By Jonathan Schwartz
A beautiful woman in her forties. A Milwaukee girl, white as milk with long blonde hair. Never heard a lick of jazz until she was 19 and in college in Boston. Her singing, she discovered, was jazz-inflected. Her light soprano moved surely at any speed, landing squarely in the middle of each note.
She appeared on the jazz scene as would the light of a distant star. After a brief marriage to a man who didn't like her music, she found her way west, to California, where she has remained since 1993. She would sing at any opportunity, with any pickup band or pianist. Then she found her lifetime collaborators within the big band of legendary West Coast trumpet player Jack Sheldon. Here was the rhythm section to match her voice: pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry, and drummer Ray Brinker. Together in small clubs they found their sound and crafted their music from the collaboration. Her first album, Introducing Tierney Sutton, came out on a small Dutch label in 1999, and included songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, and Frank Loesser. That same year, Telarc Records picked her up, and it has stayed with her since.
Five albums later, Sutton will be releasing her best work yet early in 2007. On the Other Side is easily a masterpiece, taking happy songs and making them introspective, melancholy, ironic, and adult. Why make happy songs sad? "The founding fathersguaranteed us, among other things, the pursuit of happiness," Sutton writes in the CD's liner notes. "Mystics tell us it's the chase that causes our problems. We chase happiness but often find the heartache of happiness lost or missed..."
On the new album, Harold Arlen's Get Happy appears twice, neither one ebullient. The first is cautious and dark, with Sutton's singing offset by the ominous beat of the bass--two basses, actually, as Trey Henry is joined by the first-rate Kevin Axt. Similarly, the two bassists give a frightening and funky backbone to Happy Days Are Here Again, another song that Sutton offers in two versions. The second Happy Days is more melancholy and austere than the first.
You Are My Sunshine, played in a minor key, is simply a knockout. You hear the depth of many kinds of loneliness in the few moments of the recording. A bit of a surprise: An outsider appears for the first time. Jack Sheldon and his trumpet materialize on Glad to be Unhappy (again, with the minor key arrangement) to elevate the Rodgers and Hart standard and Tierney's singing to a Sinatra level.
Here, too, is a perfect recording of Haunted Heart, one of the most beautiful and shattering of songs in the Great American Songbook. There's a comforting aspect to I Want to Be Happy (again with Sheldon) and a version of the ubiquitous Smile that offers mostly shadows.
There are works of art in this world of ours, on LPs and CDs, like Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, and the Beatles' White Album. Tierney Sutton's On the Other Side joins that rarified group because it is eloquent, honest, and magnificently sung and played.
Jonathan Schwartz hosts Frank's Place, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station