The Tierney Sutton Band: An Appreciation
Last night, the Tierney Sutton Band gave a Grammy nomination celebration concert at Catalina Bar & Grill, in Hollywood. The place was packed with music lovers, some of whom “knew her when” she was performing in front of six people, others who had been faithful fans since her first Telarc album, and some recent converts who equate Grammy recognition with the imprimatur of worth. The crowd went nuts — as nuts as a jazz audience can get; no chairs were overturned, nor did any mosh pits erupt — and everyone left feeling that her nomination for best jazz vocal album (for “I’m With the Band,” her first live album) was more than warranted.
Never mind that thanks to the politics of the awards business there’s almost no way she can win. Though Sutton’s album is, in my estimation, superior to the other nominees, her competitors — Diane Reeves, Nneena Freelon, Dee Dee Bridgewater — are far better known to industry voters. Nonetheless, the recognition of the establishment goes a long way in convincing casual consumers that they ought to give her a listen.
The anecdotal, word-of-mouth recommendations for Tierney have always been there. She has near perfect pitch, flawless technique, gorgeous clarity, and swings harder than stock prices in the midst of an accounting hoax. She’s so good that many musicians previously suspected (wrongly) that her exquisite albums were somehow the product of studio trickery, that the thorny chromatic runs and seemingly improvised variations of melody and rhythm were the result of numerous takes spliced together by digital computers. Her latest album refutes all that: it’s recorded live. Those of us who have been acolytes from early on — and I propose that I myself am the earliest, having gone to high school with Tierney, where I performed with her in the annual talent show — know that she’s even better live than in the studio, if only because the feats of invention she and her mates pull off affect the listener viscerally, in the chest and in the gut, where music lives. Last night’s show was like dozens of other Tierney Sutton shows I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing: the joy of creation, of beauty, of melancholy turned inside out — the joy of making something that transcends the ordinary — imbues everyone in attendance with a sense that his life is incrementally better than it was before the music began.
In the past few years, the billing for her act has gone from “Tierney Sutton” to “The Tierney Sutton Band.” This is because the original arrangements that they do are all collaborations. Nothing ends up on stage without having been hashed over by four powerful musical minds in rehearsal, and the result is a litany of “I’ve never heard it done that way before” moments. The group is about reinvention, not reiteration, and in this sense they continue to push the boundaries of jazz while still operating firmly in its grand traditions. This is what happens, apparently, when you put a quartet of virtuoso visionaries in one room.
With apologies to Harry Connick’s touring orchestra, and U2, and every other musical organization that tries to be the best at what they do, there’s no better band in the world than the Tierney Sutton Band. It’s not a collection of all-stars; it’s a congregation of geniuses. The drummer, Ray Brinker, is mesmerizing. His playing, which marries sublimely tasty polyrhythms with muscular swing figures, is taking his instrument to new places, all the while supporting his bandmates. Christian Jacob, the pianist, has the rare ability to jump from utterly compliant accompaniment of the girl singer to take-no-prisoners ownership of the musical moment. He lays down fat, juicy chords, and he blazes, sometimes within the span of seconds. The bassists — Tierney uses two, one of whom, Kevin Axt, does the touring, and the other, Trey Henry, who appears on all her albums and sits in at local gigs — redefine the role of the instrument. They don’t merely help keep time and identify the tonic; they sing. Whether voicing complex modal ostinatti (that no one but a seasoned virtuoso could play), or swinging for the fences like Barry Bonds, Axt and Henry make the impossible sound inevitable. Add a clarion-voiced lady who never met a note she didn’t like, and you’ve got a band that is just ridiculously, absurdly wonderful.
The Tierney Sutton Band is a collective that knows its music, and perhaps more important knows itself. It’s a profound pleasure — a simple and a complicated one — to listen to their journey.