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JAZZ REVIEW

Like you haven't heard before

Tierney Sutton and her fine band make some familiar songs sound as good as new at Catalina Bar & Grill.

January 01, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"I'm With the Band," the title of jazz singer Tierney Sutton's latest, Grammy-nominated album is a takeoff on the phrase used in the rock world by young groupies eager to hang out with their guitar-god objects of affection. For Sutton, it's a simple, to-the-point description of how she views her connection to the group of musicians she has been working with for more than a decade.

The creative intimacy of the connection was on full display Friday night at Catalina Bar & Grill. Sutton began her set with an imaginative new take on the Jimmie Davis classic "You Are My Sunshine," a selection from an album scheduled for release in February. Like many of the other tunes in her program, it was presented as a virtual re-imagining of the song, with pianist Christian Jacob and bassist Kevin Axt playing a subtle ostinato pattern while Sutton sang the familiar melody in phrases that floated, zephyr-like, in musical space.

The balance of the set was a marvel of diversity, much of it dedicated to songs that were familiar but too rarely done, always offered in striking new versions. ("The arrangements," said Sutton, "were done by all of us, together.") A pair of Vincent Youmans tunes, "Great Day" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," displayed her confident jazz skills, swinging through the up tempo of the former, interacting propulsively with drummer Ray Brinker on the latter. Rodgers and Hart's touching "Glad to Be Unhappy" and the too often done "The Lady Is a Tramp" were the beneficiaries of offbeat, inspired settings. Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care" showcased a few impressive passages of Sutton scat singing. Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music" and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" were superb examples of timeless balladry. And the set-climaxing "Ding- Dong! The Witch Is Dead" (from the Harold Arlen score for "The Wizard of Oz") was a wide open, all-join-in musical romp.

Sutton's musicality was present in everything she sang. Always precisely in tune, singing spontaneous melodic paraphrases with ease, her voice a crystalline instrument, moving with seeming effortlessness from rich chest tones to an airy soprano, her vocals were -- in every sense -- an equal participant "with the band."

In her early work, that extraordinary musicality was enough to separate Sutton from the wave of new jazz singers arriving in the late '90s but not quite sufficient to establish her as a true original. Over the last year, however -- and especially in this performance -- she has matched her musicality with a lyrical expressiveness that identifies her as one of the increasingly important jazz voices of her generation.

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