On The Other Side
Irving Berlin posited that the best things happen when you’re dancing. I’d argue, when it comes to great lyricists, like Berlin, the best things happen when you’re listening—genuinely, intently listening (though, to Berlin’s point, you could be dancing at the same time). It helps, of course, when what you’re listening to is a gifted jazz singer blessed with both crystalline enunciation and keen interpretive skills. In other words, when the artist on the other side of the mic is someone like Tierney Sutton.
Sutton is too smart to take any lyric at titular value, and sets out with her superlative bandmates—pianist Christian Jacob, bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker—to teach us the same. The subject is happiness. The opening version of “Get Happy,” performed with hymnlike solemnity, serves as a startlingly beautiful reminder of the song’s sacred underpinnings. An alternatively upbeat version follows later in the album, demonstrating how significantly stylistic approach can alter the listener’s comprehension. The two treatments, along with opposing versions of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” set forth the album’s cunning thesis—that there are as many ways, and reasons, to express joy as there are synonyms for the word happiness, and that even the seemingly sunniest musical sentiments can be surrounded by storm clouds. So, a “You Are My Sunshine” that suggests love lost (or perhaps never attained), a “Glad to Be Unhappy” that lays bare the lyric’s self-serving masochism, a “Sometimes I’m Happy” that reminds us the tune is really about obsessive subservience, and, in a duet with Jack Sheldon, an “I Want to Be Happy” that exposes it’s veiled martyrdom.
Of course, not every optimistic song has a dark lining, as evidenced by Sutton’s tender readings of the sweetly altruistic “Make Someone Happy” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s peppy “Happy Talk” from South Pacific (a number with its own built-in irony, since it’s really about lovers who can’t communicate with words). Bottom line: Sutton’s ability to get to the very heart of a lyric and, in the process, to make us all more careful and critical listeners, remains unsurpassed.