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Decades before Tierney Sutton became an eight-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist renowned for her delicate yet passionate interpretations of everything from Great American Songbook standards to the deeper works of Sting and Joni Mitchell, she was a young movie buff growing up in Milwaukee, paying rapt attention to the intricate connection between music and onscreen images.
Even now, when she thinks of her first viewing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, she immediately starts humming “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” One of her favorite films is Harold and Maude, whose soundtrack of songs by Cat Stevens is, in Sutton’s view, a character itself, as important to the movie’s success as the characters played by its co-stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. “I’ve always felt that music’s association with film is like what people say about smells that your brain associates with specific places and times in your life,” Sutton says. “If you experienced a certain song for the first time in the context of the film, no matter how many times you hear it over the years, it will always color the way you perceive the movie. I can’t hear any of those Cat Stevens songs without thinking of those scenes they both enhanced and defined.”
On the Tierney Sutton Band’s latest release, ScreenPlay (BFM Jazz), the singer indulges her passion for movies and music, covering in the process nearly 80 years of cinematic history. Alighting on soundtrack music from nearly every decade from the 1930s until the 2010s, the disc features classic selections from The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio (1939-40) to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Graduate (1967), Grease (1978), Tootsie (1982) and Mulholland Falls (1996). The skillfully arranged and rhythmically varied program concludes with “Arrow,” a gentle song composed by Clint Eastwood, pianist Christian Jacob and Sutton that appears on the soundtrack of the 2016 Eastwood-directed film Sully.
Once Sutton and her band — Jacob, bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt, and drummer Ray Brinker — finished recording the tracks for ScreenPlay, they discovered that they wouldn’t all fit onto a single CD. So, boldly, they decided to embrace the present era of streaming music. In the four months leading up to the release of the physical album, the band rolled out multiple-track suites for digital-only release. The bonus tracks on these gems equal those that appear on the physical album, and include a breakneck drum-vocal duet by Sutton and Brinker that evokes the clackety clack of “The Trolley Song”; a whimsical romp through “It May as Well Be Spring,” featuring only Jacob’s spritely accompaniment; a dreamy caress of Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road”; and two pieces that appeared originally on the Sully soundtrack, which, at Eastwood’s request, was scored by the Tierney Sutton Band.
“The whole organization, distribution and production of music is the wild west these days,” Sutton says, “so why not create smaller-themed EPs leading up to the release of the actual disc, with some featuring material that literally didn’t fit? The point was to create mini collections that people could wrap their heads around and gave us the freedom to do the Shirley Horn-styled slow arrangements on some and the weirder, more up-tempo excursions on others. Regardless of how well the CD itself catches on, these sumptuous little vignettes will exist in the cyberworld forever.”
Once Sutton decided to return to Songbook standards after releasing thoughtful tribute recordings to Joni Mitchell and Sting, her logical first stop for film-based material was four-time Oscar-winning husband-and-wife duo Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Having worked on various side projects with them over the past 15 years, singing mostly previously unrecorded songs of theirs, Sutton was well-versed in their poetic work. She has also enjoyed deep conversations with them about their experiences penning songs for films.
The singer pays homage to the couple via the initial streamed release, ScreenPlay Act I: The Bergman Suite, which comprises lush interpretations of four pieces, including “Every Now and Then,” a rarity (so rare you can’t even Google it) that features Bergman lyrics set to music written by Dave Grusin for Mulholland Falls; an intimate duet with Alan on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”; and a memorable take on “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the music for which was composed by Michel Legrand for the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). On that latter tune, Sutton’s charming, restrained approach to the Bergman-penned lyrics is backed throughout by Brinker’s hypnotic, odd-tempo percussion, which creates a haunting effect that illuminates the turning wheels of time so eloquently expressed in the lyrics.
“Performing shows with Alan and listening to him sing the couple’s lyrics gave me entirely new perspectives on their songs,” Sutton says. “In particular, I realized that many people, including myself, don’t really understand the meaning of ‘Windmills.’ The essence, as they explained it, is that they were asked to write a piece that would underscore the anxiety of the title character, with thoughts turning over as he battles insomnia. It’s about how the mind spins around in the middle of the night when you’re anxious and can’t get to sleep. I wanted there to be a circular feeling, so what we came up with was a 15/8 groove, with the bridge going to 7/8, cutting a beat off traditional 4/4 time to convey circular forward motion. … The intricate craft the Bergmans represent is unbelievable and always so emotionally intuitive, which is why their songs formed the foundation of the project.”
Aware that many of the arrangements in the vast 25-year repertoire of The Tierney Sutton Band are imbued with the same soft-spoken, meditative spirit she brings to the Bergman songs, Sutton opened the project up to numerous offbeat ideas, which explains the presence of two songs from Grease (including a brisk, sassy version of “You’re The One That I Want”), a simmering arrangement of “The Sound of Silence” that evolves from ethereal to boisterous, and, courtesy of bassist Axt, a finger-snappingly funky take of “If I Only Had a Brain.”
“Part of my workflow involves writing a little lyric here and there,” Sutton says, “but my main joy as an artist and performer is being a successful interpreter and storyteller. If I’m doing my job right, I will connect our audiences to the visions originally charted by others by finding fresh, even untapped elements in the songs that I love that I think are both interesting and honorable. I love digging into the soul of the song and opening it up so that people can interact with it in different and unique ways. To me, that’s always been the purpose of jazz.” -Jonathan Widran
Featured photo by Scott Mitchell.