Tierney Sutton: I’m With the Band

[28 August 2005]

By Will Layman

Tierney Sutton may be the result of some mad scientist’s genetic experiment to create the perfect jazz singer. I can see Dr. Satchenstein in his la-BOR-atory now, bubbling Erlenmeyer flasks surrounding him, rubber stoppers and glass tubing snaking up to the ceiling and down again, strange fluids being transferred between heated cauldrons and surgically de-lidded craniums:

Yes! Wonderful! Igor, now that we’ve assembled the body, get me the throat of Ella Fitzgerald, and make it quick! I want the range of Sarah but the light touch of Blossom Dearie! And looks! Don’t forget good looks! Bwah-ha-hahhh! Get me the shimmering mane of Diana Krall, and PRONTO. Do whatever you must to get me glorious, cascading hair!

And there he is, busily stitching together Tierney Sutton just before midnight, awaiting the electrical storm that will shoot 100,000 volts of Cole Porter into her pipes to activate her scatological abilities.

Kreaaakk-k-k-tuuuuschhhhh! And then: “Booo-Doo-Doo-Doooo . . . . bweeeeh-ahh-ba-dooo-booooh . . . .”

Dr. Satchenstein immediately infuses Ms. Sutton’s upper cortex with elixir of J.S. Bach, and she begins to improvise, but with a classical tinge. It’s “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”—a perfect opening song—begun like it was a toccata expressed by the First Lady of Song. The piano enters quietly in counterpoint, then the bass and drums with a funk figure that under girds Ms. Sutton’s syncopated take on the lyrics. Zzzipp! The piano is off soloing and Ms. Tierney Sutton rises from the slab. The first of many scat solos flows like mercury from her perfectly constructed larynx. Return to the melody and then, again to Bach. Perfection…

Our work is not done, Igor. Can she sing a ballad? This creature is no jazz singer if she can’t put across a bittersweet ballad. Get a dash of Carmen McRae and a healthy dose of Blossom Dearie leavened with powder of Holiday—just a dusting and not enough to ruin the bell-like tone we’ve created. Go! Go!

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”: pensive, gentle, delicately phrased, smooth like berry wine; “Two for the Road”: vibrato applied with judicious restraint, she sounds like she’s speaking the lyrics in confidence to a lover. Plainly Mr. Satchenstein is a genius. He can now set his monster free, her auburn hair spilling out behind her with such symmetry that Igor snaps a quick photo for the album cover. Dr. Satchenstein makes a note to order her both a red dress and black dress and also a nice pair of heels. The better rooms in New York await her.

And she’s off. Gershwin’s “‘S Wonderful” is taken at 200-some clicks-per-minute, the brushes kicking it, then the walking bass; Ms. Sutton enters with the combination of laser-pitch perfection and daring freedom of timbre and lyric as she sings the tune with abandon. She sounds like an alto sax, Dr. Satchenstein thinks. The jazz singer ideal of being as “musical” as the instruments has been achieved. We’ll call the album, “I’m With The Band”! It’s perfect! She’s perfect.

But can she sing with blues feeling? You can’t find that in a bottle. Give her “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” to work on, with a hip little bass line against with to toss her flatted fives, threes and sevens. And so he does. And while she sometimes messes with the vowel sounds in that annoyingly jazz singer-ish kind of way, it’s mostly a restrained performance; a bluesy foray that never gets too cute or too falsely growled.

What have I done? I’ll tell you what I’ve done: I’ve created a damn-near perfect jazz singer. My master plan is nearing completion!

You want show-offiness? How about “East of the Sun’s” finger-snapped a cappella introduction and aggressively swung vocal choruses? Try on the vocal-drum duet on “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” where Sutton sounds telepathically linked to the snare drum. Then there’s this fancy arrangement of “Cheek to Cheek—reharmonized utterly, with swing on the bridge, a clever rhythmic vamp on the A section that reorganizes the accents of the melody. A sure test of Ms. Sutton’s dead-on intonation: the vocal-bass duet on “People Will Say We’re in Love” that finds the singer as tone-pure and in tune as Ella ever was. She dazzles.

Enter the Casual Music Fan

CMF: Uh, Dr. Satchenstein? I’ve been listening to the concert by your miracle-of-science jazz singer, and I just wanted to congratulate you. Wow. And dude, incredible hair.

Dr. S: Thank you. She’s perfect, yes? (Pause.) What’s wrong?

CMF: Well . . .

Dr. S: What? I’ve attended to every detail! I’ve created a surgically accurate jazz singing machine! In what way have I not pleased you?

CMF: Honestly? Something’s missing. Relaxation. She dazzles, truly. The band is incredible. The arrangements spin my head around. It’s thrill-a-minute jazz singing. But when she isn’t blowing me away with singing prowess, she’s delivering a laser-focused ballad of searing intensity. For a minute there I thought “Blue Skies” was going to be an easy swinger, just an easy-going treat, but no go. The modal “Lady is a Tramp”? Not necessary. And when that classical-scatty thing came back at the opening of “I Get a Kick Out of You”, man, I felt intimidated, even used. Doctor, we get it…she’s a singing Babe Ruth, a jazz vocal Michael Jordan. But it’s kind of exhausting to be subject to such virtuosity on every single tune.

Dr. S: I’m speechless.

But all is not lost. The last two tracks on I’m With the Band are a welcome relief. “On My Way to You” is a more earthly ballad performance. “Devil May Care”, though still filled with singing tricks and jazz affectation, swings with more authentic authority than anything else on the disc. The scat sections sound more pleasingly tossed-off and less like machine-gun Bach or Ella on steroids. Not to mention Sutton’s track record of tasteful tribute discs and dues-paying as a jazz singer. Her Bill Evans tribute disc was chock-a-block with restraint and taste.

This release, alas, is her robo-singer album, designed to be that way and, on its own terms, extremely successful. Truth is, Tierney Sutton can do it all as a jazz singer. (And her hair IS spectacular.) Here, she chooses to blow us all away. If that’s your thing, then feast on it. If not, then she’s surely ready to seduce you with subtlety next time out.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/suttontierney-imwiththeband/