Singer Tierney Sutton and her band aren't the first to take a happy song, slow it to dirge time and make us ponder sad words that normally zip by. Sutton and friends may not even be the first to pull that magic trick on Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Get Happy"; the sleight of tempo makes the song's promise of heavenly happiness seem distinctly secondary to the dying that's prerequisite for reaching "the other side." But this is just the starting point for something extraordinary: More than a concept album, On the Other Side feels like a song cycle about our all-American pursuit, even though it's stitched together from standards by various writers and writing teams. The opener's sad undercurrent gives way to an impish (but not entirely happy) "Happy Days Are Here Again," a helium-filled "Happy Talk," a mysterious "Haunted Heart" and "You Are My Sunshine" as a prayer. "I Want to be Happy" features some young chick-old guy jive between Sutton and guest vocalist-trumpeter Jack Sheldon; he's dispatched, finally, with "now brush your teeth, put on your pajamas and go to bed." (And he can't be too happy about going alone.) Eventually bringing the wheel a full turn, Sutton winds down with second, and very different, takes on "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Get Happy," again emphasizing less-than-happy undercurrents. She signs off with a bittersweet (naturally) rendition of Charlie Chaplin and company's "Smile." Sutton's soprano is luminous; her little combo is up to the big challenge of limning a different emotional space for each tune. They've made one of the great jazz records of the year so far, one that deserves to be remembered for years to come.
W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].