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Jazz singer Tierney Sutton
Tierney Sutton joins local jazz trumpeter Joe Gransden Friday for a tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Q&A: Tierney Sutton, Joe Gransden team up for Rialto Center’s Johnny Mercer tribute

Jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton makes a rare Atlanta appearance Friday night to perform a tribute to Johnny Mercer with Atlanta hard bop trumpeter/singer Joe Gransden at the Rialto Center for the Arts. The concert will feature Sutton singing unpublished works by the legendary songwriter. She and Gransden will be joined by the Georgia State University Jazz Band.

May believe that Mercer — a Savannah native — is the greatest American pop lyricist, the co-author of such standards as “Moon River,” “Autumn Leaves,” “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” and “Accentuate the Positive.” An exciting development is the discovery of fresh material by Georgia State University graduate student Marco Maritz in the university’s special collections and archives. One of the new songs has been rearranged as a ballad for Sutton, with the intriguing title of “Fate Moves in Mysterious Ways.”

Sutton has nine Grammy nominations to her credit and often is described as a blend of the classic cool West Coast sound of June Christy and the tougher-edged East Coast sound personified by Sheila Jordan, the bebop vocalist who received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award in 2012.

Sutton has recorded tunes that range from Great American Songbook standards to contemporary arrangements of songs by Joni Mitchell and Sting. She’s headlined shows at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and at the Hollywood Bowl. She can be heard on many film and TV soundtracks and has collaborated on film scores with actor/filmmaker/jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood.

She recently spoke to ArtsATL by phone to discuss the Mercer concert, her jazz career and what she looks for in a song.

ArtsATL: Friday’s concert will be a tribute to iconic Georgia composer Johnny Mercer. What can you tell us about the new material and what you’ll be singing?

Jazz trumpeter Joe Gransden
Joe Gransden will help Sutton celebrate the music of Johnny Mercer.

Tierney Sutton: These new songs are great. It’s a nice challenge. Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the great American lyricists and songwriters, are mentors of mine. They had a close relationship with Johnny Mercer. In fact, Johnny encouraged them to move to Los Angeles, which they did, and remained friends for 15 years until Mercer’s untimely death. I have learned so many stories from them about Johnny Mercer. Last year, I did a show at the Cafe Carlyle in New York of some of the Bergmans’ ballads. There were a few of what I call “Mercer moments.” I would stop and tell a story about Johnny being Alan’s mentor and his supreme place in the pantheon of lyricists. There was so much relevancy, history, so much to share.

When I received the new songs, I had questions about some of the lyrics, deciphering them correctly. I took them to Alan to pass by him, to get his opinion. He helped me tweak a few little words, saying “That’s what Johnny would say!” Mercer died at 66 [in 1976]. I wonder what more would Mercer have given us had he lived on. Mercer is the best.

ArtsATL: Joe Gransden has also worked with Clint Eastwood. Have you performed with Joe before?

Sutton: Joe Gransden and I met playing in Savannah years ago. I played there a lot in the 1980s. The Clint Eastwood connection happened completely independently. Joe approached me about the Mercer project and I was delighted.

ArtsATL: How did your style develop, and what impact has your association with Sheila Jordan had on your approach to music?

Sutton: It’s a sheer pleasure to speak of Sheila Jordan. She is an angel of this business, a mentor. A light, pure soul, pure spirit of joy. I first met Sheila at a master class around 1987 and we became fast friends. Sheila has a deep conviction for this music we call jazz. She honors the ancestors, embodies the work. She taught me the spirit of teaching, too, and how to encourage others.

Another early influences was Betty Carter. I was able to see and hear her live. I was struck by her instrumental approach and how she worked with her band. Stylistically, Nancy Wilson was such an influence. We have similar ranges. I loved the sound from her church roots — it was an education for me. I was a white girl from Milwaukee and knew nothing of this. I loved that.

You know, every singer has a sound. We are unique in being the instrument. It’s too easy to fall into imitating other singers. You can’t copy, you have to find your own sound. I later listened more to the instrumentalists. My development comes from a deep collaboration through the years. I’m so grateful to the musicians I’ve worked with, particularly my bandmates who have been with me for over 20 years.

ArtsATL: How do you view the role of a jazz vocalist?

Sutton: Lyrics are the story and we are storytellers. When I first started singing jazz, I wanted to be a vocal instrumentalist. But I’m more interested these days in telling the story. You know, the best instrumentalists know the lyrics and convey their part. I see the vocalist’s role as being a bridge between the band and the audience. It’s as if we’re inviting and assisting them in joining the journey.

Jazz singer Tierney Sutton
Tierney Sutton will perform newly discovered Johnny Mercer songs Friday night.

ArtsATL: How do you choose your material?

Sutton: Each project has come in different ways. With my Sinatra recording, I relied wholly on the ballads. My Joni Mitchell project was similar. I came to Joni’s work through her jazz singing and then revisited her earlier works. For each, there is so much more you can cover. It has to be what resonates with you. What speaks the loudest. The deepest story. Maybe something different than what you’ve heard.

ArtsATL: How does your Bahá’í faith figure in to your work?

Sutton: “Oneness of mankind” and “unity and diversity” are basic tenets of the Bahá’í tradition.

I strive to find processes to create harmony. Problem-solving is called “consultation.” It’s the aim to bring about everybody’s best qualities and get rid of ego. I’ve learned so much from my bandmates and we all contribute. It’s an organic coming together. A new reality you can all serve. That’s why I fell in love with jazz and improvisation. It’s more than the sum of its parts.

Democracy is certainly “unity and diversity.” Blending the African tradition and layering with Western melodies became jazz. It’s everyone together; excellence and improvisation, and in profound ways we don’t even know.