Tierney Sutton: Not a Material Girl

Carl L. Hager By

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Sometimes, the way that you feel about a person can be transcendent. I think, when it's right, you see the God that's within them, you see the nobility within them.
Vocalist Tierney Sutton discovered jazz while immersed in Russian language and literature studies at Wesleyan University. During her college years she also abandoned her earlier atheism and became engaged in a lifelong study of Man's spiritual nature. She has adopted no halfway measures in any of these pursuits. Though she hasn't yet written lyrics, she brings the passion of a poet to the use of language and lyricism in her singing. Her religious devotion is Dostoevskian in its upright clarity of purpose. And what she does as a jazz singer with the Tierney Sutton Band—pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Trey Henry, bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Ray Brinker, who have been playing together since 1994—is entirely unique on the jazz landscape. As a result she is one of the brightest and fastest-rising stars in the jazz firmament.

Tierney Sutton

Describing her friend and collaborator, singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather said: "Tierney (with her unbelievable band) manages to create something really thought-provoking and original out of material we have heard hundreds of times. Her sense of rhythm was the first thing that electrified me when I heard a cut of hers on the radio one day; it was 'Squeeze Me.' [Pianist] Shelly Berg once described her as a great intellect and I agree. Not many of those around."

Earlier this year the Tierney Sutton Band released the breakthrough recording, Desire (Telarc, 2009).

All About Jazz: I want to start with a discussion of your most recent recording, Desire. It's sort of a departure. You've traditionally been using a spiritual approach to your music, but this one is a bit of a departure, because the theme is a very pronounced and explicit theme. It's hung on a hook, and says: This is a concept. Was there something in particular that inspired this?

Tierney Sutton: I think it's something that's been coming for 15 years in terms of the process of the band, to a certain degree. I've been a practicing Baha'i for over 25 years and definitely approached my work and my singing from a spiritual perspective. But as a band leader, and as a band partner, as the years went on—because my band are now legal partners—it's all [been] done by a collaborative process. This is our eighth album where we collaborate on the concepts, the arrangements—the whole thing.

So that being the case, I would never have imposed my own personal spiritual beliefs and any particular outlook on a project, unless it emerged from the band process. And so, 15 years in, that's what started to happen. Over the last three years, more and more conversations within the band were about how, when we take to the stage, we're basically engaging in a spiritual process. We're meditating. Sometimes at the end of a set we can't remember consciously what happened. And the goal of any performance that we do, or any time we play together, is basically to have a transcendent experience. I mean, that sounds kind of high falutin' but that's really what we're going for all the time. So it kind of became logical to kind of be out with it a little bit. As we started putting a collection of songs together, there were certain songs I really liked, because of what they said.

One is a brilliant Dave Frishberg song that he wrote with Blossom Dearie, called "Long Daddy Green," which Blossom used to say was about the almighty dollar. But I think it's much more than that. The first part of the lyric says "Long Daddy Green is an old, old friend/He hangs around the rainbow's end/dealing out dreams from a potful of fortune and fame/fanning the flame/Hear him calling your name." Now if that doesn't basically nail what's going on in American culture right now, I don't know what does. Even though the song's probably 25 years old, or whatever it is. I just think it's brilliant, and it's completely timely in terms of materialism in western culture. Period. End of story. So I heard that song and I said "I want to record this song." And that got me thinking.

Tierney Sutton We were experimenting as a band with me doing some spoken word and improvised praying, basically, over some grooves that bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker had put together with a guitarist friend of ours. We really liked the results, and we thought we'd like to integrate something of that into our work.

I had this idea that there was this one song that was, to me, about materialism and really brilliant. Then we had this idea that maybe we should bring the spiritual element that we're always talking about, which is in the background of what we do, and put it in the foreground. And so, that's how that began.

AAJ: I've got to tell you my experience listening to this, because this is... Honestly, I haven't been this bowled over by a recording in awhile. I always look forward to this experience, because when I listen to a recording, I'm always anticipating hearing something that'll just, you know, just rock my world, and this one did.

TS: That's great.

AAJ: I actually stopped it at the half-way point and walked into the living room, because I was sitting in my office. I told my wife, "I'm just freaked out... I haven't heard anything like this in so long."

TS: Oh, wow!

AAJ: It's just changing, as I go. It's changing the way I'm looking at things.

TS: That's the nicest thing you could say, that it changes the way you look at things. Because for me, if I really get into a great song... I mean, this is why it's really hard for me to turn away from the great American songbook, and the few songs that stand next to it, which are Frishberg and a few other people that can stand in there.

Tierney Sutton

When you find material that's so pregnant that every time you sing it, there's something else that you see that you didn't see before, that's what you want. Anything that's monochromatic or one-dimensional isn't good enough anymore. And the way that the band plays; when I listen to our recordings I'm always hearing this little counter-thing that Ray is doing on drums that I never realized before. Or some brilliant piano fill that Christian did here or there that actually echoes the lyric I was singing without him even being conscious that he was doing it.

