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Tierney Sutton Band

A lot of musicians make a record to show off their skill, promote themselves, make a pile of dough. While promotion and profit probably were not completely out of mind when vocalist Tierney Sutton cut her latest disc, Desire, her mode of operation resulted in something more.

As with their previous album, 2007’s On the Other Side, the Tierney Sutton Band brought to Burbank’s NRG Studios their sterling chops, a carefully selected set culled from the Great American Songbook, and an intense collaborative process based on mutual respect, and keen listening honed over 14 years of working together.

In addition, they added another ingredient: a spiritual message they eagerly wanted to communicate. While a sense of the spiritual is hardly unprecedented in jazz (witness Ellington, Coltrane, Ayler, McLaughlin ), Sutton comes at the subject from a different perspective, that of her Baha’i faith, and instead of penning their own spiritual music, the group (Jacob Christian on piano, Trey Henry and Kevin Axt on bass, Ray Brinker on drums) plumbs the canon for lyrics that speak to their premise, and creates arrangements that artfully underscore their philosophical point.

The result is masterfully executed improvisations that encourage one to listen closely on multiple levels. In advance of the nationwide release of Desire, Tierney Sutton spoke to from her home in southern California.

JazzReview: I understand this new album had its roots in a Cole Porter project.

Tierney Sutton: Christian Jacob was hired to do a music festival in Aarau, Switzerland, and the theme he was given for us to as a band was the music of Cole Porter. As we looked at the material, it seemed that the idea of desire and wanting things and materialism seemed timely and interesting, and I started seeing those themes.

The idea of wanting is a pretty common one for human beings we are led by our wants and our desires. Desires that inspire us to better ourselves and be more content and happy are in one category, and then the desires that we think are going to make us happy but really aren’t are in another category. Sometimes it’s hard to know which is which, especially in terms of human relationships

The world is a sort of a spiritual obstacle course. You start craving certain things, and then you get what you craved. Then, it doesn’t satisfy you, but the meaning of your life is running after these things and these concepts, rather than figuring out what’s really inside of you, what you are, and what satisfies that. Those things started to really interested me and are ideas that the band as a group talks about a lot. So it seemed logical to try to make a statement that is a little more direct about the fact that that’s what we do.

JazzReview: To add that depth and to have something to think about makes for a very satisfying listening experience, and must make for a very satisfying recording experience, too.

Tierney Sutton: And a difficult one, because our standard is that it really has to meet all these criteria for us to feel good about putting it on a record and making a statement. It’s a pretty arduous process that we go through. Once we go through the creation of a record and then the programming of a record and the editing and all the rest of it, usually I don’t listen to them for a while, but I just listened to [Desire] again about two weeks ago for first time and I said, "Yup, I like this record, I like it. I like it."

JazzReview: Was On The Other Side the first album where you had this philosophical mode of operation, or has that always been the way you worked?

Tierney Sutton: It evolved over time. At first, I was just kind of trying to keep up with the great musicians that I was able to arm-wrestle into playing with me, and I felt it was my responsibility to do most of the arranging By the third record that we did, which was the Bill Evans record [2001’s Blue in Green], the collaborative arranging process had kind of come together, and ... I started to sense that everyone had a commitment to this band and that these wonderful musicians were ready to really pony up their best work to do this. And I was very amenable to that, because, as a member of the Baha’i faith, one of the pivotal spiritual principals that I like to try to follow is the principal of consultation and problem solving as a group of equals with voices that are heard.

As we went along we got to know each other more and more, and I think we got to love each other more and more as people and as musicians, and it started coming to the forefront that the things we talked about were symbolized in the way we made music and the music we chose to make. So when we made On the Other Side and were playing with the idea of happiness and what we all thought about it, we had a great deal of unity of thought Before that, I don’t think I felt the freedom to impose some kind of outside spiritual motivation that was my own unless I felt that the band shared it because we had become so collaborative. Then it became a really exciting way to make a record: "Let’s talk about the real deeper issues, let’s talk about materialism in the culture, let’s just talk about that, shall we?"

JazzReview: In "Paper Moon," you repeat a phrase "without your love" several times, which seems like the mantra of the album. And then there was another line where you leave off the last word of the phrase and it adds a new meaning to the line.

Tierney Sutton: It’s "if you believe" as opposed to "if you believe in me." This is the sort of miraculous nature, in my mind, of where the band is at now it kind of freaks me out because we conceived that arrangement basically in one afternoon while we were doing the sound check for our concert at Carnegie Hall at Zankel Hall last June.

In mysticism, there are two "beloved"s. There’s the beloved with the small "b" the person that you’re in love with and that you’re seeking and then the Beloved with the big "B," which is God and your true self. The idea of the whole record, from my perspective, was "Without your love then who is you?" without God’s love, really, without a sense of our true nature.

