By Don Heckman
Studio City, CA. When I first heard that Tierney Sutton was appearing at Vitello’s Thursday night, singing a program of Joni Mitchell songs, I knew it would be a performance not to be missed. The connections between Mitchell and the world of jazz and jazz players has had considerable longevity – from her collaboration with Charles Mingus to Herbie Hancock’s Grammy Album of the Year, The Joni Letters, and beyond. Add to that Mitchell’s own jazz-inspired albums, as well as the growing numbers of jazz vocalists attracted to her songs.
Sutton is a logical addition to that list. And it’s no surprise that she has recorded an album of Mitchell-inspired songs titled After Blue, scheduled for release on Sept. 24 by BFM Jazz. Sutton’s natural vocal skills, at times reminiscent of a younger Joni Mitchell, combine with the authenticity of her jazz singing to produce a rare blend of utterly unique songs interpreted by a vocal artist with an equally unique jazz perspective.
A good portion of Sutton’s program included songs from the album, performed live with a small ensemble: Larry Goldings on keyboards, Peter Erskine on drums and Mark Summer (from the Turtle Island Quartet) on cello. That may seem to be a minimalist ensemble. But in fact it was everything that was needed to provide Sutton with an accompaniment that fulfilled all her musical accompaniment needs.
Sutton began with a medley aimed at fulfilling her desire to blend a Mitchell song with a familiar standard. In this case, the combination linked the Vernon Duke standard, “April in Paris” with Mitchell’s “A Free Man in Paris.” And it worked perfectly, with Sutton bringing the two songs together with complete compatibility.
And there was more, much more. “Blue” featuring a back-up blend of cello and percussion. “Little Green,” “Big Yellow Taxi” (done in 5/4), “Clouds” and “Carey.” On each tune she was superbly backed, sometimes by nothing more than percussion, at other times by beautifully articulated arrangements tracing to Sutton’s recent performances with the Turtle Island String Quartet.
In 1972, in a New York Times review, I wrote that “I suspect that in her own way Joni Mitchell may be one of the most genuinely gifted composers North America has yet developed. That she chooses to express her art in small forms and personal sentiments in no way reduces either its impact or its importance.“
Sutton’s interpretations grasped all those qualities, finding the heart of each song, honoring the rich, creative densities in Mitchell’s compositions. Listening to Sutton’s live performances one looked forward to the release of her album, After Blue. To the irresistible combination of Joni Mitchell’s music and Tierney Sutton’s loving interpretations of songs that are adding classic new contemporary music to the Great American Songbook.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.