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On The Other Side by The Tierney Sutton Band

Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but happiness appears to be pursued more vigorously than before.... and with less satisfying results. Will Smith’s movie character, the initially hapless Chris Gardner, certainly found the "happyness" he sought.... and more. Very few are as fortunate. Part of the reason is an unrealistic nature of expectations. Part of the reason involves the differing needs of people that enable happiness. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the quest for happiness provides more fulfillment than its attainment. What does make a person happy? The question may seem to be philosophical (and irrelevant to a jazz CD review.) But then, Tierney Sutton’s most recent album, On the Other Side, raises philosophical questions through the "mere" act of singing familiar songs. Such a recording is an interesting project indeed. On the Other Side, even by means of its ironic title, focuses on the circumstances from which people rise toward happiness, as if happiness were one end of a spectrum and at the other end were, well, unhappiness. The reality lies in the shades within the spectrum. Appropriately enough, the music of On the Other Side invites descriptions of shading. Mark my words: As (or if) you read other reviews of On the Other Side, note how of the word "shade," "shading," "dark," "colors" or "shadows" appear.

While a cursory review of the song list may indicate otherwise, the Sutton band’s initial task required more than compiling tunes with "happy" (or "unhappy") in their titles, or as a component of their themes. Rather, Sutton’s collective of like-minded artists, unified by the album’s concept, sought to understand the songs’ meanings, implications, emotions.... shadings. Then they reharmonized the music to conform to the overriding concept of the album which posits through perception of mood that the happiness to which the songs refer is the ephemeral end of a continuum.

The opening song, "Get Happy," is drenched in irony. For one thing, happiness can’t be commanded, as if by Dr. Phil or by a politician, as implied by the title. In addition, the harmonies of the arrangement and the slowness of the meter suggest sadness -- drudgery even. In fact, the Sutton group’s version appears to bear some similarities to "Misterioso" in the bassist’s use of rising sixths, as well as the castle guards’ chant from The Wizard of Oz, a movie that one assumes Sutton enjoys because of her interpretation of "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" on Something Cool. The questions posed by "Get Happy" are whether the happiness can be attained and if bleakness of spirit results from frustrated attempts at happiness as ordered. The group provides contrasting versions of "Get Happy," for the same song appears as a joyously expressed celebration near the album’s finish as gospel-inpired fervor breaks out over the back-up musicians’ uplifting "Jeannine"-like vamp.

Sutton has always drawn in audiences with vocal purity. Her unerring pitch combines with a melting of words into sonic elements, as, for instance, the word "you," stated first as part of "You Are My Sunshine’s" lyric, evolves into an expressive sustaining of the final vowel, "ooooooooo." Sutton doesn’t attack words or, for that matter, notes when she abandons pronunciation for unspoken delivery of tone instead. She eases into them and out of them, as the division between lyrics and sonic production dissolves. Such expressiveness and wordlessness make "You Are My Sunshine" a delight, a deeply felt group arrangement that involves not only Sutton’s subdued performance over a minor-key 6/8 accompaniment, but also a delicately structured, gradually swelling piano solo of crystalline beauty from Christian Jacob, his childhood classical training in France evident in its effortless blending of flowing emotion with technical mastery. Jacob’s restraint and respect for the album’s overriding concept provide few clues of Jacob’s ability to jump aggressively into a piece to apply much volume and ferocity, as shown on his Concord CD, Time Lines. Rather, Jacob remains as focused on the development of the happiness theme as do the other members of Sutton’s group as they are immersed in the mood of the album. Interestingly, on four of On the Other Sides’s tracks, Sutton’s group includes two bassists, Trey Henry and Kevin Axt, deepening the songs’ richness and lowering their registers as even Jacob remains mostly in the piano’s middle and lower ranges.

The members of Sutton’s regular group shared tenure with Jack Sheldon’s big band and eventually started performing together, developing their style and becoming familiar with each other’s musical impulses. Accordingly, Sutton invited Sheldon to contribute to two of the pieces, first solely on trumpet in "Glad to Be Unhappy" and then in vocal repartee and on trumpet in "I Want to Be Happy." Reminiscent of the Anita O’Day/Roy Eldridge teasing exchange of "Let Me Off Uptown," "I Want to Be Happy" lightens the mood after the first half of the album, suggesting that the musical clouds may part in a progression from melancholy to happiness.

Instead, Sutton remains ambivalent. "Happy Talk" is indeed happy as Sutton appears to borrow from O’Day in her "horse race" (as O’Day called it) with Jacob. But what song follows "Happy Talk"?

"Haunted Heart," which describes in exquisite detail the loneliness experienced by those who seek happiness continuously and often unsuccessfully as they carry a person’s memory in separation. "Make Someone Happy" not really a command as much as a conditional statement ("make someone happy and you’ll be happy too") provides a clue of the path toward fulfillment, though Sutton sings it with tentative wistfulness and assumed wishfulness.

Just as we think that Sutton’s journey has ended with happiness when she reprises the names of the album’s songs during the jubilant repeat ending of "Get Happy," we find instead that Sutton’s conclusion with Charlie Chaplin’s "Smile" describes the fragility of happiness. Her attitude, like Chaplin’s, suggests the opposing moods of the comedy-tragedy mask: "Smile through tears in sorrow.... / You’ll see the sun shining through."

Sutton’s group has achieved the instantaneous responsiveness that many others seek. Her voice, the lead instrument of her band, merges with the textures of those the musicians craft as it moves in and out of lyrics for the conveyance of emotions. In On the Other Side, Sutton’s voice supports the arrangements, and the arrangements support her voice for a unified message. As a result, On the Other Side is Sutton’s most thematically cohesive album, and each song amplifies the overall concept by presenting various aspects of happiness, or the lack thereof.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Tierney Sutton Band
  • CD Title: On The Other Side
  • Genre: Jazz Vocals
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Telarc
  • Tracks: Get Happy, Happy Days Are Here Again, You Are My Sunshine, Glad to Be Unhappy*, Sometimes I’m Happy, Happy Talk, Haunted Heart, I Want to Be Happy*, Make Someone Happy, Great Day!, Happy Days Are Here Again, Get Happy, Smile
  • Musicians: Tierney Sutton (vocals), Christian Jacob (piano), Kevin Axt, Trey Henry (bass), Ray Brinker (drums). Guest Artist: Jack Sheldon (trumpet, vocal)*
  • Rating: Five Stars
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