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Tierney Sutton Band in Detroit

Tierney Sutton

After 15 years together, Tierney Sutton and her band-pianist Christian Jacob, bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Ray Brinker-seamlessly balance improvisational mastery with humility, empathy and humor. At their recent Detroit gig, they began their performance with a somber and pensive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?,” which Jacob set up with a thoughtful and reflective solo piano introduction that paved the way for the ostinato underpinning of Axt’s insistent bass figure and Brinker’s supple and deft cymbal and brush work. Perched prominently centerstage was Sutton, who commanded attention with her dramatic interaction of lyrical detail with illustrative hand and body movements.

From there it was an adventure in exploring the Great American Songbook, as Johnny Burke and Harry Warren’s “Devil May Care” came alive via Sutton’s finger snapping and vibrant scat singing. The band swung hard, supplying a propulsive bed on which the singer could liberally play with time and syncopation in her delivery.

The band was in the midst of promoting its latest Telarc release, On the Other Side, which deals with various aspects of the concept of happiness. Sutton, an avid Sinatra devotee, briefly referred to the Chairman’s version and then dove confidently into the Rodgers & Hart classic “Glad to Be Unhappy” from the album. It was a deeply personal work made further poignant by the harmonic and improvisational leanings of Jacob’s Bill Evans-like lyricism. “‘S Wonderful,” taken from the Sutton album I’m With the Band, infused the Gershwin gem with an appropriately light and upbeat mood. Axt and Brinker worked exceptionally well on this one, as this piano-less piece found the duo eventually trading fours in the middle solos.

The contemporary chanteuse addressed the Charlie Chaplin classic “Smile” as a song to get through the tough times in life. And from there Sutton took a familiar and lighthearted lyric and filled it with hope and promise far beyond its original intention. This was a star turn for Jacob as he, at once, alluded to and embellished a beautiful melody and accompaniment. Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” took on a dark tonal quality as Axt and Brinker established a slow-burning samba feel. This one cooked in an asymmetrical groove with Sutton’s soft, understated vocalizing and Jacob’s sensitive Hancock-styled spaciousness.

Another Berlin favorite, “Cheek to Cheek,” brought the proceedings back in a bouncy and ebullient manner. Sutton was playful here and engaged the entire band in strong solos all around. In keeping with re-interpretations of the American standard musical oeuvre, Berlin’s “Blue Skies” received another thoughtful redux by way of Brinker’s delicate accents and buoyant, unobtrusive backbeat. Jacob was a brilliant foil for Sutton’s adventuresome vocals with his equally challenging Corea-meets-Jarrett pianistics.

The night was, perhaps, typified by their take on “You Are My Sunshine,” which ventured about as far from the classic tune’s origins as you could get. They concluded their performance as they had started: on a somber and ironic, yet clever and engaging note.

Originally Published