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Tierney Sutton: Dancing in the Dark

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Tierney Sutton illustration

Popular myth suggests that Eskimo languages include an indeterminate number-ranging anywhere from nine to several hundred-of words for “snow.” Likewise, it’s all but impossible to determine precisely how many variations on “cool” can be applied to jazz and pop-jazz singers. There’s the laid-back cool of Dean Martin; the hipster cool of Mark Murphy; the somnambulistic cool of Julie London; the detached cool of Peggy Lee; the calculated cool of Harry Connick Jr.; the manufactured cool of Michael Buble.

Somewhere in the middle is the warm cool of June Christy, Chris Connor and Nat “King” Cole. At opposite extremes are the volcanic ubercool of Frank Sinatra (who, some 40 years after his prime and nearly six years after his death, remains the barometer of cool for not just singers but all celebrities) and the ice cool of Tierney Sutton.

Sinatra is bourbon on the rocks to Sutton’s frozen daiquiri. They are poles apart.

So what happens when such opposites attract?

Strange, wonderful things, as evidenced by Sutton’s fifth studio album, Dancing In the Dank, credited as “inspired by the music of Frank Sinatra.”

Most tribute albums attempt to channel the spirit of the honoree. When Jessica Molaskey saluted Peggy Lee on A Good Day, she ably caught the Lee fever. Carmen McRae brilliantly captured Sarah Vaughan on Dedicated to You. The true essence of Fitzgerald is all over Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Dear Ella. But Sutton, never one to follow conventional rules, doesn’t in any way attempt to reflect or echo Sinatra. In the liner notes she describes his singing as representing “both the light of reunion and the fire of separation.” I have no idea what that statement means and suspect that Frank, hardly a fan of fancy rhetoric, would respond with something along the lines of “What’s that cuckoo blonde talking about?”

Indeed, Sutton, the cerebral jazz purist, venerating the ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra strikes me as rather like Gloria Steinem extolling the virtues of Mickey Spillane. And yet it works, for three distinct reasons. (Actually, four, since much of the disc’s success is due to dazzling support from her long-standing trio, pianist Christian Jacob, who doubles as conductor of a string-heavy orchestra on five of the 12 tracks, drummer Ray Brinker and bassist Trey Henry).

First, Sutton has been sagacious in her selection of songs, sidestepping signature finger-poppers like “That’s Life” and “Come Fly With Me” in favor of such gentler missives as “All the Way,” “Where or When” and “I’ll Be Around.” Second, Sutton purposefully plays against Sinatra’s readings. Where his “Fly Me to the Moon,” recorded with Count Basie for It Might As Well Be Swing, is all brassy bravado and Hugh Hefner curves, hers floats on dreamy summer clouds. Where his “Without a Song,” from My Kind of Broadway, pummels against rocks of solid determination, hers undulates like a glacial stream. Where his “Emily,” from the vibrantly multihued Softly, As I Leave You, bounces with playfully innocent desire, hers is driven by an otherworldly unattainability.

Finally, and most impressively, Sutton makes the bold decision to tap into Sinatra’s feminine side. What feminine side, you ask? Don’t kid yourself. All it takes is one spin of In the Wee Small Hours or Point of No Return or Only the Lonely or Where Are You? to know that Sinatra’s carefully cultivated machismo was all veneer. He loved hard, hurt easily and deeply and was a world-class sentimentalist. Previous interpreters of his canon have tended to take both the manic and depressive Sinatra strictly at face value. Sutton is arguably the first to appreciate that there are all sorts of ways to read between Sinatra’s lines.

So, how do the folks at Telarc, clearly enamored of Sutton’s sparkling originality and eager, no doubt, to elevate awareness of her to the level of, say, esteemed label-mate John Pizzarelli, market so keenly intelligent a tribute album?

Apart from those few lean years in the early ’50s, Sinatra was a marketer’s dream. Slap his name on the cover and it flew off the shelves. Sutton is a tougher sell. Sinatraphiles lured by the “inspired by” hook will surely be disappointed, not understanding the cunning creativity of Sutton’s approach. And the album is perhaps a little too challenging for the more mainstream Diana Krall crowd. Which leaves Sutton pretty much where she’s been for the last decade-singing to the coterie that recognizes her as an uncompromising experimenter on par with Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling.

It may not help Telarc push her to Pizzarelli-sized popularity, but it proves that those who sing what they believe and believe what they sing will always be coolest. Just like Sinatra.