Milton Suggs has a voice that commands attention. Whether it’s on record or in concert, the 28 year-old Chicago-based jazz vocalist channels the smoothness of his predecessors like Eddie Jefferson and Joe Williams, while also holding on to the liquid soulfulness of Marvin Gaye and other R&B musicians he was influenced by.
So when you hear him put a tender touch on standards such as “Round Midnight” or Cedar Walton’s “Ugestu”, and then turn around to showcase his rich baritone on the chilling tune “We Shall Overcome” it’s hard to believe that singing was a path that he almost didn’t choose.
Becoming a broadcast journalist was the first career Suggs planned on pursuing. He attended Florida A&M University to study journalism, but after spending a summer in Chicago with his godfather, Willie Pickens, a veteran jazz pianist, Suggs decided to pursue a career in music. But, becoming a vocalist was still a profession he had yet to follow. He attended Columbia College Chicago to study piano and also received a masters in jazz studies from DePaul University.
“I knew I could sing but it was not something that I did a lot of,” said Suggs. “My intent was to get good on piano and then go into singing, but I had a late start with piano, and never gained comfort or developed a real voice with piano.”
With a little encouragement from Wynton Marsalis and an understanding that piano was not something he was fully comfortable playing, Suggs decided to utilize the voice that has now become his trademark in jazz.
His new album, Lyrical, Volume I is an extension of the different directions he takes on Things to Come.Suggs also has a knack for writing lyrics to classic compositions, otherwise known as ‘vocalese,’ and his first album showcases a taste of that talent. Things to Come, his 2010 debut album as a leader, is comprised of original compositions, standards, and a few vocalese tunes, including the fast paced love song “Your Smile,” which includes original lyrics to a Charlie Parker solo on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.”
“I wanted to do an album of me writing lyrics to different tunes that I enjoy by great composers and musicians, so when I got enough tunes together I decided to compile them and put an album together,” said Suggs.
Melodies and solos by musicians such as saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove are featured on the album, and are given a special Milton Suggs re-tuning to fit his jazzy, R&B style.
Suggs plans to turn this vocalese concept into a series called the Lyrical Series, of which Volume I, was just recently released on his independent label, Skiptone Music.
As for piano, don’t plan on Suggs breaking out the ivories too often, but he does occasionally play solo piano gigs and he did play on the song “Joy Enough to Spare,” which is featured on the new album.
He is carrying on the legacy of his father, Milton Suggs Sr., who was a prominent bassist from Chicago that played with legendary musicians such as pianist Mary Lou Williams and drummer Elvin Jones. Although Suggs was very young when his father passed away, he says he was always aware of his father’s accomplishments and even considered becoming a bassist at one point during his life.
But, for those who have heard Suggs sing, we can all say that we’re glad he chose the vocalist part of jazz music because that’s where his voice can truly be heard.
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