Of the many great jazz vocalists, Tierney Sutton is notable for her individual perspective on music from the Great American Songbook. She’s recorded nine albums with the Tierney Sutton Band that have received five Grammy nominations. Sutton and company always put their unique brand on well-known repertoire, with imaginative arrangements that highlight musical elements or lyric concepts to make each song sound new. In September 2013, she released After Blue, the first album she’s made without her longtime bandmates. It was also nominated for a Grammy.
After Blue features 10 songs by Joni Mitchell, plus two standards Mitchell sang. Numerous performers have recorded Mitchell’s material (some 3,292 artists have covered 161 of her songs). It’s a formidable task to bring something worthwhile and new to this music. Sutton succeeds by allying with the Turtle Island Quartet, Hubert Laws, Al Jarreau, Peter Erskine, Larry Goldings, and others who helped her craft masterful interpretations of the revered singer/songwriter’s music.
On “All I Want” and “Both Sides Now” Sutton evokes the early-days sound of Mitchell by singing high above Mark Summer’s cello pizzicato accompaniment. On “Court and Spark” she works in a breathy, low register above Larry Goldings’s gently rolling piano textures. She sings a Bobby McFerrinesque ostinato on “Be Cool” before trading lines with Jarreau and flutist Laws as drummer Erskine and Goldings (playing organ and kicking pedals) lay down an irresistible shuffle groove. Sutton truly shines on an affecting the medley of the Duke-Harburg chestnut “April in Paris” and Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.”
The album has resonated with fans and critics alike. Sutton sells more copies of After Blue following her shows than any of her past albums. In a recent phone call, she shared thoughts on developing one’s artistic voice generally and on the specifics of approaching Joni Mitchell’s music.
When you consider new material for a recording a project, are there consistent things you look for in a song?
I’ve had times when I was looking for specific things. At the beginning of my career, I focused more on instrumental jazz than on lyrics or storytelling. But that’s changed with After Blue, it’s come full circle. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics and storytelling are among the best. I think of her lyrics as the word version of what great jazz melodies are. There is a different balance of symmetry and poetry than you find in lyrics by Johnny Mercer or Larry Hart. Joni has a kind of avant-garde symmetry that’s very sophisticated.