But none of this can be done in any kind of over-handed, literal sense, because the whole idea of God is a really tricky thing, and the word has been so badly abused and impoverished, that to sort of corral it in some sort of neat and tidy package I find really uncomfortable. But that’s why symbolism and imagery is important in dealing with these ideas, because there isn’t any way to really talk about the yearning for belonging and the yearning for your true self and the yearning for happiness except in imagery, except in music, except in art. The words don’t contain it.

"Skylark" is the great example. A poet friend of mine pointed out to me about 20 years ago that the imagery in "Skylark" is just the same as the mystical poetry of the Middle East, where the spiritual teacher and the messenger of God is known as the skylark and there’s all this imagery of this bird telling you where beauty is, telling you where love is, and you kind of not getting it

The interesting thing is that the collective of the band inspires these things to come out. I don’t think of them before. I’m sitting there playing with the band, and they start doing something and it tweaks something in me, and then I later find out there was this subtle motivation among them, there was this subtle understanding of what was going on and I was just sort of the mouthpiece of it. No one sits down in a room by themselves and writes, "OK, here I’m going to go ‘ooo,’ I’m going to read this text and then I’m going to alter the lyrics this way and then I’m going to sing it this way." Nobody does that. We just play and those things emerge.

JazzReview: So on "Cry Me a River" the arrangement of "Cry Me A River," especially the refrain, just blew me away

Tierney Sutton: That was the guys! I’ve done a couple of brief interview about this, and one person said, "Do you think it’s OK vocally to express anger on a record?" And I said, "Well, yeah," but the anger, the real anger in that arrangement, that was from the guys. In the moment of playing it, they’re so tuned in to what’s going on.

The same with "Long Daddy Green." The first bridge of the lyrics is "The lies he tells aren’t new to you, you’re not naïve / you know he won’t be true to you, still you believe." When I sing that or when I read that lyric, it’s just it is so deliciously accurate and it makes me so mad and so frustrated. But this is a song almost no one’s ever heard, so I wanted to sing it in a way that it would be very understandable, every word would be understandable, and I wanted to include the guys on that track So Christian comes up with this little interlude in seven and the guys do this crescendo that gets so loud that it’s almost freaky They knew how frustrated I was, how angry I was, and they knew that it wasn’t possible for me to sing it that way, and so they put the anger and the frustration in the interlude and just express it musically.

JazzReview: Speaking of "Long Daddy Green," that was written by Blossom Dearie. Did you know her and was she an influence on you?

Tierney Sutton: She definitely was an influence on me. I didn’t know her. I wish I did. I missed out on that. I was in New York several time when she was still playing at Danny’s Skylight Room and was always working the same night and wasn’t ever able to go hear her.

We have many mutual friends, including Dave Frishberg, and it was very funny, because when I sent the first demo recording of "Long Daddy Green," he said, "Well, you know Blossom is really conservative about people reharmonizing her songs, so I’m just warning you that she might have an issue with what Christian is doing." If she hears how far out we took "Paper Moon," maybe by the time we get to "Long Daddy Green," where at least the parts that I’m singing are fairly straight-ahead that, aside from the interlude, she’d realize she got off easy. But, as far as I know she never heard it. I’m very sad and was very solemn about her passing. But her sense of humor, her sense of intelligence, her sense of eccentricity all of those things man, I’m a huge fan.

JazzReview: One thing that has always jumped out at me from the first time I heard your band is how crisp and clear everything is. What does it take to achieve that? How many takes does it take to put one of these tracks together?

Tierney Sutton: We don’t normally do more than two, possibly three takes, and "Cry Me River" was one take and same with "Love Me or Leave Me." Some of the others things took a few more takes, but we’re very much trying to be in the moment and we usually do our best work when there’s a lot of preparation and we’re then able to be in the moment.

Looking back on my unbelievably good fortune in finding these particular musicians, [we] have certain similarities of musical outlook, and one of them is what you’re talking about: There’s a demand of accuracy and precision that all those guys have. Ray [Brinker] is probably the most delicate, precise drummer that I know. He doesn’t want one tiny little piece of mess in what he’s doing. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to put in a kajillion really complex layers, but each of those layer has a place and it fits exactly into the other layer it’s constructed very carefully, very delicately, very precisely and very accurately.

Christian is the same way. His touch and the way that he approaches playing, because of the training he had in France and because of his classical technique the word that springs to mind most about that is a precision and delicacy of touch.

