An Interview with Tierney Sutton
Written by Joe Montague   
Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Tierney Sutton John Whiting
Most jazz ensembles or bands have one or two primary composers but not so with the Tierney Sutton Band as I discovered during my recent conversation with the lead vocalist Tierney Sutton. All five musicians and Sutton present ideas to the group and work collaboratively on original compositions and new arrangements for songs previously recorded by others.

“Everybody has veto power over something that we play or an idea that we have. All the (musicians) in the band are very creative and knowledgeable people. They are always striving to find something different than they have found before,” says Sutton.

“These guys play on a lot of great records with a lot of great players. Our drummer (Ray Brinker) played on Genius Loves Company the last album recorded by Ray Charles, (while) Kevin Axt has played with Natalie Cole and Chuck Mangione. All of these guys have played on a million rock, country, television and film projects. For them to come to the table and say, ‘I want to be part of something that is different than anything that I have played or heard,’ means that there is a lot of stretching that goes on,” says Sutton.

For most bands and ensembles whether they be rock, pop, jazz or

As is the case with all the members of the band, Brinker has a broad musical vocabulary that includes working with such diverse people as Joe Cocker, David Lee Roth, Anita O’Day, Randy Brecker and Bonnie Raitt. He has also contributed to countless television and movie scores including the movie The Alamo. Axt’s resume also includes artists such as Melissa Manchester, Dave Koz and David Benoit. Trey Henry the other bass player in the band has worked with the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Henry Mancini, Herbie Hancock and Ray Brown.

ImageWhen it came to creating her most recent CD On The Other Side [click here for a Jazz Police review ], released on February 7th, Sutton says all of the band members determined that they were going to push the envelope. “When we went into Capitol to record it we were all scared. I know I was frightened because I wasn’t sure that I was ready to sing some of the stuff that we had decided we were going to do. I always have complete confidence that they can do anything but I am often not sure that I can keep up with the corner into which they have pushed me. When we got into the studio we all felt that we were onto a different page in the creative process,” she says before adding, “What makes me happy is being involved in that kind of process with people that I respect, regardless of the results and whether I succeed or fail.”

With more than one hundred collaborative new arrangements under their collective belts the members of the band, do not lack for confidence however this time the stakes were higher. “There are always a few (arrangements) that take longer to bake but this time around it was the execution that was risky because it was the first time that we created arrangements that we didn’t even know how many bars there were. (In prior arrangements) the t’s were always crossed and the i’s were dotted. Some of this stuff is really freeform and might go in a very different direction,” she says before listing examples, “You Are My Sunshine”, and the first “Get Happy” (two versions recorded for this CD) are perfect examples of that (freeform). There is a freedom to some of the arrangements (to the point) where we did not know how long the sessions would be. The forms are different ways of playing the songs every time that we do them.”

Elaborating further on the chart style the band adopted for this CD Sutton says, “In typical improvisation you take some kind of form (and it might be) a chord progression of a certain number of bars. You know when the A Minor 7 is going to the D 7 and to the G Major. You know when that is going to happen. What we have done is create a communication process between us where the chords are going by but there is not a standard amount of bars between them. One or the other of us, sometimes two of us at a time will determine when the song progresses. The decision will be made in the moment and not predetermined.

As the Tierney Sutton Band continues to interpret and create new arrangements for standards, they do so with a confidence and enthusiasm that almost throws caution to the wind. When asked if they ever consider it to be a risk to perform a standard very closely associated with another performer Sutton does not hesitate in responding, “Our philosophy about that is if we are worried about it then it better be a really new and different treatment like the way we did “The Lady Is A Tramp,” (I’m With The Band—2005 [click here for JAzz Police review ]). We should take the song somewhere so far from where the original version is that the (listener) won’t be able to retain in their head the original one anymore. It’s not that we want to erase (the original composition), we just don’t want to be compared to it. I have said onstage that when we do “Route 66” (Something Cool—2002), in my mind no good comes from comparing me to Nat King Cole. That’s not the idea here. We want as little of that to go on as possible.”

Tierney Sutton
Several elements have contributed to the fresh sound that the Tierney Sutton Band brings to old standards, the length of time the members have been together, their diverse musical backgrounds and the fact they are excellent musicians fronted by Sutton’s powerful vocals.

Although Sutton is reluctant to use words that have long since lost their meaning through society’s stereotyping she does so in this case in answering my question concerning what has contributed to the band’s success. “I think we have been a huge success simply because we have been able to keep this together for so long. That to me is success. Our growth professionally as a band has been really organic and I think that is very healthy,” says the Grammy nominated singer (2005 I’m With The Band , Best Jazz Vocal Album).

Sutton continues, “Now we are at a point where we make a living doing this music. We do this band as a priority meaning if any of us have other responsibilities we consult with each other and ask, ‘What is going on in July and is that a reasonable time for me to be away to take this other thing for two weeks?’ The growth of that and getting it to this point has been very slow like growing a plant.”

Aside from the challenges of being a jazz musician or vocalist trying to establish your career Sutton does see some advantages to taking a longer slower road to reach this point in her career. When she first signed with Telarc, her son was only two years old and she was committed to being at home more during those formative years. With the label’s support, she kept her tours down to between a week and ten days. She says, “From a parent’s point of view I am really grateful. From an artist’s point of view I am also very grateful because I was able to develop the stage part of it slowly, the talking to the audience part of it and the music part of it.

“The success part of it is that we have stayed together and have made a bunch of records that show what we are about to a certain degree,” she says.

Sutton says, “When I think of success I think of being a part of a process that is healthy, works and of us leaving a record of what we have done. We have done that even if we were to break up tomorrow and couldn’t do this anymore for some reason.” That they have and they have done it with style and excellence.

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