Let me start by saying, in no uncertain terms, that if you’re going to touch a Joni Mitchell song, you had better a) do it well, and b) make it your own.
Joni Mitchell is a life-long favorite of mine and I guess I’m sort of protective of her songs. That said, there have been some incredible takes on her work, including Tori Amos doing “A Case of You,” Sarah McLachlan’s “River,” Mary Fahl’s “Both Sides Now” and Aimee Mann’s “Free Man in Paris,” among others.
Naturally, when I heard that a jazz singer unknown to me until a few weeks ago had put out an entire album of Mitchell songs, I worried. That lasted all of 24 seconds into the first song, the iconic “Blue,” on “After Blue: A re-imagining of the legacy of Joni Mitchell.” Once I heard Tierney Sutton’s voice, all worry vaporized. All I had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. And, when the gorgeous strings came in, I sank further back into my seat. Sutton’s “Blue” is striking and sounds nothing like the original. She and her top-shelf musicians explore new territory atop the blueprint of Mitchell’s haunting lyrics. “Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go, well I don’t think so, but I’m gonna take a look around it though.” Sutton loses herself in the song and stays lost, much to our benefit.
Next is Sutton’s take on “Be Cool” from Mitchell’s 1982 “Wild Things Run Fast” album. The first voice you hear on it isn’t Sutton’s. Rather it’s the legendary voice of Mr. Al Jarreau. Talk about having awesome friends to lend a hand. Jarreau and Sutton’s vocals play off one another superbly, making for a funky and fun six minutes that also includes the magic flute of Hubert Laws and Hammond B-3 organ from Larry Goldings, both accomplished and revered players.
French guitarist Serge Merlaud is also on the album with the song “Don’t Go To Strangers” from 2000’s “Both Sides Now.” It’s a moody love song that’s in no hurry to get anywhere, like a lazy ride down the nearest river on a sunny afternoon.
This brings me to “Both Sides Now,” one of Mitchell’s most lyrically perfect compositions. Leave it to Tierney and Turtle Island Quartet cellist Mark Summer to tattoo the song with stirring vocals and heartrending strings. I had a moment, for the entirety of the song.
There’s so much to love about this collection of songs, not the least of which is the diversity. Sutton re-visits seven Mitchell albums, from 1969’s “Clouds” to “Both Sides Now.” You’ll hear some lesser-known songs, like “The Drycleaner from Des Moines” and “Answer Me My Love.” And you’ll hear the Mitchell classics “Free Man in Paris,” Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock.”
But who is Tierney Sutton? What’s her deal? Well for one thing she’s been nominated for a Best Jazz Vocalist Grammy no fewer than five times. She also got a nod as an arranger.
Sutton’s first album “Introducing Tierney Sutton” was released in 1998, and there’s been nine others. I wish I had known about her sooner, but it’s never too late to dive in feet first by way of Joni Mitchell. Then I’ll work my way back through her catalog.
Head to tierneysutton.com or like her on Facebook. You can thank me later. And you can thank Sutton in person after seeing her live in Ogunquit. She’ll be performing as a trio with Serge Merlaud and Mark Summer.
8 p.m. Friday Aug. 19. Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, Ogunquit. $42.50; tickets.jonathansogunquit.com