A Novel Approach

The Tierney Sutton Band's versions of entries from the Great American Songbook tell new tales.
Tierney Sutton
Tierney Sutton
Ken Frankling

Tierney Sutton ’87 has carved out her own niche among the many jazz singers who interpret classics from the Great American Songbook. Part of what distinguishes her readings of chestnuts like “Paper Moon,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Skylark” is the musical overhaul she and fellow members of the Tierney Sutton Band perform on every number in their repertoire. Together with pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker, and bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt, Sutton deconstructs each tune, stripping away everything but the melody and lyrics, but even those may be subject to slight alterations. Then they rebuild each song from the ground up, devising customized bass lines and drum grooves, metric modulations, and dramatic reharmonizations to fit their concept of the tune and the larger theme of the album. The result is an alluring and contemporary take on the songs that never loses sight of the jazz tradition.

For its latest CD, Desire, the band chose 11 tunes with lyrics supporting a theme that challenges the wisdom of society’s tendency to place a higher premium on material goods, sensuality, and celebrity than on the quest for things that go beyond material life. The spiritual quest is summarized in the closing cut, the gem “Skylark.” Johnny Mercer’s lyrics draw on images of nature—a meadow in the mist; a valley green with spring, shadows and rain; and mystical music in the night. As the protagonist, Sutton asks:

Oh skylark

I don’t know if you can find these things

But my heart is riding on your wings

So if you see them anywhere

Won’t you lead me there?

Sutton is the anti-diva. She regards her voice as another instrument in the band. And while she is the band’s focal point on stage, she’s a team player and couldn’t be justly accused of being a prima donna. This is evidenced by the fact that she recently incorporated her band, a move that made each member an equal partner in the finances as well as in the music. “It was easy to make the decision to incorporate,” Sutton told me at her Los Angeles home. “I’d been playing with these guys for 10 years by then, and the level of commitment and honor that I’d seen in them made me feel I’d be stupid not to do it.”

The band has now been together for 15 years and released eight albums. Its unity of purpose and dedication to the ideal of serving the music and harnessing timeless classics to say something fresh has earned the band critical acclaim, two Grammy nominations, and devoted fans around the world. The band does around 90 dates each year and has played at such prestigious American venues as Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and Lincoln Center as well as at jazz festivals and concert halls in other countries.

In conversation, Sutton is bright and has a quick and gently ironic sense of humor. She also reveals a deep spiritual side informed by her Baha’i faith (which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all mankind). Sutton and her band have a lot to say musically and philosophically, and jazz is the chosen messenger.

How did you start out in music?

I sang in choirs at school, but singing didn’t feel like a necessity or a calling to me until I discovered jazz. Before that, I didn’t feel there was anything I was going to do that the world would care about or need.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

Looking back, I had kind of a jazz bent from the beginning. I remember listening to Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, and other artists whose music had jazz elements, but I didn’t know why I liked that music.

When were you formally introduced to jazz?

I had a summer job at a country club in Wisconsin, and a restaurant nearby had a jazz trio with a singer/pianist named Mary Jaye. To me, the music was a revelation; I loved the group’s vibe and feel and what they were doing with the songs. It was like hearing a language that was familiar to me somehow but that no one around me had really spoken. I’d heard snippets of jazz from time to time, but I didn’t realize that there was a group of people that played this music.

Did this experience make you seek out Berklee?

After I finished my degree in Russian language and literature at Wesleyan, I applied to Berklee. Unfortunately I only stayed for a few semesters because I became ill and had to leave school. But it was an important time for me to focus and decide what I was going to do. Mili Bermejo was my vocal teacher, and I am still in touch with Jan Shapiro [the Vocal Department chair]. At the same time, I studied privately with [saxophonist] Jerry Bergonzi. The first playing experiences I had were with faculty members and those experiences were pivotal in my getting out there and singing.

Back then did you consider doing something different with the repertoire you sang?

I don’t think that my versions were terribly creative at that time. For me, everything was new, and I loved it all. Just singing something like “Let’s Fall in Love” and scatting a chorus was as creative as it needed to be for me because it was all so new.

