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Mermaid Chanteuse and Her Guys Bring It On Home

As shown and heard in her first-ever performance in her hometown of Milwaukee, if there’s a more beautiful chanteuse than Tierney Sutton on the jazz scene today

That’s beautiful as in clarity or creativity of diction

Beautiful as in caressing or coaxing or even pell-melling new interpretations out of the Great American songbook...

Beautiful as in an airy and pure upper pitch accented every once in a while by a little vibrato, growl, or full-bodied midrange, or frequent sojourns into flowing syllables or words into a vowel-loving vocalizing that’s not really scatting (though she triggers that very well, too) but is another skill she uses to make each song her own...

Beautiful as in fitting in perfectly, yes, perfectly, with her guys, the three talented men referred to in the title of her Grammy-nominated CD, I’m With the Band...

Beautiful as in connecting with the audience with witty, musically-expository, hometown-appreciating repartee between songs...

And yes, beautiful as in physically beautiful, perched for the entire two-set concert on a stool in a golden glow of her long and sparkly yellow dress and blonde tresses and skin, like the golden mermaid of Copenhagen...

If there’s a more beautiful chanteuse than Tierney Sutton, in ways musical and presentational, on the jazz scene today, who is it?

If it were up to her, however, Sutton would take attention directed to her and redirect it to her sidemen and most of all to her and them as a unit and to their music, for the completely collaborative working relationship that they have that produces adept and entertaining arrangements. Her guys in concert: Ray Brinker on drums, Christian Jacob on piano, and Kevin Axt on upright electric bass. They set up very close around her, with Brinker on the audience right in profile, Sutton on her tall stool, Axt immediately behind her.

Frequently during their concert at the beautiful, yes, beautiful old Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee in the second concert of the 14th annual Hal Leonard Jazz Series, Sutton said as much. She reiterated the point in a follow-up interview.

"These guys are great," she said, "and I mean that in a really really special way. We’re committed to each other. Our arrangements are all things that we worked out together, really worked on, played with, until we came to what you hear."

What the Hal Leonard jazz series audience heard with Tierney Sutton and her band was the best vocalist-fronted combo in recent years, perhaps ever, in the series. What they heard was very much what can be heard on their I’m With the Band CD.

The entire first set of 47 minutes excluding eight bars of "Girl from Ipanema" in Russian to illustrate one part of Sutton’s repartee -- consisted of nine pieces from the CD and mostly the Great American Songsters of some time ago: Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Hammerstein, Rodgers, Hart. In addition there was a smooth, silky "On My Way to You," a ballad by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

This set up the four for a lengthy intermission of selling and signing new CD’s s and talking like regular folks with audience members, who lined up and loved it.

The second set went ten pieces and more than an hour of more of the same kind of stuff with the novelty sampler being ""Ding, Dong the Wicked Witch," just to show again that no matter how good the band members are musically, they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Not that the audience worried about that after hearing Sutton make comments in a sweet, deadpan delivery that hints at a career in stand-up comedy, or in her case, on-stool comedy. Comments such as:

  • "It’s a really big deal for me to be here performing in Milwaukee. Big as in my dad being here and 35 of his closest friends. And my first boy friend.
  • "But then dad should be. He paid my way through four years of college. I got a major in Russian, which makes that the most expensive piece of music ever," she said after her Russian "Ipanema" tidbit.
  • "When we hit town, the first thing I did was order our driver to go get some Kopp’s," she said referring to one of Milwaukee’s famous makers and purveyors of Milwaukee frozen custard, that is ice cream as rich and smooth as 20 percent butterfat content can make. (That’s about five times or more the butterfat content of the best ice cream.)
  • After introducing Axt and his skinny upright electric bass: "You don’t think that thing makes me look fat?"
  • Finally, "Everything we do is collaborative. The guys weren’t sure if we should do the next song. But then I put on this sparkly dress and I get to do what I want," as intro to "S’ Wonderful."

The concert and the CD grew out of advice and the recommendation of the great bassist Ray Brown, who addressed the band’s strong tendency to so very much individualize their tunes.

"We want to do songs as they've not been done. So, Ray said to me, 'Sweetie, the way you do that, you got to find some songs people have heard of,'" Sutton said in the interview. That led to the 16 songs on the CD and many in the concert, both of which start with a lovely and lively, rendition of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." Their take on it shifts from an angelic a cappella doodling open to urgent to downright peppy, with Sutton scatting it back to the wonderful lyrics and easy tempo.

This song also showcases how perfectly Brinker’s brushes, Jacob’s ivories, and Axt’s strings underlay, augment, and color Sutton’s talents and showcase their collaborations. (Brinker is especially impressive, not just because he’s into body-building, but because he uses his drumming licks mostly brushes to get into building tone and color as well as rhythmic structure that strengthen their sound but never outmuscle Sutton’s voice or the arrangements.)

And the same goes for a very blue-cooled "Let’s Face the Music" and two more Irving Berlin tunes, "Cheek to Cheek" and "Blue Skies." (They did them in the first set in succession in the concert, as opposed to how they’re dispersed throughout the CD.) The same also goes for a three-piece mini-set within the second set from "My Fair Lady," doing "Wouldn’t It Be Lovely," "Accustomed to his Face," and "Show Me." Heck, the same goes for every song they did in their concert at the Pabst, a performance which also goes back to Ray Brown.

The late bassist was one of the favorites of the jazz-nuts multi-millionaire owner of the Pabst Theater, Michael Cudahy. Brown recommended Sutton and her guys to Cudahy for one of his marvelous private jazz parties. The party gig didn’t happen, but the Hal Leonard concert did.

That led to this mermaid chanteuse and her guys coming to her hometown to perform, really bringing it on home musically, for the first time since she left for college several decades ago.

In epilogue, there are some second thoughts on Sutton and her guys.

First is her perch on the stool for the whole concert.

"I’ve pretty much always done it that way. It makes me feel like part of the band," she explained.

While it might seem that sitting could affect negatively her breathing and vocal output, Sutton sits beautifully, yes, beautifully, upright, and lacks nothing vocally. Her perch also gives her the opportunity to gesture with both hands and arms, and even shoulders and torso, and accentuates the image of a chanteuse. By strict definition a chanteuse is just a club singer, but by broader understanding is someone passionately dedicated to her music in intimate ways. That fits Sutton as closely as her slinky, clinging dress.

"We love the songs we do because there’s so much to them, harmonically, lyrically, so much meaning. And we want to do them as they’ve never been done before. So, I don’t think we’ll ever become million sellers, but we love what we do."

That comes to another thought.

If you’re not into beautiful, exquisite renditions of tunes mostly about love gained and lost from the old school or in that vein, sung in mostly clear upper pitch, arranged and delivered intelligently and with feel and feeling, then the concert might be too rich for you.

But then that would be like complaining about finely-spun gold and flowing clear crystal. Or the unmatched smoothness and flavor of Milwaukee frozen custard.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Tierney Sutton
  • Concert Date: 1/21/2006
  • Subtitle: I'm With the Band' singer sparkles in first gig in hometown of Milwaukee
  • Venue: Pabst Theater
  • City State Country: Milwaukee
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