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Swyer Theatre - The Egg, Albany, NY
October 1, 2005

by J Hunter

TelArc has always been one of my favorite jazz labels, mainly becausethey give both new and established artists a good, safe place to create strong product without the fear of the corporate hammer. Now I have a new reason for loving TelArc: They did not succumb to Jones/Krall Syndrome.

In layman's terms, Jones/Krall Syndrome is a virus that infects the judgment of music executives who should know better. It's only partly a joke that, in order to make a million dollars in jazz, you start with $2 million. But thanks to the commercial success of Norah Jones and Diana Krall, two venerable labels of the genre (Blue Note and Verve) pared down their rosters of mainstream players in order to concentrate on developing vocalists - in essence, to try and catch lightning in a bottle for a third (or fourth) time.

TelArc could have gone down that same road with Tierney Sutton. She's a marketer's dream - blonde, beautiful, funny, and (Oh, yeah…) talented as all get out, with a raspy alto that can make a home inside your soul. As Sutton herself deadpanned in self-parody, “I'm blonde and I have a shiny belt, so it's my gig.” Instead, TelArc went the other way - the nurturing way - with Sutton and her longtime partners pianist Christan Jacob, bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Ray Brinker. This unit has done six discs with TelArc, including two tribute discs - one to Frank Sinatra, and one to the late piano legend Bill Evans. Plenty of these discs lived at or near the top of the Jazz charts, but there isn't a commercial hit in the bunch - thank God.

“We aspire to be Keith Jarrett, embodied in four people,” Sutton cracked as the band came out for the second half of their two-hours-plus show. Again, that's only partly a joke. While Jarrett is more known for his long flights into solo improvisation, his biggest contribution over the last decade has been his creative spin on the Great American Songbook. From the opening number - a subtly driving take on the classic ballad “What'll I Do” - to the scat-filled closing romp through “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”, Sutton and her partners spun that same hallowed tome all night long, in their own bright, delightful way.

The key word is intimacy - not only in the arrangements, or in Sutton's singular delivery, but also in the way the band clustered around Sutton, using maybe half the Swyer's 3-quarter-round stage. The closeness this band has - not just chemistry, but closeness - is palpable. This band has been together for 12 years, and it shows. Single notes that seem unremarkable to us draw smiles, nods, laughs. It makes sense this group would cover Bill Evans. Christan Jacob's stunning piano rings of the great romanticist, and that style fits perfectly with Sutton's style, whether she's the hilariously frustrated lover of Harold Arlen's “Devil & The Deep Blue Sea”, or one of the poor souls of (in her words) “one of those tearjerker, heartbreaker, wrist-slasher Sinatra songs.” Brinker's brushwork could be hung in the Museum of Fine Arts, and Axt worked with him to lay a solid foundation for Sutton to perform.

Sutton sat cross-legged on a stool for both sets, but the traveling she did with her voice could be measured in light years. In the last month I've seen Kurt Elling, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Giacomo Gates, and Sutton's vocalese is more engaging than those three veterans. Although hampered by vocal chords that had gone on strike the night before, Sutton just sipped tea and gave a clinic in nuance as she and her mates reinvented classic after classic.

This was the last night of Sutton & Co. “honeymoon tour” - honeymoon because “We just got married,” Sutton confided. (In point of fact, they legally incorporated earlier this year.) Here's hoping this marriage is a long and happy one… and stays away from carriers of Jones/Krall Syndrome.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.