Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Tierney Sutton Band: "On the Other Side" CD Review

I’ve wanted to hear Tierney Sutton’s new CD, On the Other Side, since September of last year, when she previewed several selections at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Playing the late set on the Bill Berry Stage at the Night Club, she and her band turned songs I thought I knew (including a few old saws) into songs I sat up and listened to hard because it seemed I’d never heard them before.

Although Tierney is the singer and the focal point when the group is on stage—for starters, it’s hard to take your eyes off her fabulous mane of reddish-blonde hair— these days it’s all about the band. If you’ve heard her live, you’ve heard her talk about how important her band is to her and how long they’ve been together (13 years). That amazing longevity is reflected in the band’s tightness, unity, and responsiveness, and the fact that they genuinely seem to like each other. While her first six releases were “Tierney Sutton” CDs, the latest is officially by “The Tierney Sutton Band.” (She led up to the name change with her preceding “Tierney Sutton” CD, titled I’m With the Band.)

It’s a fine band and one to be proud of. It’s the only one I can think of at the moment that has two bass players, and the more bass players a music ensemble has, the better. (I’m biased toward basses.) True, the New York Philharmonic has nine, but many jazz groups have none. The Super Bass trio (Brown, John Clayton, Christian McBride) wasn’t a band per se but the kind of special jazz summit you would sell your mother to attend. At least there was a label with the good sense to record them, not once but twice. That label was Telarc, for which Tierney Sutton has recorded since 1999 and which she describes as the best label in the world.

Tierney’s two bass players are Kevin Axt and Trey Henry, and I’d gladly listen to either one of them any day of the week. Sometimes they play together on the CD, but more often they alternate. On piano is the elegant Christian Jacob (who’s French, not Swedish, as he will tell you if you ever meet him and make the mistake of asking where in Sweden he’s from; he was classically trained in France). On drums, the excellent Ray Brinker. The new CD also features West Coast jazz legend Jack Sheldon as a guest on two tracks, one on trumpet, the other on trumpet and vocals. Jacob, Henry, and Brinker were all playing in Sheldon’s big band when Tierney met them. Inviting Sheldon to participate in On the Other Side is likely a thank-you.

Like her previous recordings (her Bill Evans tribute Blue in Green, her nod to Frank Sinatra Dancing in the Dark), On the Other Side has a theme. This time it’s happiness. All 13 of the songs are about happiness, the pursuit of happiness, or the lack of happiness, and most have the word “happy” or some variation in the title: “Get Happy,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Happy Talk,” “Glad to Be Unhappy.” In her brief liner notes, Tierney offers an explanation: “Our search for happiness is an odd business. This music is about that search; the longing, the mania, the heartache, and perhaps even the joy of finding something better than the illusion we were chasing.” Some reviewers have taken seriously the theme and the fact that certain songs on the CD sound distinctly unhappy. Writing for the New York Times, Stephen Holden observed, “When the perilous state of the world begins to affect a congenital optimist like the jazz singer Tierney Sutton, that change is worth noting.”

Is On the Other Side a descent into pessimism, or a delicious hour of music from a singer (and her band) who keeps getting better with each recording, whose voice is increasingly lush and agile, who interprets songs in ways so fresh and inventive they’re reborn? When you hear Tierney sing, you get a clue into what “interpreting” can mean—not just filtering but transforming. Especially when you think a particular song is dead or should be. Who wants to hear “You Are My Sunshine” ever again? You do.

“You Are My Sunshine” is On the Other Side’s third track. As you read this, try not to hear that song in your head—not the version you learned in grade school, not the countrified Norman Blake rendition on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Clear your mind and imagine soft chords played slowly on a piano, Tierney entering with her trademark murmured loo-doo-doo-loo-doo, then turning “Please don’t take my sunshine away” into a plea of great seriousness and urgency, underscored by driving, desperate-sounding notes from both basses. Only a very bad person would take her sunshine away. A Prince of Darkness.

This song comes as a shock, similar to when you hear Johnny Cash sing “Danny Boy” (on American IV: The Man Comes Around) and you feel you should cover the ears of any children who may be nearby. Or of any mothers whose sons are serving in Iraq, as I discovered to my chagrin when I played it for a friend who dissolved into tears. “Danny Boy,” as it turns out, is not just a tender Irish ballad. It’s a song about death with hints of famine, pipers leading young men into war, bloodshed, and separation—of son from father, son from mother, lover from lover. Similarly, “You Are My Sunshine” is not just a sweet little ditty. Sung by Tierney, played by her band, it’s a song about obsession, fear of abandonment, and the kind of love that leads to people with shotguns bursting through locked doors.

It’s the third song on the new CD, but the one the band opened with at Monterey, letting us know we had best pay attention. Before moving into an Irving Berlin medley, Tierney took a moment to talk with the crowd (as she often does) about her band and how all of their arrangements are done collaboratively. “We decide together how to approach a song—or attack it, depending on your perspective,” she explained.

On the Other Side begins with an arrangement of Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” that is anything but happy. (The lyrics to that song are the source of the CD’s title: “It’s oh so peaceful on the other side.”) This “Get Happy” is slow and solemn, more a dirge than a call to rejoice. Brinker opens with a measured beat, Jacob enters with low notes, and Tierney does a soft, deliberately paced scat before moving into Ted Koehler’s lyrics: “Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy… Get ready for the judgment day.” This is not a judgment day any of us should look forward to. It’s one that promises, as the saying goes, to get all Biblical on your a**. Imagine one of those big Renaissance Last Judgment paintings (for example, Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel). Picture the chosen people rising up to join the angels, and the doomed ones plunging toward damnation. This “Get Happy” might as well be dedicated to the latter.

