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A Tierney Trilogy - Jazz Profiles

“Sutton doesn’t grandstand. She climbs inside a melody and explores new territory. The pleasure of hearing standards involves the internal dialogue that occurs in the listener’s mind, where a previously known arrangement often is mingling with the new rendition.”

- Bobby Reed, Downbeat

“Tierney Sutton is among a group of artists who may have come to epitomize what many think of as true jazz singers during the previous decades because of their brilliance in interpreting the classics.”

- John Murphy, Downbeat

“In our cruel, crass world where the word ‘artist’ is used to describe even the most imbecilic pseudo-musician, Tierney Sutton is the real thing.

Stunning in appearance, with silky, waist length blonde hair framing a model’s high cheek boned face, Tierney has a voice that can range from a smoldering intimacy in such ballads as ‘In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning’ to a cool, hip light-heartedness in tunes like ‘If I Were A Bell.’

Her superb musicianship guarantees that every note will be on target – what a relief from all the tone-dead screamers who pollute our ears these days.

Tierney respects a lyric in a manner to melt the heart of any songwriter.

And lucky is he or she whose songs this beautiful lady chooses to sing.”

- Tupp Turner, Former Executive, Capitol/Angel Records

I have been a fan of vocalist Tierney Sutton dating back to a period in her career when she and what is now referred to as “The Tierney Sutton Band” were just putting things together.

A few years earlier, I had first chanced to hear her sing with trumpeter Buddy Childers Big Band and she utterly knocked me out.

“Tierney Sutton” became a name to remember.

The esteemed writer Ray Bradbury once said: “You make yourself as you go” and that’s exactly what Tierney has done over the past dozen years or so.

She has made herself into one of the premier vocalists in Jazz and now plays some of the biggest rooms and concerts halls in the country with “the guys in the band” as she lovingly and admiringly refers to pianist Christian Jacobs, bassists Trey Henry and/or Kevin Axt and drummer Ray Brinker [aka “The Tierney Sutton Band”].

Fortunately for me, when Tierney was still in the early stages of her career, she occasionally worked at a local club in Orange County, CA not too far from my home. The fact that a close friend’s wife worked for the owner of that club practically guaranteed me a ringside seat from which to watch her progress during those fledgling years.

She chose her songs carefully, worked with her trio to craft them into interesting arrangements and also gave Christian, Trey and Ray lots of solo space as well. And she listened to them when they played their solos and dug them, too.

Tierney knew what she was listening to and her appreciation of good musicianship was one of the ways in which she turned herself into a sparkling and refreshing Jazz singer. She became a professional musician, herself, in every sense of the word, and set the bar very high for the standards she expected to meet during every performance.

She may have been relatively new at pacing a set in a Jazz club, but she knew what she was doing, but more importantly, she knew what she wanted to do.

I worked with Anita O’Day at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills when the regular drummer in her trio took ill. For two weeks, I had the perfect vantage point to observe one of the great Jazz vocalists of all time “work a room.”

Night-after-night, Anita sequenced one set after another of perfectly paced and rendered tunes that completely shaped the mood of the audience. She quipped with the musicians, told the audience little stories, made passing references to other Jazz musician’s versions of what she was singing. Anita never made you feel apart from the point of the whole thing which was to enjoy the music, have a good time and be entertained.

That’s what Tierney did, too, in these early gigs in which she was “making herself” into a major song stylist.

She made the audience feel that they were in the presence of something special and then she made sure it was – something special.

Tierney crafted her performance by giving a great deal of thought to the overall aesthetic in which the music was portrayed. She creates a Jazz aura and draws the audience into it. You don’t just listen to Tierney’s music, you live it.

Tierney likes to work thematically and she bases her recorded CD’s around a central musical idea, for example: Unsung Heroes which is an homage to her instrumental influences; those not usually associated with singers [i.e., Joe Henderson, Clifford Brown, Wayne Shorter]; Blue in Green is a tribute to the music of pianist Bill Evans; Dancing in the Dark is made up of songs “inspired by the music of Frank Sinatra.”

As Dr. Herb Wong comments in his insert notes to Unsung Heroes [Telarc CD-83477]:

“The number of the great jazz divas is fading rapidly. There is a forceful message that motivation has cranked up dramatically for women jazz singers to pursue a coveted spotlight. The growing crowd of aspirants and voluminous flow of new vocal recordings are meaningful indices. Amidst this high density of vocal talent, a few have surfaced as top-of-the-cream standouts. That Tierney Sutton is among them, and is an extraordinary vocalist-musician, is manifest here.

