Expert Testimony: Given by jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton '87 to Mark Small

Tierny Sutton
Tierny Sutton
Tatijana Shoan

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.

So were Joni’s lyrics your main focus for this recording?

Yes, the lyrics and stories of these songs were more at the forefront for this project more than any other I’d done before—with the possible exception of the Sinatra project I did.

You’ve said that you had to be prodded before you undertook recording this music.

Elaine Martone, who has produced all of my CDs, had been talking about Joni Mitchell for years. She and Steve Cloud, who manages Keith Jarrett, heard me sing some of Joni’s songs at a concert with the Turtle Island Quartet. They cornered me afterward and told me the time had come for me to do a whole Joni Mitchell recording. I had been studying her music album by album for around 10 years by that point. I felt I needed to spend time with her music just as I’d spent time learning the language of jazz at the beginning of my career. So the time was right for me to do this.

Was there a different process to arranging these songs with musicians who aren’t members of your band?

I had initially thought that I’d do this album with my band, but they were working on other projects. Around that time Peter Erskine told me he wanted to be part of this and he suggested I have Larry Goldings play Hammond B3 on “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” I had chosen another song that I wanted Al Jarreau to sing on and felt that Al would fit perfectly with Larry and the B3 setting. Larry also played piano on three songs on the record. He came over to my house and we played through a bunch of things and chose “Woodstock” and “Court and Spark.” We also decided that there should be a standard on the album as well. We picked Paris as a theme and talked about doing “Free Man in Paris.” There just happened to be a chart of “April in Paris” on the piano at that moment. We tried it and found a key that would work. Later on I figured out how to fit the two songs together. I was lucky to work with Larry on this album.

Aside from key and tempo, what else do you consider as you approach new material?

I just want to honor the song and develop a reading of it that feels sincere and like it’s my own. I don’t consciously think about vocal range, it’s more about the specific song. When arranging songs with my band, the arrangement is actually the star in a way. For this record, more than anything I really wanted the song to be the star.

One of the very first things that happened on this project was playing “All I Want” with [cellist] Mark Summer as a duo at my house. That was the first song and arrangement that was decided upon. It seemed natural to have more spare [instrumentation] on some of the songs to get closer to their emotional center.

Is it simply your musical instinct that guides you on how far to depart from the original essence of any given tune?

It’s instinct and collaborating with musicians like Larry Goldings or Mark Summer and others who have an esthetic that I trust. Some pop tunes are so much about the arrangement that it’s hard to get to the essence of the song apart from the original arrangement. But Joni’s music is an exception to that rule. The songs themselves have great architecture, melody, lyrics, and a story. Those things give you space to do something.

Is an artistic voice something inborn in a musician or can it be developed?

I think almost everything can be developed if you are sincere and really love music. Part of developing your own voice is getting out of your own way. When I am teaching or working on my own material, I’m thinking of maintaining a certain level of quality. The reason singers practice diction, pitch, and control of melody and harmony is so that there is no impediment to their voice coming out. When I’m teaching, I tell my students that I’m not there to create a style for them; I’m there to help them get out of their own way and see what can emerge if they minimize the limits [they impose] on what they think they can do.

With new material, do you try to find the key that will put you in a certain spot in your vocal range where you feel you sound best?

That’s tricky because if someone is a solid singer, there is not just one spot where they sound best. It’s good to expand beyond that and not always stay in the same place.

This project was interesting from that perspective. It was really fun to sing some of the songs in or near the keys in which Joni sang them during her youth. But some material I sing in the keys she chose 25 or 30 years later. Both of those places are comfortable for me and give me a different sensibility and feeling when I’m singing. Sometimes it’s necessary to sing in a key you might not have normally chosen, and then you find something there that’s really interesting. I don’t like to make too many assumptions about what key is best. I think too often singers limit themselves by staying in a narrow range and don’t grow as much as they might.

Do you ever entertain thoughts about Joni Mitchell hearing your recording of her music?

I have been asked that a lot. We have mutual friends and people who were involved in my record have worked with her. I think it could get to her eventually. If she hears it, she may or may not have an opinion on it. I try not to wonder about that too much.