Last year's Introducing Tierney Sutton marked the arrival of a rare jazz vocal talent. Few singers are blessed with an instrument as lovely, crystalline and flexible as Sutton's voice, and ever fewer possess the musicianship to make such intelligent, inspired improvisational choices. Add Sutton's uncommonly good looks to her abundant gifts and you have a singer destined to become a major jazz attraction.
That said, Unsung Heroes, despite some enthralling moments, is unlikely to be her breakthrough recording. Most of the problem comes from the album's premise: a collection of compositions by jazz instrumentalists. In the liner notes, Sutton repeats the advice she gives to her jazz vocal students at the University of Southern California: "Of course, singers must deliver the lyrics, but in terms of getting jazz harmonies and jazz feel, you have to get into the meat of the instrumental music." In much of Unsung Heroes, Sutton focuses so intently on using her voice instrumentally that she shortchanges language, the expressive element that distinguishes singers from other musicians.
This shortcoming is most evident on the first two tracks. "Remember Me," a vocal adaptation of saxophonist Joe Henderson's "Recordame," is compromised by Kelley Johnson's inane, often incoherent lyrics. Sutton would have been wiser to abandon words and use her voice as an instrument. The following song, the Ralph Burns-Woody Herman "Early Autumn," comes equipped with Johnny Mercer's classic lyric. Following no discernable logic, Sutton, with a smile in her voice, turns this melancholy ballad into a perky medium swing tune. (And she botches Mercer's poetry by transforming his evocative "dance pavilion in the rain" to a "glass" pavilion. Shouldn't a foozled lyric be taken as seriously as a sour note or a wrong chord?)
The remaining performances are more effective. Sutton has better luck realizing the album's theme with wordless pieces or songs with inconsequential lyrics: "Bernie's Tune," "Joy Spring," "Indiana/Donna Lee," "When Lights Are Low." The high points are two ballads. Sutton adapts pianist Kenny Barron's brooding deconstruction of Rodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here," revitalizing a well-worn standard. Even more impressive is her performance of Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks," a fiendishly intricate melody line graced by British singer Norma Winstone's sensitive lyrics. By focusing her attention equally on words and music, Sutton achieves an exquisite interpretation. Having paid her debt to her unsung instrumentalist heroes, it's now time for Sutton to concentrate on the limitless potential of her own abilities as a singer.