When Tierney and the band return to “Get Happy” later on the CD (track 10), it’s with a brighter, bouncier, gospel-tinged arrangement, implying there’s still hope for us sinners. “Get Happy” is one of two On the Other Side songs performed in two radically different arrangements. The other is “Happy Days Are Here Again” (tracks 2 and 11). For “Happy Days,” the first version is the most upbeat. The second is cautious and doubtful. Are happy days really here? The band doesn’t seem to think so. Tierney holds onto her l’s and n’s as Trey Henry, Ray Brinker, and Christian Jacob weave a protective cushion of sound beneath her.

During her Monterey show, Tierney gave us a bit of insight into how the band approaches its arrangements. “We have a credo with any song that’s been played a thousand times. We consider it our duty to render that song virtually unrecognizable. If a song like that is done straight, it’s follow the bouncing ball. With us, it’s different. It’s run for cover.”

Rodgers and Hart’s “Glad to Be Unhappy,” the fourth song on the CD, was originally intended for the band’s salute to Frank Sinatra, Dancing in the Dark. Its title, its melancholy mood, and its lyrics (“Fools rush in, so here I am, very glad to be unhappy… For someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad”) made it a perfect fit for On the Other Side. We hear Jack Sheldon’s trumpet for the first time, eloquent and wistful. If you’ve got a Late-Night playlist on your iPod, add this to it, right after a Chet Baker tune. Tierney’s voice is blue velvet.

“Sometimes I’m Happy” features both basses, Ray Brinker on quick, feather-light brushes, and no piano; Jacob sits this one out. (Nothing against the piano, especially not Jacob’s piano, but two basses and brushes make a lovely jazz trio.) It’s a mid-tempo, matter-of-fact look at the ups and downs of love. When Tierney sings “Sometimes I love you, sometimes I hate you,” it’s no big deal. At one point, either Axt or Henry quotes “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It’s all very tongue-in-cheek.

Jacob returns for “Happy Talk” and the two are off and running on the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic from South Pacific. Tierney starts with a scat teaser, hangs behind the beat for much of the song, then piles “howyougonna howyougonna howyougonna have a dream come true” into a single seamless yet perfectly enunciated phrase. Let’s pause to praise Tierney’s enunciation. It’s clear, precise, and appears effortless. Many of the songs she has chosen to record have gorgeous lyrics, and she makes certain we hear and understand every syllable.

More words of love and longing follow in “Haunted Heart.” The great lyric soprano Renee Fleming made this the title song for her CD with Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell. Listen to the two recordings one after another sometime. Fleming sings a full octave lower than she usually does, and her voice is a caress. It’s apples and oranges, but I think I prefer Tierney’s version.

Jack Sheldon is back for “I Want to Be Happy,” singing, playing his trumpet (bright and brassy this time around), and bantering with Tierney. (Jack: “How old are you?” Tierney: “A real man would never ask a lady how old she is.” Jack: “No, really, how old are you?” Tierney: “It’s not how old I am. It’s how young I make you feel…. Now brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, and go to bed.”) This may be the only song on the CD devoid of irony and an undercurrent of sadness. Have the clouds really parted? Are sunny skies ahead? Don’t bet on it.

“Make Someone Happy” is a return to wistfulness. It also seems like the least interesting arrangement on the CD. Tierney sings beautifully, of course, and Jacob’s playing is exquisite, but in a recording full of knockouts, it’s mainly a breather between “I Want to Be Happy” and “Great Day,” both up-tempo, acrobatic songs.

Following the band’s return to the CD’s bookends, “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy,” there’s a surprise ending: a spare piano-and-voice version of “Smile.” Charlie Chaplin wrote the melody in 1936 for Modern Times; John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics in 1954. Almost everyone who’s anyone has recorded it since: Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, even Rod Stewart. Madeline Peyroux included it on her latest release, The Perfect World. Introducing the song to the audience at Birdland during a live performance earlier this year, Tierney wondered why she couldn’t smile while singing it. She draws out her vowels (“youuuuuu’ll get by”) and clings to her consonants (“smilllllle”) as if she’s reluctant to let go of anything—the moment, the words, the music, the merest suggestion of happiness.

At Monterey, the Tierney Sutton Band ended their set at the Night Club with the more buoyant arrangement of “Get Happy,” having begun with the downer version. The only other time I’d heard an artist or group perform the same song twice during the same set was when Simply Red played First Avenue some 20 years ago. They were on tour with Picture Book, and when the crowd called for an encore, they reprised their hit “Holding Back the Years.” I’ve always thought it was because they had run out of songs to sing. Hearing “Get Happy” again made me happy, because I was reminded of how terrific live jazz can be—when artists perform the same song twice (over two sets, for example, or two nights), it never sounds the same, even if they don’t vary the arrangements. It’s a bold move to repeat two songs on one CD, and maybe that’s the real theme and message here: not “The world is doomed, forget about being happy” but “Listen to what we can do with this song. You think you know this song? Listen again.”

Originally published at