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Tierney Sutton: An Instrumentalist’s Singer


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Being barraged in the media teaches people not to engage, not to seek great art, not to listen with their own ears, not to see with their own eyes...
"Jazz demands something of you," says Tierney Sutton.

The Los Angeles based singer is discussing the challenge of selling complicated, improvised music in a culture addicted to simple, pre-packaged formulas. "Being barraged in the media teaches people not to engage, not to seek great art, not to listen with their own ears, not to see with their own eyes," observes Sutton. "Jazz is this theme and variations work, and if the person who's listening is not interested in learning what the theme is, they can't enjoy the variations. It sounds like nonsense to them."

Tierney Sutton's passion for jazz, her profound admiration for its musicians and her deep respect for its audiences will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her work. And for those unenlightened souls who don't know who she is, well, that will probably change in the very near future. Sutton's remarkable new CD, Blue in Green, should safely ensconce her among the upper echelon of modern jazz singers where she belongs.

Blue in Green is a richly atmospheric and sophisticated jazz album. "I'm really proud of my band and the work that we put into every one of the songs and every one of the arrangements," says the singer. What separates Blue in Green from other vocal jazz records is the degree to which its textures seem to be the byproduct of a common artistic vision. Sutton and her band—pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker—display the kind of distinctive group sound that comes only from an extended collaboration among equals. "Each one of the members of the trio is among the world's best at what he does, and I say that without any fear of anybody calling me on it and finding it not to be the case," Sutton says emphatically. Based on the evidence available, her confidence is not misplaced. "Christian has so much classical background, which you can hear in his soloing and his touch and his way of carrying a theme in a solo," explains Sutton. "Ray has the ability to play so fast, so quietly and so swinging or whatever feel it is, just crisp and perfect and amazing...Trey is sort of voted Most Likely to Come Up With the Groove. A lot of the arrangements start with Trey having a bass idea."

Sutton does not see this album as a solo outing. "Jazz," she observes, "is about taking a theme and entering into an artistic, collaborative process that, God willing, will be more than the sum of its parts." Which is exactly what Sutton, Jacob, Henry and Brinker achieve on Blue in Green. The record nicely balances the oftentimes conflicting imperatives of individualism and group expression. Although Sutton is the nexus around which the record has been built, each musician is given ample room to express his own personality. Yet, at the same time, everyone stays inside a common framework. "You have to submit to what's going on around you rather than try to impose your idea on it," explains the singer.

Tierney Sutton's simpatico relationship with her trio is simply an extension of her fascination with instrumental jazz. Her primary influences have been musicians like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Oscar Peterson, Wayne Shorter and Bill Evans, whose work inspired Blue in Green. Sutton recognizes the ambivalence many instrumentalists feel toward vocalists. "It's frustrating for me when I go see a band where the singer is really mediocre, but the trio is incredible, and the trio plays a couple of songs and no one [cares], and the singer sings and everyone goes crazy...There is a huge disconnect there. It's not lost on the instrumentalists. They know. So I feel very humbled by the quality of the people I get to work with."

That's not to suggest that Sutton is dismissive or unaware of the vocal jazz tradition. She admires a range of singers including Sarah Vaughan, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Shirley Horn, Meredith d'Ambrosio, Sheila Jordan, Carol Sloane, and Dianne Reeves, and she considers Ella Fitzgerald to be the greatest jazz singer of all time. Sutton acknowledges that there are many different opinions on what makes a good jazz singer. In her view, though, "it has to do with being interested in the entire harmony of a song as opposed to just learning the melody. That's why so many great jazz singers started as pianists. Sarah Vaughan was going to hear the chord because she could play the chord. She could arpeggiate a chord without even thinking about it. And that sensibility of hearing vertically, rather than just hearing horizontally, is one essential quality. The other essential quality is a subtler thing of being in the moment and being ready to interact with the situation that you're in appropriately and musically. That's probably true of any singer really, but especially in jazz because there are supposed to be wider parameters."