Her incisive musicianly attributes are noticed promptly as they merge impressively with the fine musicians assembled for this CD. Tierney is a soprano but her voice descends into the alto range too. Then there's her very personal sound and style. Add her melodic imagination, amazing true intonation, lyricism and attractive choice of notes in shaping her solos—you wind up with an aptly successful balancing act of unfailing brilliant surprises and piquant expectations. …”

Bob Blumenthal, two-time Grammy award winner for Best Insert Notes, made these observations about Tierney’s retrospective of the music of Bill Evans inBlue in Green [Telarc CD-83522].

“The word has been out since the release of Unsung Heroes: Tierney Sutton is one great jazz singer-or, more accurately, one great jazz musician. Her intonation and rhythmic skills are superb; she can improvise, with and without lyrics, in a manner both inspired and intelligent; she selects great material and immerses herself in both its verbal and musical meanings, always staying within an ensemble concept; and she is not afraid to take risks. All bases are covered when Sutton sings, from technical dazzle to unadorned emotion.

Sutton has achieved her status through a clear-headed desire to learn and grow. It has led her to make choices others might not consider, like her move to California after more than a decade during which she launched her career in the Boston area. She explains, ‘I got to the point where I didn't get enough work. It was either New York or LA. For several years I spent a lot of my there time checking out the New York scene, and I just couldn't get a chance to sing. If you can't work, and no one hears you, it's hard to grow.’

‘I had met some people from LA who became my friends, and one of them invited me there when he was putting together a vocal group. That was a nice experience, but even better was hearing Jack Sheldon's Big Band. They sounded great and Ray [Brinker], Trey [Henry], and Christian [Jacob] were the rhythm section.’

The rest is history still in the making. Sheldon asked Sutton to sit in, people heard what she could do, work started coming her way. Jacob, Henry, and Brinker landed them­selves a new gig, as part of the Tierney Sutton Quartet.

Sutton agrees that her ensemble is far more than a singer-plus-trio. ‘That's what we have that you rarely hear, she explains. ‘There are some lovely singers, but I don't know many as linked up with their bands as I am. Sustained intensity is what we do best.’”

My favorite tune on Unsung Heroes is Recordame [Remember Me] by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. The following video features Tierney’s version of it with lyrics written by Kelley Johnson. The arrangement was prepared by bassist Trey Henry.

What brought on this look back at the career of Tierney Sutton was the arrival at the editorial office of JazzProfiles of two, recent CD’s by Tierney on the BFM label: The Tierney Sutton Band: American Road [BFM 302062408-2] andTierney Sutton: After Blue [302062419-2].

I thought it would be fun to combine a retrospective about Tierney’s earlier recordings with some thoughts about her two more recent efforts, hence the title of this piece – “A Tierney [Sutton] Trilogy.”

This tripartite approach would also be well-served by three different videos which you will find placed throughout this feature so that you can sample the distinctiveness of Tierney’s song-styling from each of these perspectives.

On September 11, 2011 C. Michael Bailey writing in had these thoughts and comments about The Tierney Sutton Band: American Road [BFM 302062408-2].

“Solidly innovative and a forward-thinker in jazz vocals arena over the past 15 years, Tierney Sutton has constantly looked backwards while forging a future path that has influenced the likes of Laurie Antonioli and Gretchen Parlato, among many other noted contemporary jazz vocalists. A master of vocal pyrotechnics like Sarah Vaughan, Sutton sings on a high-wire, taking stylistic chances that, more often than not, pay off handsomely. Sutton and her band have been perfecting their unique updating of the great American songbook on such well-received recordings as Desire (Telarc, 2009), On The Other Side (Telarc, 2007) and I'm With The Band (Telarc, 2005). And she provides a tour-de-force in American Road.

An important part of the band's unique sound derives from divining the organic earthiness from the standards it selects to perform. Where Cassandra Wilson spent the better part of the 1990s stripping down standards and redressing them with more rustic instrumentation such as acoustic slide guitars, mandolins, violins and other artifacts of rural blues, effecting a more seminal, fecund sound, Sutton accomplishes the same with carefully conceived arrangements, created by the entire band as opposed to a single person. Additionally, she does this with her traditional jazz piano trio of 18 years. These arrangements are spare and wide open. Often jarring and dissonant, the clever settings reveal the pieces as dramatically different from traditional performances, revealing their anxious and unsettling elements.

American Road follows a year after Laurie Antonioli's America-focused recording, American Dreams (Intrinsic, 2010). Antonioli's organic approach lies between that of Cassandra Wilson's and Sutton's, focusing on using more rustic instrumentation with more original compositions and some truly inspired takes on musical Americana. Antonioli and Sutton intersect with inspired covers of "America The Beautiful," both spare and light, giving the singers plenty of time and room to display their considerable individual vocal wares. There is no edge here, both interpretations equally bring home the American goods.

