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.

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?



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