Sutton Finds Model & Muse in Personal Hero Joni Mitchell


Tierney Sutton, seen here at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 28, will release The Sting Variations in September.

(Photo: Ayano Hisa)

The beauty of jazz is that it provides limitless possibilities for interpretation. On her 2014 release, After Blue: The Joni Mitchell Project (BFM Jazz), vocalist Tierney Sutton balanced her own jazz style with the essence of Mitchell’s, and in the process developed a touching tribute album.

Sutton recently performed material from that album at the Newport Jazz Festival, engaging in a lively homage to the singer on July 28. “It’s impossible to take an artist that is as prolific as Joni Mitchell and do any kind of definitive take,” Sutton said during an interview at the festival. “My album and my project is really just a little snapshot of the work of Joni Mitchell that I absorbed and that was dearest to me.”

Mitchell’s career spans more than four decades. The revered, Canadian-born singer-songwriter crosses all genres with songs like “River,” “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” combining personal introspection with political commentary across an immense body of work.

“[Mitchell] has a combination of great emotional sensitivity and an incredibly high level of craft as a lyricist and as a songwriter,” said Sutton.

To prepare for the After Blue recording sessions, Sutton engaged in fastidious research. Her goal, she said, was to find a unique way to interpret Mitchell’s music, avoiding emulation or imitation. The album was a popular and critical success. From her stripped-down arrangements to her choice of acoustic players—like cellist Mark Summer and Serge Merlaud on guitar—Sutton’s album offered a highly personal and moving exploration of Mitchell’s work.

At Newport, Sutton carefully chose selections as well as jazz standards that allowed her to fully stretch out on stage, investigating Mitchell’s spiritedness and sense of play in her own supple phrasing.

After canceling two shows in late July due to laryngitis, Sutton expressed both her eagerness and gratitude to continue singing. “If I miss a note here and there, that’s life,” quipped Sutton during her performance.

At the start of “Court And Spark,” Sutton held onto a sumptuous long tone, which took on subtle textures against guitarist Merlaud’s steady chords. As Summer entered with a warm anchor on cello, Sutton and Merlaud lingered in the tantalizing melody.

Sutton was not afraid to show her vulnerability and be in the moment, notably during her performance of the bossa nova classic “Doralice.” Sutton dedicated her rendition to fellow vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who recently recorded a version of the song and who happened to be seated in the front row. Sutton playfully sang in English against cellist Summer’s samba rhythms and a countermelody provided by guitarist Merlaud.

As Sutton, Merlaud and Summer continued their group interplay onstage, Parlato and her 2 1/2-year-old son joyfully stood up and swayed together with the crowd.

Toward the end of the concert, Sutton performed “Little Green,” Mitchell’s ode to the daughter she gave up for adoption. During her performance, Sutton credited this number as both her favorite Mitchell composition and the song that inspired After Blue. In her reading, Sutton captured in stark relief the song’s themes of pain and sacrifice.

On Sept. 9, Sutton will release two albums. The first, The Sting Variations, is a tribute to the music of Sting.

The second is the soundtrack for the film Sully. Sutton recorded the tracks at the request of director Clint Eastwood, who has often incorporated jazz into his films. Sully, which is about pilot Chesley Sullenberger, opens in theaters on Sept. 8.

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