By Greg Stepanich
Her colleagues in the music industry had suggested for years that she consider performing the songs of Joni Mitchell, but when it came time to do it, jazz singer Tierney Sutton found the idea somewhat daunting.
“I knew how great she was, and then I was intimidated … it was not an easy thing to go about doing,” Sutton said. “Once I was into it, it was pretty clear what to do and how to go about it. But quite literally the 20 years leading up to it were intimidating, because I thought, ‘I want to do this right if I do it.’ ”
But tackling the music of the great Canadian songwriter turned into a joyful process for Sutton, one that resulted in an elegant album released last year called After Blue, which she recorded not with her longtime band but with guest collaborators such as the Turtle Island String Quartet, singer Al Jarreau and flutist Hubert Laws. After Blue was nominated for a Best Jazz Vocal Grammy Award this year, Sutton’s sixth such nomination.
This month, Sutton will perform songs from her Joni Mitchell project in four shows at Jazziz Nightlife in Boca Raton, two each on Sept. 9 and Sept. 10. She will be accompanied by guitarist Serge Merlaud and bassist Kevin Axt, who play with her on her newest album, Paris Sessions, which comes out a week after the Boca Raton concerts.
A native of Milwaukee who grew up in the REO Speedwagon era but fell in love with jazz via artists such as pianist Bill Evans instead, Sutton, 51, said she was familiar with some of Mitchell’s music — the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version of Woodstock, for instance — and knew there were some songs that had already been covered by many other artists, such as A Case of You and River, that she was not going to revisit.
But as she investigated Mitchell’s work more thoroughly, she found herself wanting to pay attention to “Joni’s jazz roots,” and that led her to more unusual choices for the album such as The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, which Mitchell wrote to a tune composed for her by jazz bassist Charles Mingus. And then there were discoveries such as Little Green, which Mitchell wrote after giving up her baby daughter for adoption in 1965.
The mother of an 18-year-old son named Ryan, Sutton felt that song’s lyrics (“There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes/And sometimes there’ll be sorrow”) deeply, and considers it Mitchell’s most important song. And it’s been one that audiences have responded to with the same kind of emotion.
“The first time I sang a little bit of the song, I found myself tearing up as I sang it,” Sutton said from her home in Los Angeles. “The lyrics of that song are a fantastic example of her mastery of the songwriting form. The images with which she tells that story, it just chills me … And I will say, in touring this material and performing the songs, the number of times that I’ve had people audibly sobbing have been not a few.”
Mitchell’s work has come in for serious scholarly study in the past few years (McGill University musicologist Lloyd Whitesell’s The Music of Joni Mitchell, from 2008, is particularly notable), chiefly because Mitchell writes complex, jazz-inflected harmonies that make this music ideal for jazz exploration. Sutton’s version of Woodstock, with pianist Larry Goldings, is treated moodily, with Goldings providing a Debussy-with-a-beat accompaniment, and in Big Yellow Taxi, she scats the tune over drummer Ralph Humphrey’s light brushwork. In Be Cool, she joins Jarreau for a charming, witty duet, decorated by Laws and Goldings’ funky Hammond B3.
It’s a tasteful, intelligent way to treat these songs (the record includes two standards Mitchell sang on her 2000 orchestral album, Both Sides Now: Don’t Go to Strangers and Answer Me, My Love), and sheds fresh light on the work of this artist.
Mitchell, 71, who has concentrated primarily on her painting for the past two decades, is, like Sutton, a resident of Los Angeles, though the two haven’t met.
But Sutton already knows what she thinks about her fellow singer’s legacy.
“I think as honored and respected as she is, she’s an underappreciated figure,” Sutton said. “She really is up there in the pantheon of great songwriters and great artists, at the very, very top. I really can’t think of anybody — anybody — who has her combination of compositional skills, lyrical skills, and skill as a performer and singer.
“All of those things together in one person: I think she’s singular.”
Tickets for the shows, which begin at 7 and 9 p.m., range from $35 to $75. Call 300-0730 or visit www.jazziznightlife.com.
More jazz: September is shaping up to be quite a month for jazz in the southern part of the county, with Todd Barkan, who ran the Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco in the 1970s and since 2001 has been the director of Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, joining the staff of Delray Beach’s Arts Garage as its programming chief.
Barkan’s imprint has turned the Garage lineup into a powerhouse September, beginning with the English jazz singer Polly Gibbons, who makes her North American debut at Arts Garage on Sept. 12, accompanied by a trio helmed by the terrific jazz pianist Shelly Berg, whose day job is as head of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
Gibbons, who follows her appearance in Delray with concerts in New York and Boston, was nominated for a BBC Jazz Award in 2006 and her first album, My Own Company, was released last month. Gibbons has a bluesy, smoky alto (you can hear her do a good wee-hours reading of Avery Parrish’s After Hours on her website) and a stellar sense of swing, and likely has a long career ahead of her.