From 1984 to 1994, I was sort of a jazz monk. All I listened to or read about was jazz. I couldn’t get enough of it. The instrumentalists I met were very influential on me. They looked at things the way I did. Even though I didn’t have the skills then to keep up with them, I heard the music the way they heard it. I wanted to approach singing like an instrumentalist. I was wary of working on songs or vocal technique by listening to other singers. I listened to Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and John Coltrane. I found that as a vocalist, if you imitate a great instrumentalist who has great tone and good time, it will improve your vocal technique. If you try to copy a Miles solo, your brain knows you will never sound like that. But the closer you get to it, the cleaner your sound will be.

Why did you make Los Angeles your home base rather than New York, where there is a much larger jazz community?

When I was living in Boston, I sometimes went to New York, where I heard a lot of good music and went to jam sessions. Around that time, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and I was too sick to do much. I had profound fatigue, numbness, and sight problems. This went on for about two years But it’s been a long time now since I had any symptoms.

Back then the doctors told me I needed to be happy and do what my heart told me to do with my life. I felt that if I committed myself to a different life path where I was serious about what I was doing, I’d feel better. Moving to Los Angeles was part of that. While I was going to Berklee, I wasn’t pursuing a professional career in a serious way. Boston was great and there were a lot of good players at Berklee, but there weren’t enough places to work. I knew I had to move to New York or L.A.

I have been a Baha’i since I was about 18, and in 1992 I went to the Baha’i World Conference. I met [Los Angeles arranger and film composer] Bob Alcivar. He was starting a vocal jazz group in the tradition of Singers Unlimited. I came out to visit, rehearse, and do some recordings with his new group. My mind was opened to the quality of the jazz musicians in L.A. They were thirsty to play jazz, because most of them were doing sessions for albums and TV shows to make a living and they didn’t get many chances to play jazz. There weren’t many jazz singers in L.A. at that time. I felt I was unusual in that scene, and the instrumentalists embraced me. So I decided to relocate in 1993.

When I arrived, I connected with musicians and was hired as a teacher and found a niche for what I did. I hadn’t felt that the doors would open that way in New York. I found that when I called people in L.A. for a pickup band, even the 10th person on the list would read the music flawlessly. Musicians here do all types of different projects and try to serve the product. That aesthetic of L.A. musicians is a big part of my band. The players here are not out to show off. They are there to serve the music. I found the work ethic here very attractive. It was a really good place for me to build a band. I got lucky.

You have played with the same musicians for 15 years. How did the band evolve?

I met [drummer] Ray Brinker and [bassist] Trey Henry when I was visiting L.A. in 1992 and heard them playing with Jack Sheldon’s big band. When I first started working with musicians, I learned that I shouldn’t just take my favorite bass player and put him with my favorite drummer. I’d find a musician I liked and ask him who he’d like to work with in a rhythm section. After meeting Ray and Trey, I asked them who we should get for a pianist, and they suggested Christian Jacob. When we needed another bass player, they suggested Kevin Axt. The relationship between rhythm section players is intimate; they have to be locked in. I realized that my life would be easier if the musicians were happy working together.

The primary commitment of your band members is to your gigs. That’s unusual in the jazz field, where a lot of players do many freelance projects.

If the guys in my band lived in New York, they’d be working with all kinds of different jazz players. Because they are here, we’ve had time to create and percolate this product that is its own thing. That’s because there are fewer opportunities to play jazz in L.A. for them.

I think everyone was committed early on. They made tough decisions not to cancel out of my gigs when something else paying big money came along. We incorporated in 2004 or 2005. We started doing a lot of road work, and I wanted the guys to know everything that was going on with the finances and be in on it. And I wanted to get a raise [laughs]. That’s something you can do when you’ve built up years of trust.

How did the band’s recording career begin?

We did our first record, Introducing Tierney Sutton, in 1995, but it wasn’t released until 1999. We recorded the whole thing in about four hours. I got pneumonia right after that and didn’t sing for three months. The group stuff was great, but Christian wasn’t happy with his accompanying on some of the duos and asked me not to put them on the record. In the period in between the session and the release, I got married and had my son Ryan. My husband kept telling me I needed to finish the record. I went into the studio with another pianist named Mike Lang and recorded five songs that ended up on the record.

When my son was a newborn, I got a call from a guy in Europe who had gotten a demo I made when I lived in Boston from [drummer] Joe LaBarbera. He was looking for a singer for his label. I told him about the album, and he released it in 1999.

