The Tierney Sutton Band

Jazz's most cooperative band is reinventing timeless songs

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The Tierney Sutton Band. l. to r.: Ray Brinker, Trey Henry, Sutton, Christian Jacob, Kevin Axt
By Suzuki K
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The Tierney Sutton Band
By Suzuki K
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The Tierney Sutton Band
By Suzuki K
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Tierney Sutton
By Doc Ajay Johnson

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For nearly two decades, the Tierney Sutton Band has reinvented timeless songs and set a precedent for ensemble cooperation—on and off the stage

When the lights came up a couple of months ago at Catalina Bar & Grill, one of Los Angeles’ prime jazz clubs, enthusiastic applause greeted what most audience members would have described as Tierney Sutton and her band.

There she was, the Grammy-nominated singer, golden hair flowing across her shoulders, sitting on a stool, long legs crossed, wearing a richly colorful gown, backed by the quartet of pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker and bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry. That’s right, two bassists. But that’s not the only unusual aspect of this particular ensemble, formally titled the Tierney Sutton Band.

This is not a singer with a band, or with a rhythm section or with backup players. Although Sutton, both musically and visually, is the clear focus of the enterprise, her singing is completely enmeshed in the sounds and rhythms of the ensemble, often in a fashion more typical of an instrument than a voice—with good reason, and extraordinary results. And that’s just the beginning of this unit’s collectivity.

The TSB’s togetherness became instantly clear at Catalina’s in the opening set, which simmered with music from the group’s latest recording, American Road (BFM). The bass-centric instrumentation factored into many of the arrangements at Catalina’s, but it’s not always present: Axt does most of the touring, and Henry joins him for recordings and occasional live dates. “Trey and I have a simpatico [relationship] that is hard to explain,” says Axt, 51, who played with Henry in the symphony orchestra at Cal State Northridge. “The tricky part is that when he’s not there anymore, I’ve got to figure out how to play two bass parts simultaneously.”

American Road is the product of the TSB’s desire to record an America-themed project that began early in the last decade. Sutton knew she wanted to sing “America the Beautiful,” she says, “because it’s my favorite of the traditional patriotic songs. I love that it ends with ‘crown thy good with brotherhood.’ That is, for me, the part of America that makes me feel proudest.” Other traditional songs—“Oh Shenandoah,” “The Water Is Wide,” “Amazing Grace” and “Wayfaring Stranger”—were understandable choices, and lifelong Sutton favorites. And, she adds, “I didn’t want to totally leave Broadway out, because just about everything the band’s ever recorded is from the Great American Songbook. I consider Porgy and Bess and West Side Story to be the two seminal American Theater productions.” Over the course of the nine albums Sutton and co. have released since 1998, classic songs by Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Porter and other masters have provided the primary launch pads for adventurous musical excursions that maintain their integrity while sounding resolutely modern.

At Catalina’s, Sutton sang a full program of richly layered selections from the new album, songs underscored by her warm, pliant tone, wide range and ability to produce multihued timbres; her singing, despite her knowledge of vocal-jazz history, is delightfully singular and unaffected. “Tenderly” emerged as a breathtaking blend of mood and melody in which Sutton’s vocal soared weightlessly over Jacob’s arching harmonic lines. The West Side Story medley—“Something’s Coming” and “Cool”—captured the surging rhythms and memorable melodies of the Bernstein and Sondheim original. And in “Wayfaring Stranger,” the plaintive folk melody long associated with Burl Ives, the Tierney Sutton Band found new expressiveness within a familiar theme.

Together for 18 years, Sutton and the musicians are not only close friends and intimate musical associates; they are also a musical corporation titled Hollow Reed, Inc. Each individual is both a member of the band and a participant in the corporation, giving them a voice in all decisions as well as a fair share in the proceeds of everything the band earns.

The corporation title, according to Sutton, “comes from a prayer I like to say before we play. It goes like this: ‘O, God! Make of me a hollow reed, from which the pith of self hath been blown so that I may be a clear channel through which Thy love may flow unto others.’ It was written by an Anglican priest who became a member of the Bahá’í faith in the early 1900s, and I’ve always loved it.”

