"We’re so attuned to each other and listen to each other so hard that that process is a really satisfying process," jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton said of making music with her bandmates, with whom she has performed, recorded and toured for 14 years. "After a show, people never come up to me and say, ‘What a great singer you are’ and walk away. They never fail to comment on the band."
Sutton grew up in Michigan where, she said, she didn’t even hear jazz until she got to college. "I had a summer job as a singing cocktail waitress and we did very tacky stuff," she said. Across the street, however, the country club had an acoustic jazz trio. "I would go there on my nights off and I just fell in love with the integrity of the music and that was it. The next year I started learning standards. I realized that there was this whole improvisational art form where the people didn’t necessarily write the songs but they did things to them that were almost like composing."
Three years later she was attending the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. She spent the next decade gigging in Beantown and up and down the East Coast, including regular jobs in New York City. In 1993, she visited Los Angeles for work and heard bassist Trey Henry, drummer Ray Brinker and pianist Christian Jacob playing with the Jack Sheldon Big Band (Sheldon appears on Sutton’s 2007 album, On the Other Side).
"I assumed that I’d move to New York, but when I heard that there were such amazing players in L.A., I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe this is worth a try.’ I was at a point in my life where I could do whatever I wanted to do in terms of moving and I thought, ‘I’ll try this because of how great these players sound.’ So I kind of moved to L.A. because of hearing my band."
She of course didn’t know then that the band would stick together for 14 years, "but there was something about the way they thought and their philosophies and their characters that really, really appealed to me, and I think vice versa."
Besides the more obvious advantages of working with the same colleagues for nearly a decade and a half, Sutton speaks in nearly spiritual terms about how the collaborative and cooperative skills she has learned translate into other aspects of her life.
"The way that the band works is a metaphor for all sorts of collaborative and larger enterprises that people do," she said. "I think that the success of the band is because of the unity of it. I’m a member of the Baha’i faith and the core principal of the Baha’i faith is the one of mankind and creating these kinds of organisms of unity, and that’s what the band is and I had no idea that it would become that. It was quite an amazing thing to have a musical and worldly manifestation of what you believe and have that be your work."
Read on for a complete interview, originally conducted for Planet Jackson Hole in advance of the Tierney Sutton Band’s Oct. 21 performance at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts.
Planet Jackson Hole: Let’s start with your new disc, On the Other Side. What was the genesis of that album?
Tierney Sutton: This band’s been together now for 14 years. We do all our work collaboratively all the arrangements and song choices and everything else so we were just looking for a focus for a new record. I think the main thing we do is arrange together, and so we wanted to find a few things we could do to different arrangements. Looking at that as a starting off point, we thought that the optimism of the Great American Songbook was something that we could look at. I knew that this band has a combination of incredible cynicism and optimism at the same time, so that’s how it began, and then we started to look at other things that had a certain amount of superficial optimism. ...
PJH: Many of those songs were written at a very different time in the nation’s history. If one were so inclined they could sort of psychoanalyze America in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and make some interesting conclusions. Was that kind of part of the goal?
TS: We never assumed a goal when we start, we just embark on a process. In this case it went into a lot of places that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but I’m really pleased with the result.
PJH: For example?
TS: I don’t like to put out my own response, but what I’ll say is that the response we got from listeners and fans of the record was that and I’ve heard this statement probably a half a dozen time, the exact sentence that there’s something about the music on the record that seems to speak to the times that you live in. We weren’t trying to make a statement, quote unquote, in any way, we just were looking at art and being artists.
PJH: Can you talk a little bit about the process of settling on these particular songs? "Get Happy" is an interesting one There’s something about "Get Happy," the filter through which perhaps the band runs it and the listener hears it, it almost takes on this apocalyptic or rapturous sort of feel.
TS: That’s really wonderful that that’s what you got, because when we started we had the up-tempo arrangement of "Get Happy" virtually completed, and I sort of knew we had to look at the other side of that song . I think what happens is there’s a subtext to the things that we go for musically that manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Once I started singing it I started understanding the meaning of the words in the context of the music that we were playing, and apocalyptic is exactly what started to come to me.
There were two levels: One was the oppression that people feel when they’re told they’re supposed to be happy, and the deep and profound sadness and depression that comes from feeling that you’re not as happy as everyone else. The other comes from the exclusive idea of what apocalypse means you know, you’re saved or you’re not saved, and that sort of us-and-them mentality I find really difficult and stressful to say the least. I mean, if you’re a believer you’re wondering if you’re going to get in under the wire, and if you’re not a believer there’s a little part of you that thinks, "Well, what if they’re right and I’m going to Hell?" And neither one of those is a construct that I find helpful, particularly.
And so, whereas at first it just seems like almost kind of a joke to sing the song like that, it is not a joke and it is really very serious to me, and the more that I’ve sung it the more that I find in it that really makes sense in this way.
PJH: A similarly loaded tune is "Happy Days is Here Again." Was that originally written as a campaign song or was it just adopted by some political campaign?
TS: You know, I’m not sure about that. I mean, I know that "You are My Sunshine" was written by the governor of Louisiana, for example, but I don’t know about "Happy Days Are Here Again." I betcha it was adopted, but I don’t know. Of course in that particular case, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland had done brooding versions of that song before, so I didn’t want to do exactly what they had done in any way. I was somewhat familiar with their versions, having heard them and found them very beautiful, but the darker version, which I think is not really dark, exactly it’s kind of optimistic in its own sense kind of spiritual was created again before the up-tempo one at the front of the CD. And I really love that, I really felt like there was something there.
