • My One and Only Love — Lilting and moving.
  • Prelude to Resolution — Jeff Pittson demonstrates his depth with this brief transition.
  • Resolution — My pick for Best of CD.
  • Introduction to Pursuance — Rare drum solo in that it’s musical.
  • Pursuance — Even at presto, the words and scat are discernable. It moves.
  • Remembrance — Note “melody spontaneously composed by Suzanne Pittson.” A suspension of lines over instrumental soundings.
  • The Night Has a Thousand Eyes — Imitation horn improvisation is good but not up to the quality of the open scat elsewhere.
  • I Wish I Knew — Bright tempo. Love song done casually. Very appealing.
  • African Skies — Excellent mating of sax and vocals. More superb scatting.
  • You Don’t Know What Love Is — A good (and difficult) jazz reading that moves into a lovely slow ballad.

On the technical side, the CD seems to have been recorded at a relatively high program level. If you play it back to back with commercially produced CDs, you might find yourself adjusting the volume. However, this is a great CD. I say again, make room.


Derk Richardson

She pulls it off with astounding vocal flexibility and fervent commitment to the overall musical feel of Coltrane and his groups.

Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter made wordless scat singing an art form; Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross perfected vocalese — the craft of putting lyrics to famous instrumental solos. Only a few jazz singers, such as Leon Thomas alongside Pharoah Sanders, and Ann Dyer revamping compositions by Steve Coleman and McCoy Tyner, have taken those techniques beyond their traditional swing and bebop roots. Bay Area vocalist Suzanne Pittson joins that company by making a leap of faith into the challenging, post-bop music of John Coltrane.

On Resolution — accompanied by husband and poet Jeff Pittson on piano, Alex Murzyn on sax, Glenn Richman on bass, and Wally Schnalle on drums — Pittson uses her voice like a horn, weds new lyrics to Coltrane’s “Liberia” and to his saxophone solo from the “Resolution” movement of A Love Supreme, and offers fresh interpretations of such overworked Trane-identified standards as “My One and Only Love,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” She pulls it off with astounding vocal flexibility and fervent commitment to the overall musical feel of Coltrane and his groups, epitomized in the three-minute composition “Remembrance.” Although the ballads are warm and inviting, the vigorous boundary pushing of this quintet is not for casual fans brought to jazz singing by the amber croon of Cassandra Wilson or the hip, cool swing of Diana Krall; it is for listeners who have the same resolve that Pittson brings to this audacious and richly satisfying tribute. The Suzanne Pittson Quintet celebrates the release of Resolution: A Remembrance of John Coltrane Mon/May 24, Yoshi’s, Oakland, 510.238.9200.