There’ve been cooperative jazz bands in the past, of course, and there’ve been bands that have been together for decades. But there’ve been few, if any, that have so thoroughly combined a continuing quest for musical excellence within such a joint, solidly businesslike structure. Even fewer have handled this integration with such success.

Each player has extramusical responsibilities, be they fiscal, organizational, creative or even therapeutic. Axt, with characteristic humor, describes his role as “TSB’s tech geek. I designed the new website and I do the e-mail blasts. I also had a hand in designing the last CD cover, so I do some graphics as well. I don’t know what my formal title is in the corporation. I’m usually referred to by my bandmates as ‘Your Excellency,’ but I don’t know the legal ramifications of that title.”

And drummer Brinker, 51, in complete seriousness, says, “I’m the CFO and treasurer for Hollow Reed, Inc. As such, I do all the banking and bookkeeping, file taxes, file union contracts, handle the payroll, administer the 401k pension, collect payment for the live shows, pay all the bills and commissions. It’s typical day-to-day corporate stuff, strangely enough.”

Forty-eight-year-old Henry, according to Sutton, “is the band’s psychologist. He’s very valuable to us because he rarely travels with us and can be both ‘us’ and ‘outside’ at the same time.”

“My personal duties in the corp,” says pianist Jacob, 53, “are CD sales, mostly selling merchandise after shows and reporting to Soundscan. And, because we are a band without a road manager, other duties pop up all the time.”

A common thread that courses through comments from every TSB member is the insistence on the joint method in which all matters, artistic and logistical, are decided. “All musical decisions are made democratically,” says Jacob, “but there are not as many decisions as you would think. Arranging-wise, a core idea is submitted that is either a harmonic idea, a rhythmic idea or a combination of the two, and this snippet is either accepted as a working start where other members will now infuse their own ideas or is rejected right away. The crafting of the arrangement is done in quite the same way, where new ideas will come along and are either worked as a group or rejected. The core idea can be brought by any member or combination of band members.”

Henry, however, adds a somewhat different perspective. “I’m not sure democracy has much to do with it,” he says. “I look at it more as a dictatorship with the music making all the decisions. The fact is, when you sit in a room with four like-minded, accomplished musicians, it’s very unlikely something ‘bad’ will happen.”

That possibility is further diminished by another vital, and frequently mentioned, element in the band’s inner workings: the ability to object. “It’s true that one of the primary things that’s made it all work for us is that we make decisions on a majority basis,” says Sutton.

“But we all have veto power,” she adds with a smile. “On the decisions we make, on the songs we play, on everything. But none of us use it, except very rarely. What almost always happens is that the vetoing person usually says, ‘OK, I don’t like this at all, but I’ll go along with it.’ And when you make a lot of decisions together over a lot of years—even little ones, like when soundcheck is—you give a lot of real thought to what you want to fight about and what you don’t want to fight about. Which is maybe not a bad life lesson to learn, either.”

Sutton, who has been a member of the Bahá’í Faith for most of her adult life, has also applied some of her beliefs to her role in the TSB. “There’s a Bahá’í principle,” she says, “related to consultation. And all the things I’m saying about how the band interacts are actually the technical steps that Bahá’ís are likely to do in their problem solving: putting an idea on the table and then releasing attachment and possession of that idea, so that when you refer to it, you don’t say, ‘Oh, that was Christian’s idea, or that was Tierney’s idea.’ And just because the people in this band are who they are, these things have been actualized in a real practical sense. We’ve learned that what you get to at the end of the process is way better than if you insisted on holding on to your own ideas, like a dog with a bone.”

Does Sutton feel that her partnership with the musicians in the band in any way obscures her upfront presence? Far from it. It’s hard to imagine the word “diva” ever being used in a sentence with her name. Conversations about her musical beliefs inevitably focus on her quest to find new ways to sing old songs, on her desire to revive songs that have been sung too rarely, or on her encouragement of completely new songwriting.

That approach traces largely to the way she came to music, to the fact that she was a fully formed adult before she decided to make her life commitment to jazz.

Born in Milwaukee in 1963, Sutton studied some piano and sang in a chorus or two growing up. By college, however, her focus was elsewhere, and she studied Russian literature at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Singing jazz came about almost accidentally, during a summer waitressing job at a resort in Green Lake, Wis. Sitting in occasionally with local musicians, she became familiar with standards from the Great American Songbook. When she realized that many of the best musicians performing those songs were jazz players, creative doors began to open. An acquaintance with saxophonist Bill Barron—brother of Kenny Barron and a faculty member of the Wesleyan music department—introduced her to more music and more artists.

