Jan 5, 2018
by Robert Feuer
As we confront a new year, hoping for better, a pleasant place to relax and expand is Guerneville’s Main Street Bistro, where you can enjoy artful décor, food and drinks, and live music most nights. Especially conducive for evening contemplation is pianist Susan Sutton, who has played there for a decade.
Sutton, Brooklyn-born, moved to Berkeley at age three or four. During a recent interview, she describes coming from a family of musicians and artists, listening to relatives and their friends play music in her home, sometimes from under the piano while playing with her toys. She wrote “pretend” songs on little pieces of paper. Sutton considers classical music a gift from her mother. “I flat-out fell in love with the piano and playing music.”
In Berkeley, which she calls “a cello mecca,” she studied that instrument and guitar “because you can’t carry a piano around.”
Leaving Berkeley in the mid-1960s, Sutton made friends in Big Sur, referring to them as “a little Bohemian family.” She gave piano lessons to David Crosby and speaks of playing piano from the back of a truck at San Francisco’s Human Be-In in 1967. She met jazz musicians and traveled with them to New York in a schoolbus, where she sat in at shows. Later, she toured the country with jazz combos.
Currently, her focus is on jazz without much classical, “though I sometimes sneak it into my jobs,” she says. “I love improvising, working with a format or skeleton from which to improvise. It’s a window of freedom and expression,” she says.
Along her way, Sutton got a scholarship to Dominican University and attained degrees in Music Composition and Performance (on cello). She has written numerous modern chamber pieces and jazz songs and recorded eight albums.
In 1981, she organized her own band and started Sutton Sound, a publishing company. Sutton describes her band, which varies in size from a duo to a quartet, as being “a family for me,” one that has included many people over the years. “I like the variety,” she says, “I want it to be unique.”
Birdsongs are an inspiration. She can “easily” reproduce their sounds in her music. There are a lot of birds near her home, and sometimes they respond to her music through the window. A particular mockingbird, who can play multiple riffs on other birds’ notes in perfect time, inspires her.
Though Sutton’s music is largely instrumental, she enjoys singing. “I also like to improvise singing,” she says. “I’ll make a different melody.” She memorized the Robert Frost poem “Stopping By Woods,” and wrote a song on which she sings the poem.
One of the best of her albums is 1995’s “Da Me Cinco/Give Me Five,” recorded by her trio at Hoffman Studios in Occidental, with Sutton delighting in birds, sambas and mambas, sitting in the sun, and summer walks.
In closing, Sutton talks about feeling compelled to play. “It’s who I am. It leaves a legacy, a footprint.”
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