Serving the Soul of the Song

Members of the Tierney Sutton Band from the left: pianist Christian Jacob ’86, drummer Ray Brinker, Sutton, and bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt.
Members of the Tierney Sutton Band from the left: pianist Christian Jacob ’86, drummer Ray Brinker, Sutton, and bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt.
Photo Courtesyof NARAS

“Among the first jazz vocalists I saw live was Betty Carter,” says singer Tierney Sutton. “I was twisted after that.” Carter’s adventurous style and unique talent for making each song her own was a good starting point for Sutton.

But in a departure from Carter’s model, Sutton views herself as just another member of the band rather than the main event. The Tierney Sutton Band includes pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker, and bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt (the bassists often alternate gigs but play together on some tracks in the studio). Over the past 15 years, the four veteran players have accompanied Sutton with a dedication to the act that is rare in the jazz industry.

Although the band’s repertoire comprises primarily standards, the arrangements it creates collaboratively are anything but standard. Each song is fastidiously crafted with consideration for the tempo, groove, harmonization, dynamics, and instrumentation that best portrays the concept of the tune. Often the mood they create imbues the lyric with an entirely different meaning. The band has turned, for example, the Harold Arlen–Ted Koehler song “Get Happy” upside down as the opener of its On the Other Side album. As the disc begins, dark, low bass notes and piano voicings chug along to a ponderous drum groove. But in a reprise near the close of the album, the same tune is rendered with a buoyant gospel feel.

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” opens the group’s new album, Desire, with chiming finger cymbals, slow, upward glissandi on the bass, and light brushwork underpinning Sutton’s recitation of a few lines from a Baha’i sacred text before the vocalist sings the melody. In style and sensibility, it’s a far cry from familiar versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, but the Sutton band’s totally unpretentious mystical setting prompts listeners to rethink the lyrics.

When asked about how their song concepts develop, Jacob replies, “Usually one of us will have an idea for where we should start. Tierney may have a tempo in mind that fits the lyrics, Ray may have an idea for a groove, Kevin or Trey may have a bass line. After we get the basic idea, the real work starts.” The harmony is Jacob’s territory. “Christian always makes sure that we understand the chord-scale relationships to the melody and that we all agree on the chord changes before we venture forward,” says Axt.

They vary the instrumentation, performing some songs as duets for voice and bass, voice and drums, voice and piano, and in various trio combinations. Band members carefully consider each musical decision. “Christian has said that when you arrange, your goal should be to serve the soul of the song,” says Sutton. “We all share that philosophy. When we find an unusual way to do a song, everyone has to agree that it’s not unusual just for the sake of being unusual. When we did the slow version of ‘Get Happy,’ I was uncomfortable at first because I wasn’t sure of what it meant. By the time we recorded it, I knew exactly what it meant.”

While each of the band members is highly virtuosic, this band isn’t about chops. “We can’t play for self-aggrandizement,” says Brinker. “The playing has to be egoless in an effort to raise the song to a higher level. When this band plays, it’s a spiritual and meditative experience and puts you in an entirely different frame of mind.”

While the band’s repertoire consists of carefully fashioned arrangements, improvisation and the jazz aesthetic are at the core. “We’ve worked hard to define ourselves as a band,” says Axt. “The music we do is refined, but it’s still very spontaneous. The highest compliment we hear after a concert is when someone comes up and says, ‘I don’t really like jazz, but I love what you do.’”

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