Those layers are the things that keep us interested in what we're doing. So for us, we want to be changed, even if we've played it eighty-seven times. We want this time to be different than any other time, and we want to say "Oh, I just realized here..." Like, for example, on "Cry Me a River," which I'm really proud of in terms of the arrangement. Arthur Hamilton, who wrote it, has heard us perform it and really likes the arrangement, too.

That bridge... the guys come up with this thing where, to me, it's like insomnia and a migraine headache where you're playing the story of this romance gone bad. "You drove me, nearly drove me out of my head/while you never shed a tear/Remember? I remember all that you said.../told me love was too plebian/told me you were through with me, and/now you say you love me." Now, that bridge, everybody's heard it a million times. But to me, that is a really well-crafted lyric in terms of the truth of what you go through in that situation. In real life when someone messes you up, you're awake at night and you replay every conversation that you had. That is the truth.

And some of it is ridiculous. So even the word "plebian" doesn't bother me at all—there was this one strange conversation you had where he said this to you, and you're replaying it, and you're thinking "what did that mean?" So, to have this kind of pulsing, migraine headache kind of vibe going on behind that, it's like they took the emotion that I was feeling singing the lyric and singing the melody, and put it into their part of the arrangement.

AAJ: I was thinking about that same thing. Somebody else did that—Joe Cocker. The arrangement had that kind of pulsing bass line in it and, you're right, that the sort of discomfort is exactly right. It's not supposed to be a real comfortable thing to listen to, because you're describing something very painful.

TS: Exactly, yeah. And so it's supposed to change us. It's supposed to change us, even in the time that we're doing it. And a lot of times in our arrangements, if they work well, there are things I see in them after playing them for several years, that I didn't see in the beginning. So I'm hoping that that's the way it is.

AAJ: Well, it sure did it for me.

TS: Well, good! We're delighted. I will pass it along to the Crust Brothers, as I like to call them.

AAJ: Please do. At the beginning and end of the recording you quote from Baha'u'llah. I've gone back and studied this, but I'm not a student of Baha'i teachings, so I'm not completely clear on it. I think it would be interesting to just kind of sort it out, because it's part of the recording. Could you help me understand a little bit, what those lines are about?

TS: It's really interesting, because the central tenet of the Baha'i religion is the oneness of all religions, and the oneness of all people. So our basic belief is that, you know, the un-knowable essence that is God has expressed himself/herself to humanity through a series of messengers throughout history. So we affirm the holiness of Jesus Christ, of Mohammed, of the Buddha, of Krishna, and Baha'u'llah says he's just the most recent of these same beings, the same spirit expressed to humanity throughout the ages.

Tierney SuttonNow, because of that, when I was first looking for writings about materialism, I knew that the Baha'i writings were not the only source of those things, so I quite literally read through the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, cover-to-cover several times, and the Koran, and the Old and New Testament. My son and I, for many years, have been doing a multi-faith Sunday school, so I have this big bag that one of the mothers that does it with me, and I, call the Big Bag of God because it just all these different holy books. We would get writings to share with the kids about different virtues... truthfulness; stuff that everybody agrees on. We try not to get into the big, controversial stuff, but there's a lot that isn't controversial between the religions—you're not supposed to lie, you're supposed to be nice; this kind of thing.

So, my original was not necessarily to use Baha'i writings. I just wanted very pithy, focused statements that would frame the songs in terms of materialism and the soul's nature. And what I found was that the Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, which is a book that he says he's taken the essence of the spiritual writings of the religions of the past and cloaked them in a garment of brevity. I found that he wasn't kidding, because I really tried to find little, pithy things in all the different holy books. I found the essence there, but they didn't necessarily fit poetically as a short statement that then I could sing "Paper Moon" after. And then, once I had one, there's a rhythm to the hidden words. "O! Son of..." something. "O! Son of Being." Several of the Hidden Words start "O! Son of Desire," and I had already decided to call the album Desire. So I thought, 'Okay, I'm trying to be very ecumenical here, and I don't want to be, in any way, shoving my own faith down anybody's throat, but if these are the writings that actually work, then that's what I've got to use.'

And I was trying different things with the guys on the road. I would read something from the Bhagavad Gita. Sometimes a lot of the holy writings that are from deep in the past might use imagery like... you know, there's oxen and there's yokes, and things that sort of take you out of the moment for a second, even though the essence of what's being said spiritually is exactly the same and equally profound, and all the rest of it. So in the end, I settled on these writings. You know, Hidden Words is a very short book. It's not that long and there are I don't know how many of them, maybe eighty, of these little writings. I realized that the essence of this book is materialism.

The hidden word that I read on the record says, "O! Son of Being. Busy not thyself with this world. For with fire we test the gold, and with gold we test our servants." Then you think of the New Testament, it says it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get to heaven. This idea that wealth and things—material things that we desire—keep us from our true nature. And so, the essence of The Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, as I see it right now—which may change as the years go by—is that our time here on earth is a kind of spiritual obstacle course, that we're constantly being sucked into desiring things and some of those things are just flat-out bad for us. Sometimes it's really obvious that they're bad for us, and then other times it's not so obvious. In the personal relationship category, that's when it gets really mysterious, because you can really desire a person and it can seem perfect and lofty. But it's never perfect and lofty; it always goes somewhere else.



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