I sang in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition later that year and an A&R guy from Verve heard me and recommended me to Bob Woods, the head of Telarc. He had heard me on a record by guitarrist Thom Rotella and wanted to sign me. I don’t believe that there is one big break anyone gets. It’s the sum of all the relationships you have and all the work you do. The American Idol mentality is dopey to me and I don’t think it’s conducive to happiness or depth of career. All my work developed from a recommendation from some musician I had worked with. If you build a career that way, you’re safe.

The arrangements of the tunes in your repertoire are so harmonically rich. Have you ever contemplated doing an album with big band or orchestra?

We did a concert at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops a few years ago. Christian had fleshed out several of our arrangements for the orchestra. Afterward, many of the members of the orchestra thanked us, saying that it was the most interesting music they’d played in a while. Christian understands how to orchestrate properly. We’d like to do a recording in collaboration with [arrangers] Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, and Sammy Nestico.

Have you begun to think about future recording projects?

We have three or four different ideas for records, and I’m always thinking about them. I saw an American Masters documentary on Jerome Robbins and got some ideas. We have recorded half of a prayer project based on drum and bass grooves that we improvise over. We’ll see what happens.

Your albums are somewhat unusual for the jazz field in that many have overall themes, even philosophical themes.

I really like having an organizing concept. There are too many songs and too many possibilities, so I’m always looking for something to help me sift through all the information. Most of the albums have themes. Our first record was titled Unsung Heroes and draws on instrumental pieces like “Recordame,” “Donna Lee,” and “Joy Spring” that are not usually sung. I found good lyrics to a lot of them. Another album, Blue in Green, was a tribute to Bill Evans. Dancing in the Dark was a tribute to Frank Sinatra. On the Other Side had happiness as its theme. For this band, we want to make a philosophical statement as well as a musical one.

On the Desire album, are the spoken verses in the intro to “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and before the last song, “Skylark,” from Baha’i writings?

Yes. They come from Bahá’u’lláh’s book The Hidden Words, which he says is a distillation of core spiritual ideas. There are many pithy statements there about materialism and the true nature of the human soul, what we are, and what we yearn for. In researching the texts, I came to like the cadence of these particular readings. There was a symmetry that worked to use them as bookends on the record.

For me, the record is about materialism and the soul’s desire. There is sort of journey in the rest of the songs on the CD, with lyrics that touch on earthbound things and the battle we go through in this world. We fall in love with someone who breaks our heart, we want things that that aren’t really good for us or are purely material, and we become disillusioned. Then we see things from a higher perspective. In the end, if we’re successful, our desires get higher and higher and more refined. Eventually we desire something outside of ourselves and outside the mundane.

To me, “Skylark” is a spiritual song. A poet friend of mine pointed out that the imagery in “Skylark” is identical to imagery of the Persian mystical poets. They wrote about the lover and the beloved and the skylark that is the messenger of God that gives humanity the message about their higher nature. It was logical to end the album with it.

Have any of your experiences put you in touch with the emotional effect of your music on audiences?

A few different things over the years have kept me going in a big way. When you do this kind of music, you are not in the mainstream and you sometimes wonder if you are putting all this effort into something that isn’t of service. About five years ago, after a tour, a man sent an e-mail about how his son had been killed two years before and that our concert was the first experience of joy he’d had since his son’s death. Another letter we got six months ago was from someone who said he’d been contemplating suicide. He heard a track of ours on the radio and bought tickets to our show. He went to the show instead of committing suicide. We were playing the music from the “Happy” album [On the Other Side]. It somehow spoke to him and saved his life. When you hear stuff like that, who cares if nobody knows who we are?

Enjoying what we do so much sometimes makes me wonder if we are being selfish and if this is an honorable way to spend our lives. There are things that need to happen in this world. We have AIDS, orphans, and starvation out there. There is a Baha’i writing that basically says there is nothing in the world that’s more conducive to happiness than feeling that you have been of service to your fellow man.

Sometimes you wonder if what you are doing has a purpose. Sure, it’s great for the band and we really enjoy it, but is it of service to anyone besides us? But at critical junctures, we’ve gotten these little gifts from people who tell us that the music really helped. For me, there is no greater satisfaction than that.