And then, I don’t have a big voice, I’m not a loud singer almost any other time I open my mouth to sing the band is too loud. And so what I’ve developed over the years before I had this band together was I always arranged in such a way that, OK, I’m singing to the bridge a cappela and then just the bass comes in. I would have to layer things very carefully, otherwise I could never hear myself.

JazzReview: You have two bassists and occasionally they play together, like on "Fever." What does each bring to the trio, and why do you choose one for certain tracks over another?

Tierney Sutton: It’s a fairly random thing. On the record Trey [Henry] was on the road with us for a bunch of the summer, so the stuff that he was with us when he arranged he played on and on other tracks Kevin [Axt] was the prime mover and came up with the line and he was going to be the bass player. It always ends up coming out very harmonious and kind of easy.

The interesting thing about that is that because we have two bass players, we can have one of us listening to us. We’ve done that several times. In the studio a couple of times one of the bassists would be in the booth and he would hear something and he would say "OK try that again and do this," and it’s really something because they have played the music, they know exactly what we’re going for. It’s a great thing to have. It’s like being able to be in two places at once time.

JazzReview: I love Cole Porter and I love how fun and how flirty he can be, but with "It’s All Right With Me" there’s that dark side again that creeps out. Or is that always there?

Tierney Sutton: Well, once we get into the picture it certainly is. But I think, absolutely, I don’t think there’s any composer or artists of any depth that doesn’t have a big old dark side. If you’re walking around and you’re happy all the time, you’re not paying attention, you know what I mean? You’re not experiencing your connection with your fellow man, because human beings, you know, as a bunch, suffer quite a bit.

What great artists like Cole Porter do is try to hook into the prevalent sentiments and the prevalent experiences of other human beings and then articulate them in some kind of way. If there isn’t a stream of darkness to that, then, what are they doing?

So, absolutely, Cole had some dark-a-rooni. And he suffered quite a bit, had an incredibly conflicted life, and the idea of desire and not getting what you want or thinking you’re getting what you want and having it not be what you want and all of that, he really went though a lot of that in his own life.

JazzReview: "Heart’s Desire," on the other side, is very positive, which makes me wonder how this set fell together. Were there some real obvious choices that leapt out at you from the get-go or did you stumble upon some of these?

Tierney Sutton: There were things like "Long Daddy Green" that to me was kind of the literal dark heart of the record, a song that says, "OK, you want money, you want fame, but guess what? You’re stupid. It won’t be nice to you. It’s not going to make you happy." And it says it beautifully and articulately and all the rest. Then there’s songs like "Whatever Lola Wants": Lola is the Devil trying to steal this guy’s soul, and the song is pretty literal about it: "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, I always get what I aim for and you’re heat and soul is what I came for."

Then "Paper Moon" "it’s only a paper moon," the material world is really not important, this is an illusion and to turn the bridge into a sort of mantra, "without your love, without your love," is the thematic set up if you get sucked into materialism it’s not going to work for you.

But then there’s other songs that we played around with. "Fever" was a more late arrival, but I liked it because it talked about the fever of basic romantic love and how it can make you so sort of addicted, that it messes you up a little bit, but then it’s also part of life and it doesn’t have to be a terrible evil thing. And "Then I’ll Be Tired of You" is the sweet thing where you’re in that moment where you think it’s all going to work out and this is really perfect, and then it goes bad with "Cry Me A River."

But then, "Heart’s Desire": I wasn’t sure about it at first because I was afraid it was a little too on point, a little too literal, but I liked the irony of taking one of Frishberg’s most crusty lyrics, "Long Daddy Green," and having on the same record Frishberg’s most idealistic lyric of anything I’ve ever read of his.

And, how that song came to be I was really attracted to: [Frishberg] says that when Allan Broadbent gave him the music he said that he wanted it to be called "Heart’s Desire," and Frishberg though "Wow, I’m not the right guy to write a lyric called ‘Heart’s Desire.’" He’s so sardonic, right? And then he decided that the way he could get himself into that head space was to put himself in the character of a parent talking to a child and giving him advice about how to approach life. I thought that was interesting, and I just think it’s a beautiful song with a beautiful melody, beautiful harmony, a lovely lyric and it’s not over recorded.

JazzReview: Speaking of "Fever," is there one particular artist whose cover of that song influenced you in particular?

Tierney Sutton: Well, Peggy, for me, she’s an artist that I have increased my respect for over the years. I don’t think I paid a whole lot of attention to her when I first got into jazz I was all about Sarah and Ella and all these great jazz singers that were maybe a little more pyrotechnic and then I started to study Peggy a little bit more and, boy, what a great singer technically, her time, her pitch. Whenever I hear records of her now I notice how easily she made it seem and how not easy what she’s doing is.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Tierney Sutton Band
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2009
  • Subtitle: Returns with Desire
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