A week later, the jazz-fusion pioneer Larry Coryell plays two dates (Sept. 19 and 20) at the Arts Garage. One of the finest guitarists in jazz history, a confidante of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Gary Burton, and a prolific composer whose opera, Scenes from War and Peace, is scheduled for a December premiere in Slovenia (of all places), he’s made more than 100 recordings, and also is the author of an excellent book about improvising that jazz students should hold close to their hearts. Now 71, Coryell is as busy as he ever was, and being able to see him in the confines of the Arts Garage offers an opportunity to see a fretboard legend in an intimate space.
Finally, the Garage has scored a big win with the splendid jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, affectionately known as “The Nutman,” who will appear Sept. 27. Chestnut, a native of Baltimore, is one of the most important jazz pianists currently working, a virtuoso with an Oscar Peterson-style feel for melodic improvisation and a rock-solid sense of swing.
Tickets for all these shows, all at 8 p.m., begin at $25, and patrons can bring their own refreshments. Premium seating for parties of six range from $190 to $240. Call 450-6357 or visit www.artsgarage.org.
Music note: Joanna Marie Kaye, who was known simply as Joanna Marie in her years as host of Classical Variations on WXEL radio, has returned to South Florida after two years at WQED in Pittsburgh. Newly married to The Symphonia Boca Raton artistic director, Jeffrey Kaye, she has been named director of the Festival of the Arts Boca for its ninth iteration, which will be held March 5-15 at Mizner Park in Boca Raton. No word on who might be coming to the festival, but the lineup will be officially announced Nov. 14 with a media event that will feature Time for Three, the string trio that bills itself as a “classically trained garage band.”
Art: Last month, the National Press Photographers Association held a two-day confab in West Palm Beach in which winners of the association’s 2014 best photo contest were honored, and some 60 of the nation’s top photojournalists were on hand to meet with fellow members of the camera-wielding “tribe,” as the group likes to say.
An exhibit of their work, Best of Photojournalism 2014, was scheduled to close Aug. 30 at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, but organizers have decided to extend the free exhibit until Oct. 31.
“It’s become one of the most popular exhibits we have had in the museum. People are just coming out of the woodwork to see this show,” said Fatima NeJame, the center’s CEO. “We’re attracting people that have never been here before, and they’re leaving us comments like: ‘How long is this show going to be here, because I want to bring my friends.’
“When you have a winner like that, why not make more time for it?” she said.
The show contains about 100 images from more than 60 photographers, and touch on subjects such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the fracking boom that has transformed North Dakota.
“These are images that people have seen in the media, and they are stories that connect with people,” NeJame said, adding that the exhibit also has been remarkable for another reason. “It’s so amazing: Usually, there is a clear favorite in the exhibit, but with this, they are going through the whole show, and they’re saying it’s the best show we’ve ever had.”
NeJame said the center is talking to the NPPA about holding the Best of Photojournalism conference annually in West Palm Beach, perhaps moving it to May or June rather than August (the awards are announced in March).
“Photography is about touching people’s lives, and people are able to relate to these images,” NeJame said. “It’s current, it’s topical and it touches them.”
Showing exemplary photojournalism seems especially important now, with the brutal execution this past month of photojournalist James Foley at the hands of the murderous Islamic State. Although journalists have come in for decades of politically motivated criticism that has served to weaken the public’s sense of this profession’s importance, people like Foley and his colleagues risk their lives in the absolute worst parts of the world so that vital information can be brought to the rest of humanity.
It’s not for nothing that dictatorial governments such as that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin make sure they muzzle the press first, and it’s worth stopping by the center in downtown West Palm this month to take a look at the images these gifted artists have captured, and remember that we would all be in a much darker world without them.
The center is at 415 Clematis St. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 253-2600.
Moon over Norton: For the ninth year in a row, the Norton Museum of Art presents its Moon Festival this month, a celebration of the Chinese holiday and the museum’s collection of Chinese art. The event lasts from noon to 5 p.m. Sept. 6, and includes a tour of the collection, a porcelain-making demonstration and children’s lantern-making workshop, and a 3 p.m. concert by Liu Fang, a performer on the pipa, the Chinese lute. After the concert, it’s moon cakes for everyone.
Admission to the museum is $12, but the festival is free to Palm Beach County residents because it falls on the usual free-admission day of the first Saturday of the month. Info at 832-5196 or www.norton.org.