Tierney Sutton is not the next Norah Jones. She'll admit it; we'll admit it. But she is still a success in her own right.
"Being in the top ten of the Billboard jazz chart is a pretty humble thing," says the forty-year-old Milwaukee-raised, Los Angeles-based singer. "We're not talking about rock numbers or rap numbers or anything like that. Norah Jones is not on our chart, but Harry Connick is. Diana Krall's on our chart. So there are some people that you've got to contend with."
Like Connick, Sutton is a technically proficient interpreter of the classics. Her second album for the Telarc label, 2001's Blue in Green, paid tribute to the late Bill Evans, and included renditions of "Old Devil Moon" and "Someday My Prince Will Come." Its follow-up, Something Cool, placed a jazz styling on such American songbook classics as Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy."
Sutton, again like Connick, also owes a particular debt to Frank Sinatra. Her new record, Dancing in the Dark, is a front-to-back reinterpretation of Ol' Blue Eyes' ballads, and the first of her five records to crack that Billboard Jazz Top Ten. And while both she and her label find the sales spike of Dancing gratifying, there's little doubt that the crossover achievements of artists like Connick and Krall have affected the definition of what jazz insiders now consider "successful," to say nothing of the devilish Ms. Jones.
"The Lehrer NewsHour was filming us because they were doing a feature on the resurging popularity of jazz vocalists," Sutton says, "and they were talking about Diana Krall and Norah Jones, and saying that a hundred thousand [in sales] is the number to shoot for. And you kind of have a breakthrough if you get that."
This, Sutton suggests, might be a bit ridiculous. "You know, there's those goddamn curve records out there, like Diana Krall," she says. "Previous to that, your jazz record was a success if it sold twenty thousand. And so we've had a couple of successful records already by that standard. I think the last one before this sold, I don't know, something like fifty thousand in a year. And they considered that a modest success."
No more. While the careers of both Krall and Connick have raised the bar of expectation, the phenomenon of Norah Jones (who records for jazz label Blue Note) has opened the business end of jazz to pipedream possibilities.
"I think from an artistic standpoint, she's had basically no effect on jazz vocalists whatsoever," Sutton says, "I mean, that may be a not nice thing to say, but it's not because she isn't a really cool artist. I think she's a lovely singer and does really good stuff. It's just that any emerging jazz singer that's listening to Norah Jones instead of Sarah Vaughan or Mel Tormé needs to be slapped."
"I think if you're going to learn about jazz vocalists, you really have to listen to instrumentalists, because that's what all the great jazz vocalists did," Sutton continues. "The Frank Sinatra ballad records are as good ballad singing as you're going to get, but I think just to vocalize over something like Kind of Blue, and really listen to Miles' tone, is really important for singers to try to get the purity of their own sound."
So artistically, Norah hasn't made Sutton introspective at all. "I can pretty much honestly say that there wasn't a minute spent in crafting these arrangements where we thought anything about Norah Jones or anybody else," she says of Dancing in the Dark. "Except maybe Frank Sinatra and our own process."
Which doesn't relieve her of the responsibility of selling records once the studio work is done. Fortunately, Sutton has a Secret Weapon in that regard.
Like Connick, Sutton brings an edge of personal attractiveness to the table. While the head shots on his albums seduce music browsers with sparkling eyes and a crooked smile, Sutton's calling card is an indulgent cascade of reddish-blonde hair. She could, in fact, be the Keri Russell of jazz -- unable to cut her hair even if she wanted to. ("That's probably true," she concedes.)
So Blue in Green's cover is a dark-backdropped head shot with Sutton's fan-blown locks patterned after Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The back image of Something Cool actually shows her near-blinded by her own flowing tresses, while in the Pamela Springsteen-shot cover photo for Dancing in the Dark, she enters through bright red curtains, hair once again wind-aided, and wearing a white gown inspired by Marilyn Monroe's subway-grate dress in The Seven Year Itch.
"We knew that the record was going to be called Dancing in the Dark early in the process," Sutton says. "We knew it was going to be a ballad record. We knew it was going to be a dark record. And the cover of that record has no relationship to that title."
On one hand, that bothers her. Sutton would love to have her band of ten years -- pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry, and drummer Ray Brinker -- appear with her on an album cover. But it hasn't happened yet, and she's resigned to it not happening anytime soon: "Walking into Virgin Records and seeing what that [Dancing] cover looked like," she recalls, "I said, 'Okay, let the marketing people do their job. Throw them a freaking bone. Give them their damn red cover.'"
Furthermore, it worked. "I'm sorry, but it sold a lot of records," Sutton concludes. "I almost fought it because there was a very subtle, moody, dark cover that really went better with the music, but you know what? The label was right. People can criticize it, but it's a beautiful cover. It's really bright. It really sticks out."
In the end, Sutton states plainly what many label goons only suspect: Norah Jones' runaway success involves far more than her musical talent. So let Norah Fever and a flashy hairdo do the work sometimes. "Those things are all things that you do after the fact, and ultimately the music came from the most sincere place that I could muster," Sutton says. "You can have the greatest music in the world, but you need those things. I'm just way too crusty. I totally know how it works."
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