Fortunately, Sutton has the tools to take full advantage of those wider parameters. She combines perfect vocal control with a sharp ear, faultless time and bold improvisational choices. Sutton doesn't appear to have ever met a time signature that was too tricky or a tempo that was too fast. "Getting in the pocket rhythmically is, I think, the first job," she explains. "If you can approach, and this is a very Bill Evans thing, if you can approach gently, you are more likely to get in the pocket than if you approach heavily. So my sense of swing and my idea about swing is that it is a light thing. It's a crisp thing, but it's light."

Sutton has an exquisite voice—a flexible, crystalline soprano with a light, sweet timbre. However, it is her mastery of her vocal resources that is so endlessly impressive. She changes keys and negotiates unusual intervals with ease. "My students at USC call me the Pitch Nazi," laughs Sutton, who heads the vocal jazz department of the University of Southern California. "Part of it is an aural thing, and the other part of it is actually a sensual feeling that you get when the note is right in the middle of the pitch," she explains. "There is a vibration that happens when you're singing the 3rd of a chord or the 5th of a chord or the 9th of a chord, whatever it is, and when its right on, it feels qualitatively different and it resonates more. And that is a feeling that I seek in every note that I sustain for any amount of time."

Although her voice does not have a great deal of dynamic weight, Sutton compensates through the resourcefulness and agility of her phrasing. She can sing long, sustained notes with no vibrato at very slow tempos on one song and then take the next tune at the speed of light singing several sixteenth notes in the space of a single syllable. Her ability to sing lyrics coherently at ultra fast tempos is almost unmatched in modern jazz.

Just as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and Anita O'Day did before her, Tierney Sutton has claimed for herself the freedom to interact with musicians like an instrumentalist. Whether she is singing lyrics or scatting, the creativity, musical logic and rhythmic ingenuity of her improvising is extraordinary. Like all great improvisers, Sutton recognizes the value of putting yourself at risk. "The challenge is to make it new each time, suspend your attachment to what you thought you wanted," she explains. "I've been lucky enough to work with people who are so great that I'm always ready to suspend. It doesn't always work perfectly. Sometimes I feel like they push me in places I wish I hadn't gone, but it helps me grow." For Tierney Sutton, flexibility and responsiveness are the heart of jazz singing. "I'm not a cabaret singer. That's not what I'm doing. I actually have to listen, really carefully, because Christian might play a totally different chord, and if I'm too busy emoting to interact appropriately with my band, then all is lost."

That's not to suggest that Sutton is completely inattentive to lyrics. "It really depends on the song," she explains. "When I'm singing the lyrics to 'Bernie's Tune,' I'm not having a sublime, poetic moment... But then there are other songs like the Gene Lees lyric to 'Turn Out the Stars,' where I'm doing nothing but thinking about the words, or Norma Winstone's lyric to "The Peacocks," its an incredible lyric and I'm totally involved in that lyric. So I'd say on ballad singing I'm always really thinking about the lyric and on a lot of swing tune singing or up tempo tunes, if it's Cole Porter or somebody who really knew what they were doing in writing a lyric, you're thinking about the lyric, but then there are other cases where the lyric is a bit of a throwaway, and no one wants to say that, but that's the truth."

Sutton doesn't subscribe to the notion that a song's lyric, even if it's a great lyric, automatically places limits on what an improvising singer can do with a tune. She points to the up tempo "Autumn Leaves" and the ballad "Tiffany" from Blue in Green to illustrate her point. "I do understand the feeling of when you really have a beautiful lyric, and ['Autumn Leaves'] is a beautiful lyric, that there's something lost... [however] everybody in the known world has heard [the 'Autumn Leaves'] lyric. But with 'Tiffany,' where no one has heard the lyric before, I demanded that it be completely out of tempo so that I could do nothing but sing that lyric," explains Sutton. "So it really depends on the situation. No one needs to hear the 'Autumn Leaves' lyric again very slowly in my personal opinion. You could do a version that's quite beautiful, and you might feel like you want to do it and it might be just lovely. I'm just saying that there isn't a hole in the universe that needs to be filled by another slow version of 'Autumn Leaves.' There are songs that I'm not going to do that with, but this didn't feel sacrilegious."

