Tierney Sutton: In Union There is Strength

Todd Gordon By

Sign in to view read count
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.

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 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, Stevie Wonder, 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, 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 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. 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."

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?

It wasn't a conscious thing; it was extremely individualistic. We don't have dogma or religious, spiritualistic protocol. As I was deepening my understand of my new faith, I discovered that
Dizzy Gillespie was a Baha'i too. I was keen to have a band that was more united, with a higher-level partnership. I wasn't trying to be different or revolutionary. It was a gradual, organic process, and I became aware that there were explicit principles of consultation. After 10 years, for example, people were asking me to pray with me before shows, rather than me praying on my own. This was the band adopting some of these ideas and teachings. And without even thinking about it, we were striving for the Baha'i principles of consultation. Each of us tries always to detach our ego from whatever we put out on the table, which has a very positive outcome, thanks to the sensitivities and wonderful musicianship of each member of the band.

AAJ: So the ideas fall into a collective domain, either for exploration, further development or refinement?

TS: Or even rejection. Everyone has the right to veto a song or an arrangement idea, or whatever. But the energy is positive, so it keeps the energy flowing. And what was interesting is that, after a decade or so, reviewers would start noticing the benefits without realizing what our principles were. They would say that we had "an uncanny unity," or were "like five fingers on one hand." We all strive for excellence, understanding that once we come to an agreement and we go out on stage, we are all in it together. To give you a small example, in the Tierney Sutton Band, the idea of two members chatting during, or not paying attention to, another member's solo would be anathema.

AAJ: If there is a fundamental difference of opinion, say, over a particular arrangement, how do you resolve creative differences?

TS: There are differences; it's like any relationship. But they are all such great musicians and have such strong ideas. When you've been together as long as we have, you gain a wisdom as a collective, and appreciate that being overly attached to your own idea is counterproductive. Also, understanding that the sound of the Tierney Sutton Band is something other than any one person's idea, and collectively understanding that it's a much more satisfying outcome when we've decided on something together—when that happens literally hundreds of times over 18 years, you learn to compromise and find it is much easier to detach. We think of it like United Nations' favored nation status, where everyone has veto power. And it works for us; it works very well.

AAJ: It must be a blessing to get all members of the group in a creative environment that can easily adapt to or engender that kind of attitude.

TS: From my perspective, this form of consultation, and following these principles, works.

AAJ: And out now on the relatively new label BFM Jazz is your band's ninth release, entitled American Road. The Tierney Sutton Band thrives on the spontaneity of its live performances, yet recording—especially with studio time being so expensive—is a different beast. How much freedom did you allow yourselves in the studio recording of American Road?

TS: There were arrangements that we did for this record that we'd been playing for two years. And there were a few that we had arranged in the two weeks leading up to the recording, and there were a couple that we did live in the studio. In fact, some of the most complicated things on the album were quite new, such as "The Eagle and Me," which was the most spontaneous track in the three days of sessions which made up the album.

The interesting thing about recording with musicians from Los Angeles is their gift: their unbelievable skill in being able to go into the studio and play the weirdest stuff and make it sound as if they've been playing it forever.

We also split up into little groups to work on the arrangements. On "Wayfaring Stranger," it was me, Ray Brinker and Kevin Axt. And, for the Porgy and Bess selections, it was Christian Jacob and Trey Henry getting together and coming up with an idea and putting it to the rest of us. But it really started with me saying, "These are the songs and here are the keys," and we'd go and try to find a nugget. We'll get together and bat it around.

AAJ: How did you select the material for American Road? And is that process as collective as making the decisions on the style and arrangements?

TS: Looking back on all of our records, it's one of the few areas where it's mostly me. There are exceptions, and there is again the right to veto. But, as I have to stand inside the material in a different way to the other musicians—interpreting the lyrics—I was mainly responsible. For this album, we had been talking about doing an American- themed album for some time, but different from the traditional American songbook. I had done a trilogy of songs from My Fair Lady on a previous album, and was aware that we had hardly touched on the Gershwin canon; the songs' structure is so great, and harmonically and melodically they are great, and they give you so many ideas.

So we chose three songs from Porgy and Bess ["Summertime," "My Man's Gone Now," and "It Ain't Necessarily So"] and from West Side Story ["Somewhere," "Something's Coming," and "Cool"].

AAJ: Given the nature of co-operation and collaboration within the band, how does a producer dovetail with those dynamics?

TS: Although this is our first album on the BFM Jazz label, we invited the producer Elaine Martone to work on this album, as she had produced all seven of the band's CDs for the Telarc label. She knows how we operate and what works for us. But we also did post-production as a band, so it was another collaboration.

AAJ: You are about to tour again, and past venues have included some of the most prestigious venues in the U.S., such as Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl and Jazz at Lincoln Center. For the band, what makes an ideal gig for you?

TS: Firstly, an audience that is attentive and excited to participate in what we are doing. Equally important: the band being completely unified. In a material sense, because we spend so much time listening and being sensitive to one another, it's so important that the sound in a venue is conducive to that kind of quality: that the piano be a good instrument and precisely tuned; that the drums have the right tone; that the bass amps are to the correct specifications. Certain halls have a natural and beautiful acoustic, others may not, and we adjust accordingly when we set up and sound check. Getting that right certainly helps create the right conditions for a great gig.

We are always trying to create a climate where we and the audience are going to have a spiritual experience, and we become completely lost in the moment of doing this. Our goal is to have an uplifting experience, and I sometimes even tell an audience, "If no one levitates, it's not a good night."

Selected Discography

Tierney Sutton, American Road (BFM Jazz, 2011)

Tierney Sutton, Desire (Telarc, 2009)

Tierney Sutton, On the Other Side (Telarc, 2007)

Tierney Sutton, I'm with the Band (Telarc, 2005)

Tierney Sutton, Dancing in the Dark (Telarc, 2004)

Tierney Sutton,
Something Cool (Telarc, 2002)

Tierney Sutton, Blue in Green (Telarc, 2001)

Tierney Sutton, Unsung Heroes (Telarc, 2000)

Tierney Sutton, Introducing Tierney Sutton (A Records/Challenge, 1998)

Photo Credit
All Photos: Courtesy of Tierney Sutton

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.