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Tierney Sutton: In Union There is Strength

Todd Gordon By

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Bands come in all shapes, sizes and dynamics. Some thrive on the tensions, while others fall apart too soon due to creative differences or inflated egos. None of these challenges seem to present themselves to the group of musicians that takes its name from the vocalist Tierney Sutton. With nine albums under its collective belt, complemented by three Grammy nominations, the Tierney Sutton Band is about to tour again in support of its American Road release (BMF Jazz, 2011).

Since Sutton formed the group in 1994, she has exerted what appears to be a healthy and positive influence over the band's structure and modus operandi, based on her religion. Her adoption of the Baha'i faith, at the age of 18, has led her to incorporate its fundamental principle of collective evolution in the creation and nurturing of the Tierney Sutton Band. Along with Sutton, the band comprises up to four additional members: Christian Jacob (piano), Trey Henry and/or Kevin Axt (bass) and Ray Brinker (drums). The decisions the band makes are holistic, and are focused on providing an effective conduit between the music and the audience—stretching the talents and improvisational skills of each band member, yet seeking to engage and resonate with the listener.

All About Jazz: What were your earliest musical influences?

Tierney Sutton: Early on, I had no conscious exposure to jazz, whatsoever. I grew up in Milwaukee, a Midwest town. My parents didn't have many records and didn't listen to music much at home. My mother had a nice voice and some musical tendencies, but they didn't take me to concerts or have records. I showed an interest in music early on and, like many singers I know, could sing before I could talk.

AAJ: Ah, something you share with Johnny Mercer— his aunt told him he was humming music when he was six months old. As a child, were you encouraged to take up an instrument?

TS: I took piano lessons and sang in children's choirs. When I was only five years old, I had the lead in a school musical of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. But I didn't really feel passionate about it and want to do it for a living until at college, when I became exposed to jazz for the first time.

AAJ: And how did that exposure manifest itself?

TS: It happened in two ways. Firstly, I was a singing cocktail waitress as a summer job at a resort in Wisconsin. And we did tacky group things, a Broadway show, a pop show and an Americana show—four college-girl, amateur cocktail waitresses singing in this bar, with the backing of an organ, entertaining local Chicagoans and Wisconsinites. And I knew that the music we were doing was really cheesy.

On my rare nights off, however, I'd go to the nearby country club and listen to a jazz pianist called Mary Jay, and she was playing with her daughter on drums, and her son- in-law played the bass. And she sang and played piano, and they did standards. She was really very good. I quickly realized it was up the musical food chain, and that there were a few songs in our group's repertoire that we could stand up to the abuse of the versions we were doing—such as the standards "Georgia on My Mind" and "Moonlight in Vermont"—yet everything else would make my skin crawl. But I'd go across the street and be acutely aware that Mary Jay's trio was making every song they did sound good, with an integrity and musicality that didn't seem cheesy to me. And I really didn't know why. But, by the time the summer season was over, I knew there was this thing called jazz, and something about it really moved me.

AAJ: And your second seminal experience was when you were at university?

TS: Yes, I ended up at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, completing a degree in Russian language and literature. And by coincidence, the head of music at that university was Bill Barron, brother of jazz pianist Kenny Barron. And Bill was a great reeds player, and he brought in fantastic musicians to perform. So the first jazz performance I attended, after seeing the local jazz group across the street, was Betty Carter, accompanied by a trio with Benny Green on piano, and I was aghast. It was the coolest thing I had ever witnessed. I loved her, but I also loved the trio, and I became completely enamored of the fact that jazz was the music of a singer with this stunning band—and that was always the aesthetic I had—and I was hooked.

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