Paradoxically, when Sutton does settle into a ballad, she takes almost the opposite approach. Rather than bending the song to her will, as interpretative singers tend to do, she transforms herself into a vehicle for the song. She approaches a song's lyric with intelligence and its melody with respect. "I heard Dianne Reeves in an interview a couple of years ago, and she said the older she gets the less she wants to mess around with ballads, and I'm right there with her. When I listen to homemade recordings [from] jazz clubs and different stuff from about 10 or 15 years ago, good Lord, what was I doing with 'Misty?' I mean give me a break!" That's not to say that Sutton sings the ballads exactly as written. "The way that you phrase is informed by your sense of improvisation," she explains. "You know when that crunchy chord is coming and you better get off that note. So there are a lot of decisions you make that may be informed by the fact that you are an improviser."

Given her love for instrumental jazz, harmonic ingenuity and beautiful ballads, Tierney Sutton's affinity for Bill Evans shouldn't come as much of a surprise. "His music is full of tension," she notes. "There is this melancholy that is an undercurrent to what he does, and yet there is a sort of crystalline, spring, green quality to this playing as well." She also points to how Evans could "make a piano sound, even if it was a crappy piano. His touch and his voicing, but even just his touch. He could be playing the exact same chord that a million pianists had played before, but there was a freshness and a purity and a glow to how he made a piano sound, and also a softness. Because I don't have a big voice, it was really important for me to connect with jazz artists who approached harmony and melody and improvisation from that standpoint."

However, the singer's concept of how to pay her respects to the pianist on record evolved over time. Initially, Sutton considered recording an entire CD of Bill Evans compositions. However, her view changed after spending some time with Joe LaBarbera, the drummer with the last Bill Evans Trio. "Sitting with him and having him play me all of this music, concerts that they had done that aren't out on record, and playing me all of these songs. Getting his insight as to how passionate Bill Evans was about his music ... One of the things that he told me that was really important to my thinking about the record was that Bill Evans always tried to do his sets with a combination of his own compositions and very familiar standards."

Sutton then began the process of compiling tunes. "There were several Bill Evans compositions that I had been doing for a while, like 'Very Early' and 'Waltz for Debby.' I was also working on 'Tiffany' at the time." "Tiffany" was a tune Evans had written for Joe LaBarbera's daughter, Tiffany, when she was young. Tiffany LaBarbera grew up and wrote the lyric to her own song, which makes its debut on Blue in Green. As for the standards, Sutton knew that she would have to include some personal favorites like "Sometime Ago," from her favorite Bill Evans record, You Must Believe in Spring.

For the rest of the songs, Sutton, Jacob, Henry and Brinker poured through a complete discography of Bill Evans. "We would play around with the songs in rehearsal and figure out what we wanted to do with them and how to make them our own," explains Sutton. "We arm wrestled at times where one of us would say, 'okay, I have this idea,' and someone else would say, 'no that doesn't make compositional sense,' or I would say, 'I've got to sing a word there, okay?' So there is that tension, but I think that is what it's supposed to be about." The group actually recorded a number of songs that did not make it on to the final record. "We recorded 'You Must Believe in Spring,' and we also recorded 'All of You,' and, for some reason, the arrangements had not quite jelled yet to the point where we were happy with them," explains Sutton.

In the end, Blue in Green became less a formal tribute to Bill Evans and more a collection of songs inspired by his spirit. "We used the Bill Evans discography and the influence of Bill Evans to make some music and that's what it is." Although Sutton and her producer decided to leave Evans' name off the cover, she expects that she'll still upset at least a few Evans devotees. "The first tune is something he played as a sideman at an obscure time in his career in the '50s, 'Blue in Green' is one where he was an essential sideman, and then you get into really serious Bill material. And the last tune, 'Old Devil Moon,' he never recorded, so," Sutton adds jokingly, "sue me."

