Recording of April 2007: On the Other Side

Tierney Sutton, vocals; Christian Jacob, piano; Trey Henry, Kevin Axt, bass; Ray Brinker, drums; with Jack Sheldon, trumpet, vocal
Telarc SACD-63650 (hybrid multichannel SACD/CD). 2007. Elaine Martone, prod.; Robert Friedrich, eng. DDD. TT: 60:03
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

It begins with Ray Brinker's bass drum, as ominous as an uncertain heartbeat, three dark chords from pianist Christian Jacob, and Tierney Sutton's haunted, wordless, floating voice, which finally breathes "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy..." Harold Arlen never imagined such an edgy, ambiguous lead-in to his song.

"The pursuit of happiness" is the constitutionally guaranteed birthright of every American—not the thing itself, but the search for it. Tierney Sutton's new album contains, almost exclusively, songs whose titles include the word happy. It is not about the elusive concept of the thing itself, but about the hazardous journey of the search.

Gustave Flaubert said, "Happiness is a monstrosity. Punished are those who seek it." For Tierney Sutton, it is even more complicated. In press notes for this album, she reveals that she lost her mother in November 2006. "During 30 years of tremendous suffering, my mother often referred to herself as a happy woman. Happiness is a funny business." Sutton's inquiry into this "business" involves layers of irony. "Happy Days Are Here Again" sounds bright and brave, but its airiness is fragile, because whatever one understands as happiness must be chosen, moment to moment. "You Are My Sunshine" is almost a dirge. Suddenly, in the song's opening line, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," the obvious operative word is only. "Please don't take my sunshine away" becomes a plea of devastating vulnerability. "Make Someone Happy" is also fervent, even desperate, a straw grasped and fiercely held ("someone to love is the answer").

Tierney Sutton possesses an exquisitely pure vocal instrument, but chops alone do not guarantee that a singer will get under your skin. On the Other Side goes deep. It is a daring act of musical and personal self-exposure. Sutton has never before taken such chances, veering off melodic course in impulsive response to the contradictory emotions these songs evoke in her. Because her vocal control is impeccable, when she smears across bar lines, her phrasing in itself conveys the fluid relativity of her subject. Happiness flickers like a mirage, or comes in a rush, or empties, and you doubt it was there.

It is not incidental that On the Other Side is attributed not to Sutton but to her working band. Her quartet is able to be so free with these songs because they trust each other. Christian Jacob reacts immediately to Sutton's vocal epiphanies and crises with chiming piano revelations of his own. On four tracks, a second bassist, Kevin Axt, darkens the ensemble perspective. Producer Elaine Martone's only misstep was her decision to include as a guest on two tunes Jack Sheldon, whose trumpet and quavering voice disrupt the atmosphere.

On the Other Side represents an engineering achievement commensurate with its artistic realization. Telarc engineer Robert Friedrich recorded it live to 8 tracks with a Sonoma Direct Stream Digital workstation. SACD may be a format with an uncertain future, but the Telarc label, to its everlasting credit, believes in and supports it. (Friedrich says, "Even our CFO can hear the difference. That gives us hope.") It is the sampling rate and dynamic range of SACD that make the lifelike naturalness of Sutton's voice sound effortless. It is the frequency response of SACD that retains all the clusters of harmonics generated by complex sources of sound like Jacob's piano.

This recording also conclusively validates the widely misunderstood and much-maligned concept of surround sound for music. For these sessions—recorded in the legendary Capitol Studio A, in Hollywood—Friedrich closely miked the piano and each bass, used multiple microphones for the drum kit, and placed Sutton and drummer Ray Brinker in isolation booths. Then he placed one mike approximately 6' above the nose of the piano, and another pair about 15' in the air farther forward in the main room—"about where you'd be if you were sitting in the eighth row." He also left the sliding door of the drummer's iso booth slightly open, with a stereo mike just outside. Technically, the sessions were "live to 8-track minus the vocals." Sutton's separate track made retakes possible, but, Friedrich says, "95% of the vocals are live."

Friedrich arrays the information from the additional room mikes over a 5.1-channel SACD mix to create a three-dimensional ambient soundfield. The rear channels are used not for tricks but to facilitate a more cohesive relationship between front and back. He places some of Sutton's voice in the rear speakers, thereby bringing her out from the band, into the listening room. The overall effect is an extraordinary auditory experience of music in a real space, with no awareness of discrete multiple channels. When you switch over to the two-channel SACD layer, the space collapses, and the illusion, the magic, evaporates—rather like some forms of happiness.

Like the object of Sutton's quest, the sound in the air is not less meaningful, not less to be desired, because it is transitory. In "Get Happy," she sings, "We're headin' 'cross the river / wash our sins away in the tide / it's all so peaceful / on the other side."

Every act of creativity is an act of faith.—Thomas Conrad