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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.

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