It's unlikely anyone is going to do that. In fact, of the numerous vocal albums inspired by or dedicated to Evans, Blue in Green comes closest to capturing the combination of imagination and beauty that pervades so much of the pianist's work. The CD also serves as a perfect showcase for everything that Tierney Sutton and company can accomplish. The sly "Just Squeeze Me," the burning "Autumn Leaves" and the playful "Someday My Prince Will Come" are flawless examples of the band's ability to reinvent familiar standards. All three performances are filled with the kind of subtle rhythmic shifts and smart musical choices that make serious jazz fans smile in knowing appreciation. Yet these tracks also radiate that deep swing and sense of joy that made Ella Fitzgerald's work so appealing even to people who didn't really understand what she was doing from an improvisational standpoint.

Sutton displays masterful control on a tension-filled "Blue in Green" centering the performance in her evocative lower register. She chose to sing Meredith d'Ambrosio's lyric to the iconic tune. "She's a great singer and she knows about using vowels. So the way that she wrote the lyric, it almost isn't clear that I'm singing a lyric in parts of it. You want the lyric to serve that melody, and I felt like she really did that."

On a few songs Sutton indulges her preference for singing in a single instrument setting. "It's really my favorite way to work," explains the vocalist. "It's hard to sing with precision when you can't hear yourself, and the more exposed you are, the more precise you can be, and the more responsible you can be for what is going on." Sutton duets with pianist Jacob on "Turn Out the Stars" and "Very Early" and races drummer Brinker to the finish line on "Just You, Just Me."

Blue in Green is filled with unexpected curve balls like the arrangement for "Sometime Ago" which features the rarely heard instrumentation of bass & phone book. "Ray's playing the Burbank yellow pages," laughs Sutton. Slightly more conventional, but no less appealing, are the tempo shifting "You and the Night and the Music" and the beautifully realized ballad "Never Let Me Go." In another especially nice touch, Sutton asked drummer Joe LaBarbera to play on "Tiffany," which the singer paired with the Evans warhorse "Waltz for Debby." Sutton skillfully weaves the two songs together so that they feel like a single piece, and, in the process, somehow avoids the mawkishness that has marred nearly every previous vocal recording of "Waltz for Debby."

As for the one tune that has no association with Bill Evans, Sutton explains, "We were on the road last year, and we came up with ['Old Devil Moon'] while doing our sound checks for Blues Alley in D.C. and I just loved the way it felt. Sometimes you want to record something that's fresh for you when it's fresh. It's more the spirit of what's on our first record."

That first record was the appropriately titled Introducing Tierney Sutton released in 1997 on A-Records, a division of the European Challenge label. "That was sort of the first recording of the process that my band goes through when we choose material and we do it," observes Sutton. "We didn't rehearse for the record at all. We came in and recorded it in an afternoon for the most part. All of the trio stuff was recorded in one afternoon, and then I went back into the studio with a pianist [Michael Lang] and recorded a bunch of ballads, because we didn't have any ballads."

That palpable sense of spontaneity is precisely the strength of the record. The CD is a collection of standards and instrumental tunes, warhorses all, yet, somehow, Sutton and company make them sound like they had been written that morning. The voice & bass duet on "My Heart Stood Still" and the daredevil takes on Chick Corea's "High Wire" and Kern & Hammerstein's "The Song Is You" are alone worth the price of the disc. Buddy Childers, one of Sutton's mentors, makes an appearance on flugelhorn on "Old Country." The record also contains beautiful ballad singing ("In the Wee Small Hours") and serious scatting ("Footprints"/"My Favorite Things").

Given the positive buzz generated by Introducing Tierney Sutton, it was inevitable that a larger label would come calling. Of her affiliation with Telarc, Sutton says, "I'm in awe of being on the same label as Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson and George Shearing... The people at Telarc are really good human beings, and they want what's best, both musically and otherwise, and I've felt that every step of the way." That does actually appear to be the case. Although the label is clearly cognizant of Sutton's crossover potential, they have not tried to position her as a conventional standards singer.

