IN a blue polka dot dress splashed with pink roses, bare-legged with plimsolls on her feet, Tessa Smith looks like a teenager on her first date. But then she starts to sing and the fresh-faced teenager is transformed into a sophisticated, stylish, young woman with the world at her feet.
A former pupil at Hexham’s Queen Elizabeth High School, Tessa may be only 25 years old but she’s already making a name for herself. Some of her songs seem to have been around forever – Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies is one of her favourites. But this is jazz as you have never heard it before. For Tessa’s style is as young and fresh as her music which oozes a joyful exuberance and irrepressible vitality.
Tessa started singing as soon as she could talk say parents Mike and Carole from Riding Mill. But nerves initially threatened to silence her voice. “My teacher at Broomhaugh First School tried to persuade me to sing a solo in our end of year performance, but I was too shy and my best friend Amy did it instead,” said Tessa.
But Tessa not only learned to conquer her nerves. She decided to make singing her livelihood and is fast earning a reputation as an accomplished jazz singer and songwriter with an album, Bookmark, to her name and a second currently in production.
Tessa, and fellow musicians from college, recorded their first CD in a remote studio nestled among the Brecon Beacons. “When you bring different instruments into a jazz piece it sounds great, but there’s an extra kind of level when everything clicks and it sounds wonderful,” she said. “Jazz is very expressive and the more you give, the better it sounds. I remember thinking, after I heard it back that this is it – something special has just happened.”
After two days of recording, Tessa and the rest of her jazz crew were reluctant to leave the picturesque studio. “The six of us had been in this little bubble and it was one of the best experiences of our lives. We didn’t want to leave each other.”
Tessa has certainly come on a long way since she played Maria in West Side Story at QEHS, where her father, Mike, taught classics. Her first big solo was a performance of Memories at Corbridge Middle School – a moment that filled Tessa with trepidation and delight in equal measure. The role of Gisette in Les Miserables followed at high school.
“I wasn’t meant to play Gisette, but the girl who was fell ill at the last minute and they asked me to step in,” she said. “I had to learn the part in 10 hours. It was a huge challenge but I did it and I loved every minute.”
She showed potential in music at an early stage, remembers father Mike, who, with his wife, has always been keen to encourage his children in whatever they wanted to do.
“Tessa was born with a smile on her face and a song in her heart,” said Mike. “And she hasn’t stopped smiling, or singing, since.”
“We’re not a particularly musical family,” said Tessa. “Dad played the bagpipes so I used to sing to try and drown him out! And Mum admits she is probably tone deaf. But they have always supported me and my dream.
“I learned piano when I was quite little, but it was singing that really gave me a buzz. It’s all I have ever really wanted to do.”
“My best songs are inspired by strong emotion. Singing makes you vulnerable – and singing your own songs even more so.”
A graduate in jazz studies from the Leeds College of Music, Tessa has collated a wide repertoire of songs from Bobby Hebb’s Sunny to the lesser known Beatles track, I’m Only Sleeping. She has also written a number of her own songs as well as re-writing the lyrics of some well-known tunes.
Hence My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music is transformed by Tessa into the charmingly quirky My Favourite Man. Perhaps not quite as appropriate for the Von Trapp children – but a hit with her loyal Hexham crowd.
“I re-wrote the lyrics when I was at school, but was too embarrassed to sing it out loud,” she said. “I’m much more confident now.”
Inspired by the likes of Kurt Elling, an American jazz singer, and songwriters Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, Tessa loves songs with “real meaning”.
“I know people who are prolific song writers,” she said. “But I can only really write when something momentous happens – something that moves me. My best songs are inspired by strong emotion. Singing makes you vulnerable – and singing your own songs even more so.”
Tessa’s main inspirations include the late Ken Morrell, a talented piano player who was a music teacher at Corbridge Middle School.
“Ken was fantastic and even after I left middle school he continued to tutor me,” said Tessa. “I’ve always been interested in jazz, but Ken taught me how to perform, and I can’t thank him enough for that. Other role models were Len Young and Shelly Ambury at the high school. They have definitely shaped who I am today.”
Tessa has performed with many ensembles including the college of music’s Big Band, under the direction of Al Wood.
She’s also studied with musicians such as Omar Puente, Anita Wardell, Norma Winstone, pianist Matthew Bourne and singer Kari Nergaard Bleivik.
Music is Tessa’s life and livelihood. As well as singing with her band, she is also a member of a female acapella group called Solaris and runs a gospel, soul choir in Leeds.
Jazz is often associated with sultry, sexy, husky tones – think Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, not to mention Nina Simone.
Tessa’s voice, by contrast, has a sweet, pure tone to it and she was worried at college that it was too sweet. “I wasn’t sure if my voice was right for jazz, but it has developed with training.”
Strong and clear, with a honey, velvety tone, Tessa’s voice is certainly distinctive and it’s easy to see why she is fast building up a loyal army of fans across the country.
Tessa initially trained as a classical singer, but quickly realised that while her voice was good, it wasn’t exceptional and it was going to be a tough battle to make her mark in such a competitive field. So she wisely chose a different path and has never regretted it.
“I decided I didn’t want to be an opera singer,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t good enough. But I did want to sing. And there was something really beautiful about jazz. Unlike other styles, it gives you the freedom to be yourself, to improvise and play with the music.
“Other genres can seem restrictive – they have to be sung in a certain way, but you can let go with jazz. I love that.”