Tierney Sutton: In Union There is Strength
Before I saw Betty Carter live, I was taking a jazz appreciation course, and I remember being in the listening labback when there were such things, before the internet and the restand I remember listening to Sarah Vaughan 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 'emno problem with their musicbut 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, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Firemusic 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, 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 or Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, 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 commercialbut 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. I had recorded my Unsung Heroes (Telarc, 2000) tribute to jazz instrumentalists, as well as a Bill Evans 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."
Although I had been proud of those earlier albums, I took his advice, and my career completely changed and took off after I released the album Something Cool (Telarc, 2002)which had "Route 66," "Alone Together," "Crazy," as well as songs from My Fair Ladyand it worked. To give you another example, I feeland the jazz tradition is exemplified byJohn 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?