Spirituality, Unity, Virtuosity: The Tierney Sutton Band

by Victoria Aschheim

"A pure jazz spirit whose singing conjures up open skies and clean air."

— Stephen Holden, The New York Times

The interplay and resultant unity of the jazz band as metaphor for society at large: a Harvard professor's concept exemplified by The Tierney Sutton Band. The jazz ensemble will appear in the OFA's Learning from Performers series 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10 (TONIGHT) at New College Theatre -- and is free to the public. Celebrity Series of Boston will present vocalist Tierney Sutton and instrumentalists Christian Jacob, Trey Henry, Kevin Axt and Ray Brinker at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11 at Sanders Theatre. Harvard Arts Beat blogger Victoria Aschheim interviewed Tierney Sutton. An edited and condensed version of their exchange appears below.

It has been widely noted and praised that you have a spiritual component in your jazz singing, which gives your work "an ideal of balance and consistency, and yes, humility…a sense of quiet joy" (New York Times). This element is present even in your improvising. Describe this aspect of your work.

I have been a practicing member of The Baha'i Faith for almost 30 years and that has surely had an influence on all aspects of my life and certainly my artistic life. In a practical sense, my band arranges collaboratively, decides on the show collaboratively and makes all business decisions collaboratively. We are an incorporated unit and legal partners, equal members of The Tierney Sutton Band. We're currently working on our ninth album together. The principles we focus on when working together are quite practical, but, I think, have deeply spiritual implications. We are all committed to the excellence of the music, we strive to be detached from our own preconceptions -- musical and otherwise -- and we all have an awareness that we are there to serve something beyond ourselves. We often discuss how our music and our process is a metaphor for problem-solving in any group. Eventually we would like to present our process to other organizations with that in mind. The result of this, in a spiritual sense, is that when I sing with my band, I am mostly in a state of meditation, where I can lose myself and seek a state of beauty and harmony. I hope that's what the audience experiences.

Which jazz figures or movements inspired your award-winning compositional and performance work? Have you derived inspiration from Louis Armstrong (in your scatting for instance), John Coltrane, Miles Davis or others?

All the figures you mentioned are influences to be sure. Presently, Wayne Shorter and his quartet seem to me to be the "state of the art" for improvizational music. But there are also other artists. I love Rachelle Ferrell (vocalist) and find her work profoundly spiritual and moving. There are also emerging young artists, Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens, who I look to as composers, lyricists, performers. There is some wonderful music going on out there.

You have a long and successful collaboration with your bandmates, both musically and from a business standpoint, and this collaborative component seems to be at the core of your ethos and work. Describe this collaboration, and tell us about how your band was formed and about the work of the others in the band.

In terms of the genesis of the band, we met in Los Angeles and started working together in 1993. The trio had started playing with Maynard Ferguson's band years before, and I heard them first playing with Jack Sheldon (also a trumpeter and band-leader.) We had an early natural rapport, but it was the CDs for Telarc that formed us and created our work process. Initially, Oscar Peterson told the execs at Telarc that they should let me record with my own band (rather than hiring established ringers) because, Oscar said, my band was great. And he was right.

Ingrid Monson, the jazz expert at Harvard, has pointed out that the improvisational interplay among drums, bass and piano can be just as innovative, complex and spontaneous as the solo. The "interactiveness" of a small jazz band, the "achievement of a groove or feeling," Monson points out as central. Can we see your band through the lens of this quote?

That's an interesting observation, and I would take it one step further: In my band there is constant interaction and deep listening. There really is never a "soloist" per se. During a piano solo, or when I am singing, there is constant reaction, interaction and inspiration going between the "soloist" and the other members of the band. Even when members of the band are tacet (not playing) there is an energy exchange -- and the "soloist" may be responding or reacting to something that was played in the last song -- or the last concert.

Monson points out that it is important to remember that there are always musical personalities interacting in the small band, and not merely instruments or pitches or rhythms: "The often cited soul, warmth, and emotional expressivity of jazz improvisation have much to do with the ineffable and unpredictable musical chemistry among players…the mixture of expectation and willful departure traded around the bandstand is something the music absolutely thrives upon." How do these qualities apply to your work and your own band?

When we sound check, each member of the band goes into the house and listens to various combinations of the other three. I always have to tell sound engineers that my voice needs to be able to sink into the band -- I mustn't be amplified far above the band.

What are your views on Monson's "aesthetics of rhythm" in the ensemble?

I think one core reason for the cohesive nature of my band is that our drummer Ray Brinker and I share a common view of tempo and groove.

What do you hope to convey in the Learning from Performers experience at Harvard?

I guess if there was one thing I would want them to take away from my band's experience, it would be that good music is 9o percent listening and only maybe 10 percent playing.