Sutton's choice of repertoire mines deep the American song, drawing from traditional folk sources, spirituals, show tunes and popular music. The disc opens with the Public Domain "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Oh Shenandoah/The Water Is Wide." As on previous recordings, drummer Ray Brinker plays an important role both using novel percussive approaches and keeping time as if by telepathy. The drums become an extension of pianist Christian Jacobs' equally percussive and ornate playing. "Wayfaring Stranger" is performed as if in a home parlor (albeit a "green" one) on a Sunday afternoon, after church and lunch.

"Oh Shenandoah/The Water Is Wide" begins with nine muffled microphone strikes buoyed by bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry strumming chords, achieving an unsettled environment over which Sutton jazz-vocalizes the lilting melody of "Oh Shenandoah." This segues into Jacobs' clean as spring comping and solo on "The Water Is Wide." Sutton sings the "Oh Shenandoah" melody behind Jacobs' solo, solidifying the continuity of the song pairing. The effect is fresh and vibrant, like the first color Polaroid of Summer.

Sutton and company strip all of the glamour from Lieber and Stoller's "On Broadway," leaving a nervous and excited performance where the arrangement leads the way. Bassists Axt and Henry shine, producing poly-rhythms with Jacob and Brinker. Sutton sings at her most sinewy and muscular here. To be sure, this is not your parent's George Benson version. This is a juggernaut. The group turns out a graceful and flowing "Amazing Grace," with Jacob providing an orchestral backdrop supported by Brinker's pistol-shot snare and shimmering cymbals. 

The disc programming establishes two mini-recitals of American monoliths: the Gershwin brothers and Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein. The Gershwin selections exist as a musical triptych of "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now." "It Ain't Necessarily So" is bold, jarring, dangerous with hard and assertive playing by Jacob and corrosively sardonic deliver by Sutton. The rhythm and time is jack-hammer tight, ensuring a version of this chestnut not likely to be topped. This is likewise true for "My Man's Gone Now," where another hard rhythmic figure dominates the song even in its quieter moments. These songs are no longer the quaint ballads of cabaret singers. Sutton and her band transform them militantly into feral expressions of more base instincts. Gone is nicety and politeness: enter naked realism that is both seductive and refreshing.

Between these two songs is the old standby, "Summertime." Musical treatment here is gentler but no less provocative than Sutton's approach with the other Gershwin offerings. Bass and drums set up a three-note figure transfigured through the harmonic prism of the song. Jacob adds light filigree while Sutton sings with authority and melodic refinement. Jacobs' solo is a study of the skeleton of the piece, distilled to some bare essence. These very familiar tunes have been turned on their head to show a different angle. Sutton digs deep, revealing the novel and unseen in these compositions: dramatic and horizon expanding.

After the Gershwins, Sutton turns her attention to Sondheim/Bernstein and West Side Story(1961). "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming/Cool" are given more traditionally dramatic arrangements, with an emphases on the dramatic. "Somewhere" is some of the best ballad singing of Sutton's career. The band's arrangement is straightforward and Sutton perfectly balanced and placed. The coupling of "Something's Coming/Cool" returns to the edge of the experimental, where boundaries and perimeters are extended. Over a brooding, ascending piano/bass figure Sutton injects impressive drama, accentuated by the clever arrangement. The transition between the songs is seamless and inventive, again give the arrangement. Not since Gil Evans worked his magic for the first Miles Davis quintet has arranging had such a potent and important effect in small-combo jazz. This is top-notch, full-throttle, jazz vocals.

Tracks: Wayfaring Stranger; Oh Shenandoah/The Water is Wide; On Broadway; Amazing Grace; It Ain't Necessarily So; Summertime; My Man's Gone Now; Tenderly; The Eagle and Me; Somewhere; Something's Coming/Cool; America the Beautiful.

Personnel: Tierney Sutton: vocals; Christian Jacob: piano; Kevin Axt: electric and acoustic bass; Trey Henry: electric and acoustic bass; Ray Brinker: drums.”

The video features Tierney’s singular version of Summertime. The arrangement is a collective endeavor by TSB.

Tierney’s most recent recording is entitled After Blue [BFM 302062419-2] and it is another thematic tour-de-force, in no small measure due to the care and consideration with which Tierney treat all of its music and the respect and admiration she has for the musicians with whom she is working.

She wrote these insert notes explaining how and why she chose Joni’s music as the idea for her latest venture.