There is certainly nothing conventional about her first Telarc CD, Unsung Heroes. The album is Sutton's tribute to the instrumentalists that had been such an important influence on her work. "It was a record I had wanted to do for a long time." Sutton deftly negotiates some challenging instrumental tunes written by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie ("Con Alma"), Clifford Brown ("Joy Spring"), Wayne Shorter ("Speak No Evil"), and Joe Henderson ("Recorda Me"). She scats in unison with Buddy Childers' flugelhorn on "Bernie's Tune" and trades phrases with Gary Foster's alto saxophone on "Indiana"/ "Donna Lee." However, the CD's highlight is Sutton's beautifully sustained reading of Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" (with its lyric by the superb English jazz singer Norma Winstone).

Unlike some jazz singers, Sutton does not feel any self-consciousness about her preference for jazz tunes and standards. "I didn't discover jazz until I was about 20," she explains. "When I was 19, I was a singing cocktail waitress at a resort in Wisconsin. We would do these shows, these really cheesy shows with organ and drums and sometimes accordion. It was just so awful," Sutton recalls with a laugh. "We would do the pop music of the day, whatever it was, some Barbra Streisand thing or some disco thing. Those songs were so horrible and when they were translated into that cheesy instrumentation, they were even worse. But jazz standards kind of survived it in a weird kind of way. So when I would sing 'Moonlight in Vermont' or 'Funny Valentine' or 'Georgia on My Mind,' they would hold together even with this horrible abuse they were getting."

Sutton's repertoire choices are less about a philosophical objection to more recent material and more a case of they don't write them like they used to. "There is an essential integrity to the harmony and melody of the songs that is just beautiful. If you look at a Jerome Kern composition, they're just beautifully crafted things. That's one of the really fun things about teaching is that I get to sit down with a gifted student and analyze 'The Song Is You' or something and really look at how well-crafted this stuff is. You know somebody did not throw this together in their garage. It's like somebody with compositional savvy and harmonic wisdom and melodic grace created this thing and there are infinite possibilities."

Sutton has attempted to open the ears of her students at USC to all of those possibilities. In return, they provide her with a constant challenge. "For me it's like being in school as well. The quality of the students in the USC program is so high that I have to practice to teach them," says Sutton. "I feel like my skill, technically, as a musician has been aided by teaching. I play a little bit of arranger's piano and that has improved quite a bit as has my ability to transcribe chord changes."

However, ultimately, there is no better classroom than live performance. Tierney Sutton and her band will be spending the next few months on the road promoting Blue in Green. In addition to performances on the West Coast, she will be working her way across the country including appearances in Chicago, St. Paul, Ann Arbor, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and New York. Sutton is looking forward to the experience. "There is nothing like a great performance that's for an audience," she notes.

Naturally, Sutton hopes that Blue in Green finds a receptive audience nationally. "I would love to have a breakthrough success, and I'm working as hard as I can ... Certainly, the success of some of the jazz vocalists of the last couple of years has raised the bar quite a bit. On the other hand, jazz has always been about trying to create music that is as beautiful and as creative as you can make it. I'm not worried about selling out because there is no pressure on me to really do that."

Although Blue in Green just hits the stores, Tierney Sutton has already begun to ponder ideas for her next CD. She has long admired Nancy Wilson's early '60s collaborations with George Shearing (The Swingin's Mutual) and Cannonball Adderley (Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley) where the records were almost evenly divided between vocal and instrumental tracks. "I may propose to Telarc to do a record like that with their instrumental artists, one or maybe a bunch of them, where I sing every other track, because there needs to be a record like that," says Sutton. "I like that concept a lot. The breathing that kind of record gives. I get sick of hearing myself after a certain point and I'm sure that everyone else gets even more sick of hearing me."

Well, that last point, at least, is something Tierney Sutton doesn't have to worry too much about.

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