Over the course of her career, jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton has taken on one of the most challenging tasks for any musician: putting a fresh spin on classic repertoire. Earlier albums like “Desire” tackled the Great American Songbook. “America The Beautiful” was a track on the more recent release “American Road.” On all of these recordings, Sutton used intricate arrangements and her own unique phrasing to make listeners feel like they’re hearing the songs for the first time.
Sutton challenges herself again on her latest project focusing on the music of Joni Mitchell. The venerable singer-songwriter’s work is a natural choice for a jazz singer like Sutton. Mitchell’s melodies and lyrics are artfully crafted, and Mitchell herself has a strong footing in jazz, having collaborated with artists like Charles Mingus and Pat Metheny. Sutton’s new album “After Blue” contains some of Mitchell’s best known songs including “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “Both Sides Now.” She’ll be bringing the music to the Boston area Oct. 3 at Scullers Jazz Club and Oct. 5 at JazzFest Falmouth.
Although the album employs over a dozen musicians, including The Turtle Island Quartet and Al Jarreau, Sutton will be performing with the Tierney Sutton Band which includes pianist Christian Jacobs, drummer Ray Brinker, and bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry. Sutton has worked with this group for over 20 years. Needless to say, they’re tight.
Since she found her way into what she calls “Joni-land” about 10 years ago, Sutton has devoted a lot of time to listening, studying, and enjoying Mitchell’s music. This is apparent from the way she treats the songs on the CD. On “Little Green” Sutton uses the strings from the Turtle Island Quartet to create a tender and pensive background for her silky voice. The cello gives a pizzicato bass line and the rest of the strings come in with modern classical harmonies at perfect times, bringing out the meaning in the lyrics.
Like Sutton’s other records, “After Blue” showcases sophisticated arrangements. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a drums and voice duet in a new time signature of 5/4 and “The Drycleaner from Des Moines” has a laid back jazz funk groove with organ, flute, and some scatting from Sutton. Of course Sutton brings her jazz influences and her own unique sound to the album, but her Joni-like vibrato and higher register remind the listener who originally sang these songs. Sutton’s intimate version of “All I Want” demonstrates her Joni influences.
It’s always a treat when Sutton, who is now based in California, comes to Boston, home to Sutton for a time, and a place for musical growth when she attended Berklee College of Music. Since then she has been nominated for five Grammys, named a JazzWeek Vocalist of the Year, and performed at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl with her band. Despite her considerable successes, Sutton still has a soft spot for The Hub. Two years ago when the Celebrity Series presented Sutton and her band at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, she recalled listening to Eric Jackon’s show “Eric in the Evening” every night. She then launched into her rendition of “The Peacocks,” Jackson’s theme song when she was at Berklee.
I was lucky enough to see that performance, where Sutton’s love for Boston and the music shone through. For a couple of hours, Sanders Theatre felt as intimate as a living room. And her upcoming shows? With the combination of Joni Mitchell’s songs and Sutton’s melodious phrasing, they should be something special.
Claire Dickson is a 16-year-old jazz vocalist. She has received six Downbeat Student Music awards and is a 2013 National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner. Her website is clairedicksonmusic.com.
This program aired on October 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.