Tierney Sutton's most recent album, After Blue, was a long time coming. Specifically, more than two decades long. But given that the album is Sutton's take on various songs from the Joni Mitchell catalog, she was not about to rush into anything.
"The moment I began singing professionally, people began suggesting Joni Mitchell's music to me, so this project was brewing on some level for 25 or 30 years," Sutton says. "But I knew that Joni's music was complex, serious, and not to be approached without some deep knowledge."
Ironically, the jazz vocalist was not exposed to a lot of Mitchell's work early on in her life. When she became more serious about jazz in her late teens, most of her familiarity with Mitchell came from jazz-tinged numbers like "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat" and Mitchell's cover of "Twisted," in addition to a few of her early hits. But it was her release of Both Sides Now - an album largely comprised of jazz standards - in 2000, that really won Sutton over.
"I listened to that album as much as teenagers in the '70s listened to her Blue, I'm sure," says Sutton. "After that, I knew I needed to really spend time with her earlier albums, and so I did, not thinking I would sing any of the songs any time soon, but just because I knew this was education I needed."
As time went on, Sutton began to imagine what it would be like to record an album of Mitchell covers.
"I wanted to make sure [the album] represented different eras in her work," she says. "Yes, her early work is great, but much of the later work is also fantastic, regardless of whether [people] 'got it.' I wanted to represent that and avoid songs that have been covered often and well, like 'A Case of You' or 'The River.' I was committed, for example, to recording 'Little Green,' the song she wrote about giving up her daughter for adoption, which is virtually never covered."
The 12 tracks on After Blue - which was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards - reimagine some of Mitchell's songs in intriguing ways. "Court and Spark," for instance, is transformed from a lively acoustic jaunt into more of a romantic, piano jazz ballad, and Sutton's version of "All I Want" puts more emphasis on percussion and bass than the guitar which leads Mitchell's version. The addition of strings to "Little Green" also adds some depth to the original track.
It's an ambitious project, given the highly regarded source material, but Sutton says she had no qualms about making the album.
"Once I fall in love with a song, I forget any fears I might have," Sutton says. "It's like any kind of 'falling in love' - you lose your sense of trying to protect yourself and just fall. I heard someone say long ago, 'Love is not an emotion; it's an action,' so, if the love is real, I think you try your best to serve the song and work to get inside it. All I can hope is that it's clear that I love this music."