For the first time, she began to consider a career as a jazz singer. “It wasn’t in the books for me to be like a Sarah Vaughan,” she says. “Nancy Wilson was important because she was the first jazz singer I heard who had a range similar to mine, so I could sing along with her records.”

But Sutton found, almost from the beginning, more inspiration in the work of instrumentalists: John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Jack Sheldon, to name a few. “I finally began to discover myself,” she adds, “when I realized that I couldn’t be like Sarah, and didn’t really want to be. When I found that I could come fairly close to someone like Hubert Laws—not improvisationally, of course, but in terms of tone—I was on my way.”

After taking some courses at Berklee in Boston, Sutton moved to L.A. in 1993, quickly establishing herself as one of the prime vocalists in Southern California’s stellar lineup of female jazz singers. She taught at the University of Southern California from 1996 to 2007, and has been the vocal department head at L.A. Music Academy in Pasadena, Calif., since 2008. One of her first vocal students was Gretchen Parlato, now a well-established jazz artist in her own right. Parlato is quick to express the important impact that her study with Sutton had on her career. “Tierney took me under her wing,” she says, “and allowed me to soar. Her guidance was so sisterly and nurturing. With her I was able to find my voice. She will forever trigger a deep-rooted, core emotion in me, and hearing her sing always makes me cry tears of overwhelming love and gratitude.”

Beyond her teaching activities, the TSB has been Sutton’s prime creative focus for the past two decades, as it has been for the group’s instrumentalists. But all find time for other activities, as well. Sutton has recently been working on her own songwriting efforts and performing in a trio with flutist Laws and guitarist Larry Koonse. Next year, Sutton will tour with the Turtle Island String Quartet. Sutton’s bandmates are all highly regarded freelancers, and their finely honed abilities to work with her imaginative singing makes them extremely desirable to other vocal artists. Often they work as a team backing singers such as Ann Hampton Callaway.

Ultimately, however, it always comes back to the TSB. Both Sutton and her bandmates express a similar view of the importance of their activities in the band, and of its position at the heart of their creative lives. “Much of what I’ve gained through this collaboration,” says Henry, “has very little to do with bass playing. It’s rewarding to have an idea and see it come to life. It’s quite another thing to have an idea manipulated and developed by your best friends, who happen to be some the finest musicians in the world, and have it become a piece of music of the highest quality. Every musician should have a TSB.”

Axt expresses similar feelings. “More than anything,” he explains, “playing in this band has taught me to listen on a completely different level. You can hear how hard everyone listens and responds to each other and it puts our musical dialogue on a completely unique plane. When participating in this dialogue, I feel almost completely detached from the physical act of playing. I’m concentrating so hard on the information coming from Tierney, Christian and Ray that I’m only peripherally aware of the act of playing my instrument. It feels like we’re all playing each other.”

Jacob, born in France, stresses the role the Tierney Sutton Band has played in fulfilling his long-held musical dreams. “Playing with the same musicians for almost 20 years,” he says, “is similar to being married for almost 20 years; you learn to know each other, respect each other, accept each other. I feel very grateful to be a member of this band. It has allowed me to make some great music regularly all over the world, and as far as I can remember, that always was my dream. My creativity has been supported and I have been allowed to be a musician and not just someone who has a job playing music.”

Brinker adds that he has his deep respect for the quality of his musical surroundings in the TSB. “The dynamic range of this band is broader than any other musical experience with which I’ve performed,” he says. “The intensity and execution of the music is at a higher level than any band I know. The amount of concentration demanded by the music is off the charts. It has become, in effect, a highly spiritual endeavor in the sense of discipline and higher pursuits. Egos are not suffered here. Every ounce of energy is spent serving the whole.”

For Sutton, it all comes down to basics. She views the TSB as a combination of the fundamental elements that are essential to her creativity and her beliefs. “The best way that I can describe what the Tierney Sutton Band means to me,” she concludes, “is as a type of prayer and worship that I can only do with my band.”

Originally published in December 2011

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