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Photograph by Leftaris
Mood Swinging: Jazz singer Tierney Sutton delivers torch with soul and intensity.

Shadows and Light

Torch singer Tierney Sutton journeys to the flip side of cheerful.

By Andrew Gilbert

There are jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald who dazzled with rhythmic agility and the pure, ravishing beauty of their voices. And then there are artists like Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae, who turned standards into taut tales of emotional abandon and defiance.

While she possesses a lovely, light-grained tone, the Los Angeles-based vocalist Tierney Sutton belongs to the second school. She's an incisive singer who thoughtfully navigates the treacherous shoals where love and passion so often founder. Her latest release, Desire, is her most profound meditation yet. An expert at imbuing familiar standards with unexpected spiritual depths, Sutton performs with her stellar band at Kuumbwa on Monday.

No project better reveals her interest in duality than 2007's On the Other Side, a fascinating, often unsettling investigation into the fickle nature of pleasure that keys on two radically different interpretations of the same song. When Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote "Get Happy" in the Depression-darkened year of 1930, it was a galloping, hand-clapping spiritual. But Sutton turns the album's opening track into a brooding, almost frighteningly intense dirge, so that when she sings, "get ready for the Judgment Day," the apocalypse sounds near.

"We had created an up-tempo version, and I said, 'We have this rousing shuffle arrangement, but what would the other side look like?'" Sutton says. "We need a dark version of 'Get Happy.' It's kind of funny, but it's not just irony. There's actual anger in me about the oppressive nature of our cultural obsession to be happy. We're all looking at each other convinced everyone is happier than us, but how can you walk around happy all this time?"

When she returns to the song at the end of the album, Sutton gives it a far more traditional, up-tempo reading, swinging with power and precision. Her interest in duality moves further into the foreground with Desire, a program of standards that she deconstructs with the help of verses from The Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, a sacred Baha'i text. A master at sustaining rhythmic tension, she transforms "It's Only a Paper Moon" from a light-hearted romp into a yearning affirmation of faith in the face of deceptive appearances.

More than her incisive concepts, what makes Sutton's music so satisfying is her deep connection with her band, which features French-born pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry (or Kevin Axt) and drummer Ray Brinker. Over the past decade they've honed a true bandstand communion, developing each piece through painstaking rehearsals, a process that Sutton describes as "a very mysterious thing."

"It really starts by Tierney being an absolutely open-minded person who knows what she likes and wants to hear, but is very attentive to what everybody in the band thinks," Jacob says. "The whole process takes some time. There's a lot of discussion and trying out various ideas. Everyone in the band is really respectful of each other, and the mixing of all of these ideas ends up creating something that we all own."

The band came together after Sutton settled in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The Southland has been good to Sutton in other ways. Her sultry version of "My Funny Valentine" was featured prominently on the soundtrack of the 2003 film The Cooler, and her voice is also heard on Philip Kaufman's 2004 film Twisted.

The best way to experience her music, however, is in person. Tall and willowy, Sutton is a torch singer whose flame burns with a deceptively cool glow. Some critics have mistaken her self-possessed stage presence as cold and reserved. She's certainly no exhibitionist, but there's something fearless about the way Sutton plumbs dark and dangerous emotional states.

TIERNEY SUTTON performs Monday, April 20, at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 advance/$25 door; 831.427.2227 or

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