The Tierney Sutton Band: American Road
Solidly innovative and a forward-thinker in jazz vocals arena over the past 15 years, Tierney Sutton has constantly looked backwards while forging a future path that has influenced the likes of Laurie Antonioli and Gretchen Parlato, among many other noted contemporary jazz vocalists. A master of vocal pyrotechnics like Sarah Vaughan, Sutton sings on a high-wire, taking stylistic chances that, more often than not, pay off handsomely. Sutton and her band have been perfecting their unique updating of the great American songbook on such well-received recordings as Desire (Telarc, 2009), On The Other Side (Telarc, 2007) and I'm With The Band (Telarc, 2005). And she provides a tour-de-force in American Road.
An important part of the band's unique sound derives from divining the organic earthiness from the standards it selects to perform. Where Cassandra Wilson spent the better part of the 1990s stripping down standards and redressing them with more rustic instrumentation such as acoustic slide guitars, mandolins, violins and other artifacts of rural blues, effecting a more seminal, fecund sound, Sutton accomplishes the same with carefully conceived arrangements, created by the entire band as opposed to a single person. Additionally, she does this with her traditional jazz piano trio of 18 years. These arrangements are spare and wide open. Often jarring and dissonant, the clever settings reveal the pieces as dramatically different from traditional performances, revealing their anxious and unsettling elements.
American Road follows a year after Laurie Antonioli's America-focused recording, American Dreams (Intrinsic, 2010). Antonioli's organic approach lies between that of Cassandra Wilson's and Sutton's, focusing on using more rustic instrumentation with more original compositions and some truly inspired takes on musical Americana. Antonioli and Sutton intersect with inspired covers of "America The Beautiful," both spare and light, giving the singers plenty of time and room to display their considerable individual vocal wares. There is no edge here, both interpretations equally bring home the American goods.
Sutton's choice of repertoire mines deep the American song, drawing from traditional folk sources, spirituals, show tunes and popular music. The disc opens with the Public Domain "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Oh Shenandoah/The Water Is Wide." As on previous recordings, drummer Ray Brinker plays an important role both using novel percussive approaches and keeping time as if by telepathy. The drums become an extension of pianist Christian Jacobs' equally percussive and ornate playing. "Wayfaring Stranger" is performed as if in a home parlor (albeit a "green" one) on a Sunday afternoon, after church and lunch.
"Oh Shenandoah/The Water Is Wide" begins with nine muffled microphone strikes buoyed by bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry strumming chords, achieving an unsettled environment over which Sutton jazz-vocalizes the lilting melody of "Oh Shenandoah." This segues into Jacobs' clean as spring comping and solo on "The Water Is Wide." Sutton sings the "Oh Shenandoah" melody behind Jacobs' solo, solidifying the continuity of the song pairing. The effect is fresh and vibrant, like the first color Polaroid of Summer.
Sutton and company strip all of the glamour from Lieber and Stoller's "On Broadway," leaving a nervous and excited performance where the arrangement leads the way. Bassists Axt and Henry shine, producing poly-rhythms with Jacob and Brinker. Sutton sings at her most sinewy and muscular here. To be sure, this is not your parent's George Benson version. This is a juggernaut. The group turns out a graceful and flowing "Amazing Grace," with Jacob providing an orchestral backdrop supported by Brinker's pistol-shot snare and shimmering cymbals.
The disc programming establishes two mini-recitals of American monoliths: the Gershwin brothers and Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein. The Gershwin selections exist as a musical triptych of "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now." "It Ain't Necessarily So" is bold, jarring, dangerous with hard and assertive playing by Jacob and corrosively sardonic deliver by Sutton. The rhythm and time is jack-hammer tight, ensuring a version of this chestnut not likely to be topped. This is likewise true for "My Man's Gone Now," where another hard rhythmic figure dominates the song even in its quieter moments. These songs are no longer the quaint ballads of cabaret singers. Sutton and her band transform them militantly into feral expressions of more base instincts. Gone is nicety and politeness: enter naked realism that is both seductive and refreshing.
Between these two songs is the old standby, "Summertime." Musical treatment here is gentler but no less provocative than Sutton's approach with the other Gershwin offerings. Bass and drums set up a three-note figure transfigured through the harmonic prism of the song. Jacob adds light filigree while Sutton sings with authority and melodic refinement. Jacobs' solo is a study of the skeleton of the piece, distilled to some bare essence. These very familiar tunes have been turned on their head to show a different angle. Sutton digs deep, revealing the novel and unseen in these compositions: dramatic and horizon expanding.
After the Gershwins, Sutton turns her attention to Sondheim/Bernstein and West Side Story (1961). "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming/Cool" are given more traditionally dramatic arrangements, with an emphases on the dramatic. "Somewhere" is some of the best ballad singing of Sutton's career. The band's arrangement is straightforward and Sutton perfectly balanced and placed. The coupling of "Something's Coming/Cool" returns to the edge of the experimental, where boundaries and perimeters are extended. Over a brooding, ascending piano/bass figure Sutton injects impressive drama, accentuated by the clever arrangement. The transition between the songs is seamless and inventive, again give the arrangement. Not since Gil Evans worked his magic for the first Miles Davis quintet has arranging had such a potent and important effect in small-combo jazz. This is top- notch, full-throttle, jazz vocals.
Tracks: Wayfaring Stranger; Oh Shenandoah/The Water is Wide; On Broadway; Amazing Grace; It Ain't Necessarily So; Summertime; My Man's Gone Now; Tenderly; The Eagle and Me; Somewhere; Something's Coming/Cool; America the Beautiful.
Personnel: Tierney Sutton: vocals; Christian Jacob: piano; Kevin Axt: electric and acoustic bass; Trey Henry: electric and acoustic bass; Ray Brinker: drums.