Timed to coincide with Joni Mitchell’s 70th birthday, Tierney Sutton’s career-spanning homage has actually been marinating for more than a dozen years, ever since she heard Mitchell’s standards-focused Both Sides Now from 2000. It was, writes Sutton in her liner notes, “my doorway into Joni-land,” prompting a deep dive into the Mitchell oeuvre. But Sutton was adamant that she wouldn’t record any Mitchell tunes until she felt fully ready and able. Fortuitously, members of the Turtle Island Quartet approached her in 2011 to suggest a collaboration that, they hoped, might include some Joni material.
It is her first-ever album without bandmates Christian Jacob, Ray Brinker and Trey Henry (though bassist Kevin Axt does make a guest appearance), Sutton instead working alongside Turtle Island and in various combinations with flutist Hubert Laws, guitarist Serge Merlaud, keyboardist Larry Goldings and drummers Peter Erskine and Ralph Humphrey.
There is a natural kinship between Mitchell and Sutton. They’ve shaped similarly distinctive styles by embracing a cool California sensibility while remaining loyal to their unfussy roots—so it comes as no surprise that the supple, haunting Sutton emerges as a peerless Mitchell interpreter. From a gorgeously diaphanous “Blue” and sly “Big Yellow Taxi” to a loose-limbed “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” and boplicious “Be Cool” alongside Al Jarreau, plus a wily interweaving of “Free Man in Paris” and “April in Paris,” After Blue is a towering achievement.