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Interviews

Tierney Sutton: In Union There is Strength

By Published: October 11, 2011
Before I saw Betty Carter live, I was taking a jazz appreciation course, and I remember being in the listening lab—back when there were such things, before the internet and the rest—and I remember listening to Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
records and weeping and being angry that I had not known about this kind of music. No one had played that to me. Till then, my vocal heroes had been Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton John. God bless 'em—no problem with their music—but there was Sarah Vaughan, and I didn't even know about her. What was wrong with the world, I was asking myself. And I came to realize that the music that I really liked was jazz influenced. Steely Dan
Steely Dan
Steely Dan
b.1972
band/orchestra
, Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
b.1950
keyboard
, Earth Wind & Fire—music that I later learned had jazz influences. But I didn't know what jazz was.


Tierney Sutton Band, from left:
Christian Jacob, Tierney Sutton, Kevin Axt, Ray Brinker



AAJ: And of course, now you do know! After graduating, you went to Berklee for a few semesters, studying under Jerry Bergonzi
Jerry Bergonzi
Jerry Bergonzi
b.1947
saxophone
, and for 11 years, you taught in the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Southern California, after which you became the Vocal Department Chair at Los Angeles Music Academy in Pasadena, California. How do you now explain jazz to your students?

TS: In my educational work, I tell my students that I think of jazz as a musical philosophy and a set of skills. I don't think of it purely as a style of music, as much as I think of it as a philosophy and a process. Because, when you think about the heroes of our music, you think about John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
or Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
or Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
piano
, and they used a process to create something that wasn't there before; they were improvisational. So the things that jazz students and young musicians are going to bring to the music should be different, but without trying to be crossover or commercial—but about having an integrity and a creative process that is true to jazz, rather than turning it into a calcified, classical style of music which, of course, has its own place and its own set of skills.

AAJ: In your recordings, there's an integrity but also an accessibility which perhaps enables a wider audience, as well as those into jazz, to appreciate and connect with your music.

TS: I think the band has many different influences, and we make music by way of collaboration, and we feel that people are inoculated against good music because of labels, or because of seeing something that's called jazz but doesn't have what I think are the most important elements of jazz.

I spent time with the great jazz bassist Ray Brown
Ray Brown
Ray Brown
1926 - 2002
bass, acoustic
. I had recorded my Unsung Heroes (Telarc, 2000) tribute to jazz instrumentalists, as well as a Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
tribute album [Blue in Green (Telarc, 2001)] which jazz aficionados liked; but that's a tiny audience, and the music was not readily accessible. So Ray Brown said to me, "Sweetheart, it's great that musicians love you, but you gotta find some songs that people have actually heard before."

My Fair Lady—and it worked. To give you another example, I feel—and the jazz tradition is exemplified by—John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things," the quintessential example of what I think of as the jazz tradition. There is a theme; it is familiar, accessible. People have a relationship with it, and the artist creates something new with it, but the audience is able to participate because they saw the musical it came from.

AAJ: Providing an audience with its anchor points?

Yes, a bridge for an audience to walk over. There are different ways to do this, using themes of more modern songs. Whatever is sincere to you, use this process and create something that is distinctly yours. The way that the Tierney Sutton Band has been functioning all along has been with that in mind: to engage with the audience without putting it so far over their head. But we have to bring something new, fresh and challenging to it. It needs to be interesting to us as a band.

AAJ: When was the Tierney Sutton Band formed?

TS: The Tierney Sutton Band was formed 18 years ago, in 1993, when I moved to L.A. and met the trio, and I have been collaborating ever since.

AAJ: The group embraces many Baha'i principles of collaboration and collective understanding. How did you apply those principles to the band's and your creative processes?

TS: I became a Baha'i at 18, having been an atheist or extremely cynical agnostic. And it was the oneness of all religions, and the oneness of all religious leaders being the same spirit expressed at different times in history that made sense to me. At first, I believed that it was all nonsense, yet I now believe it's all true. It's just skewed by disunity and the fight for power.



AAJ: How did this affect performing together? And was it challenging to apply it to the band's dynamics?


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