Shortly after Y2K fizzled into nothing, a friend said to me in hushed tones, "Have you heard it yet?" "It" was Joni Mitchell's 2000 tour-de-force album,Both Sides Now with orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza. It is composed of mostly standards and it is the vocal album that I have listened to more than any other in the years since its release. I consider it to be alongside Sinatra's Wee Small Hours and Billie Holliday's Lady in Satin. For the twenty years before, all my closest friends, my producer and my manager, had been telling me I needed to listen to Joni Mitchell. As a singer focused on The Great American Songbook, I'd finally found my doorway into Joni-land.

From there I began to spend time with Mitchell's earlier work including Court and Spark, Mingus, Hejira, For The Roses and of course, her early masterwork, Blue. I knew that Mitchell's music was not something I could glance at and then perform. I had to live with it for years. Like her fans who had absorbed the music in their youth, I wanted to "marinate" in Joni Mitchell. And over the past ten years that's what I've done. From time to time I'd perform something, Big Yellow Taxi which I'd known for years or A Case of You which was requested for a private event. I didn't feel ready to address Mitchell's compositions with integrity, so I let the matter rest, but I was listening to Joni's albums more than those of any other artist during these years.

In 2011, I was approached about a collaboration with The Turtle Island Quartet. When cellist Mark Summer asked "What do you think about doing some Joni Mitchell?" my answer was, "Yes." We played through All I Want andLittle Green and I knew that I was finally ready to start. Joni Mitchell's music, at least some of it, was inside me.

The Turtles and I debuted the project at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbarain September of 2012. By luck, Elaine Martone, the producer of eight of my previous albums, who had been one of the loudest voices asking me to record Mitchell's work, was at the show with my good friend Steve Cloud who manages Keith Jarrett. After hearing the four Mitchell compositions in the program, Elaine and Steve basically cornered me and said, "You have to do this," and I agreed. It was finally time.

Meanwhile, my longtime bandmates Christian Jacob and Ray Brinker were committed to their own projects and family obligations so I knew I was meant to look elsewhere for collaborators this time around. Shortly after I conceived of the project, Peter Erskine, who had become a good friend, told me he'd like to play on the CD. He also suggested Larry Goldings on [Hammond] B3 [Organ]. As the drummer on both Mingus AND Both Sides Now, I knew Peter was ... the perfect choice. As for Larry, I was an even bigger fan of his acoustic piano playing than I was of his famed B3 work, and I knew after one afternoon of playing together that he was right for this project too.

At the same time the Joni project was emerging, TSB [Tierney Sutton Band] bassist Kevin Axt and I recorded an intimate standards project with Paris-based guitarist, Serge Merlaud. I knew from the start that I wanted to include one or two standards on the Joni project - songs I had learned from Joni's exquisite renditions on Both Sides Now. I chose Don't Go To Strangers and my favorite, Answer Me, My Love. Something felt right about this instrumentation - classic Jazz, no frills. For me, these songs are every bit as much "Joni Mitchell" as her own compositions.

The last piece, and one that only came together at Sam the night before the session, was to join one of Joni's compositions with a standard. I knew that Joni had been influenced greatly by Jazz standards and as a Jazz singer, I wanted to show that there isn't a separation between the genres. Great music is great music. Larry and I had discussed this idea and he suggested that if there was some uniting concept, then it would make sense to a have a standard with a Joni tune even if Joni had never recorded the standard. "How about Paris?" he suggested. A leadsheet for April In Paris sat quite literally next to my Joni Mitchell songbook. It wasn't until waking with insomnia the night before the session that I sat down and figured out how the two songs went together and how the lyrics told a single story.

After Blue means many things to me. It comes after my thirty years of concentrating on the Blue In Green tones of Miles and Bill Evans and Coltrane and Sinatra. After spending time with the many hues of Joni's own repertoire, I hope this record represents a coming together of those hues - those colors of music. Thank you Joni Mitchell for your inspiration, your excellence. All I can hope for here is to scratch the surface of your deep legacy - to paint a little multi-colored portrait inspired by you.”

I just had to go with Tierney’s duet with Al Jarreau on Be Cool as the sound track for the following video tribute to Tierney and After Blue.

Over the past dozen years or so, no body of work in the Jazz world is more interpretively excellent than the vocal stylings of Tierney Sutton.

If you are not familiar with it, perhaps this retrospective may help serve as a guide.

Ella, Sassy, Billie, Bessie, Anita, Jackie Cain, Irene Krall, Blossom, Carmen and a whole host of other Jazz Divas gotta be smiling because of Tierney’s appearance on the scene.

The traditions of vocal Jazz are in good hands.

Steven Cerra


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