PJH: I imagine that you listen to music and that you examine songs in a very different way than the average, casual listener. Tell me a little bit about what happens when a song gets your attention or when you decide to commit yourself to a new song.
TS: There’s two different kinds of songs that catch my attention. One is the song the I’ve heard a million times and I’m singing to myself over and over again and something seems to emerge out of it that isn’t obvious. The other kind of songs that get my attention are songs in which there’s a tremendously compelling melody or a tremendously compelling lyric. For example, there’s a Mancini song that was recorded on the last album [I’m With the Band], "Two for the Road," and the first four bars of the melody are so beautiful that I heard it and I knew I wanted to record it simply because the melody was so beautiful and so soaring . Right now there’s a song that I’m mildly attracted to called "Long Daddy Green" that was written by David Frishberg and Blossom Dearie, and Dave Frishberg’s lyric is so brilliant.
But often, because of the process of this band, it’s more about hearing the things the band does then finding a way to sing over it. Often, the band will just be playing a groove or a vamp in a sound check and I will sing a seemingly unrelated song over that vamp and the beginning of an arrangement will happen, and we’re so attuned to each other and listen to each other so hard that that process is a really satisfying process. It’s like sex, kind of I know that’s a bad thing to say to the press, but it’s such a uniting thing, for me at least, I don’t know about them, but for me, having that kind of union with other people is a really powerful thing.
PJH: Let’s talk about your band a little bit. You mentioned you’ve been together for 14 years and that is extraordinary for a lot of reasons in this day and age. How did this group of musicians come together. Where did you all meet? Was it all at one time or one person at a time?
TS: I visited L.A. in late ’93 and I first heard Ray Brinker and Trey Henry playing with Jack Sheldon’s Big Band. I had already heard of Christian Jacob because we were at Boston at the same time I was at Berklee and I had heard him at that time and knew he was one of the real great players around. I was visiting L.A. to test record, rehearse with a vocal jazz group that was being put together I was living in Boston and I assumed that I’d move to New York, but when I heard that were such amazing players in L.A., I thought, "Hmm, maybe this is worth a try." I was at point in my life where I could do whatever I wanted to do in terms of moving. I didn’t have kids and . could move around, and I thought, "I’ll try this because of how great these players sound." So I kind of moved to LA because of hearing my band.
Then, once here, we started to play together, and I wasn’t thinking necessarily, nor were they, that we’d be a band the way that we’ve been. I’ve played with all sorts of different people. It was kind of like dating and deciding you’re living together and then getting married . It was a very organic process, but there was something about the way they thought and their philosophies and their characters that really, really appealed to me, and I think vice versa.
PJH: Besides some off the more obvious advantaged of working with the same people for a long period of time, maybe there are some less obvious one, some things that maybe you’re discovering at this point.
TS: I think for me personally the biggest thing about this that I didn’t anticipate is to be in a collaborative process with people that I respect for this amount of time has given all of us skills of consultation and cooperation that we now kind of translate them into other aspects of life. The way that the band works I think is a metaphor for all sorts of collaborative and larger enterprises that people do. I think that the success of the band is because of the unity of it. I’m a member of the Baha’i faith, and the core principal of the Baha’i faith is the one of mankind and creating these kinds of organisms of unity, and that’s what the band is and I had no idea that it would become that. It was quite an amazing thing to have a musical and worldly manifestation of what you believe and have that be your work, so I’m a really, really fortunate person in that regard. And to find people that are like-minded and who will give their creativity and their talent to something that I’m doing is really something. That deepness of having gone through the process where you know one another as well as we do, it’s never boring because of how profoundly talented they are. It only gets better, is my experience of it. But even if it ended tomorrow, we’ve had an amazing run that is really unusual in this business.
PJH: I imagine there are other musicians who are very envious of that.
TS: I think that’s true. I’ve been shocked when certain players that I profoundly respect, who play in great situations, will come see the band and say how envious they are, because they see and hear the level of listening that’s going on. It’s really interesting. It’s such a metaphor for what people look for in their lives. They look for people that understand them, people that listen to them, they look for situations where who they are is appreciated. It’s just a much more profoundly satisfying thing. And difficult at times, obviously, but it’s much more profoundly satisfying than I really imagined this would be. I’m very, very grateful.
PJH: When you’re performing, can an audience or a carefully observant audience member can see that, see that close listening and that close interplay and see what’s going on on stage?
TS: I think absolutely they can, because in all the years that we’ve been playing together, especially in the last, say, five, when we’ve become such a tight unit and worked 100-plus shows a year together, and have created over 100 pieces of music and done seven records and all the rest of it, it’s really palpable. That’s actually a quote from a review: It said something like ;the chemistry is palpable .’ After the shows, people never come up to me and say, ‘What a great singer you are’ and walk away. They never fail to comment on the band it just doesn’t happen. I was doing an interview with a writer from Italy last week, and it was very cute to talk to him in his broken English, and he said, ‘It’s not a singer and a band, you are one thing’ and I thought that’s so sweet and so simple and what we go for, because what we are all hearing is one thing.