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Tierney Sutton

Swyer Theatre @ the Egg
Albany, NY
January 21, 2011

by J Hunter

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great that the Great American Songbook is still a concert staple for many jazzers, both vocal and instrumental. But for me, doing the songs “the way they’ve always been done” just doesn’t go far enough. Jazz is all about freedom of expression, but it’s also about freedom of interpretation. Tierney Sutton celebrates both freedoms, and she’s got just the band to make it beautiful.

Not that Sutton wouldn’t be anything but exemplary if she was backed by another group, be it large or small. But the Tierney Sutton Band – featuring pianist Christian Jakob, bassist Kevin Axt, and drummer Ray Brinker – has been together for 16 years, and the chemistry the quartet shares is undeniable proof of this. They’re literally a corporation: Sutton announced that move the last time they played the Swyer four years ago. But even without the legal paper, this group isn’t just a trio backing some girl singer. They’re a unit, and together they didn’t just make old standards new again… They made old standards theirs and theirs alone.

The instrumentalists were clustered closely around Sutton as she settled herself on a stool at center stage, the sequins on her ethereal belted dress blinking like stars. She began to vocalize as the group eased into a bubbling meditation, but she was really just another instrument with the ability to sculpt a melody as skillfully as any sax player you could name. The piece coalesced into “Out of this World”, with Sutton snapping and stretching the lyrics while the band started kicking it. Jakob launched the first of many outstanding solos while Axt and Brinker kept things percolating. Sutton sat with eyes closed, head bobbing, listening to everything around her, and when the time was right she launched into a ripping scat that was less about showing off her amazing control as it was building on the changes the rest of the band had made.

One of the things about this band is that the arrangements are all group projects, which can be dangerous, as not everyone in a band has the same quality ears. In the Tierney Sutton Band, it’s pure musical alchemy. They followed “World” with three Irving Berlin songs, each one with an interpretation more knockout than the last one; I thought “Blue Skies” was the best of the three, but it’s a close call. We heard back-to-back takes on “Happy Days Are Here Again” that were complete polar opposites, both beautiful and valid. Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” became a swirling exploration into the song’s spiritual side, while “Paper Moon” became a “meditation on materialism.”

Too heavy? The only thing that was “heavy” was the amount of talent onstage. Sutton has more than enough of the proper respect for the songs and their authors: Her description of the story behind Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road” had a sense of genuine amazement you don’t find in the jaded. But she balances her respect with a wonderful sense of unforced whimsy. After glorying in the loftiness of “Road”, she introduced Peggy Lee’s “Fever” by saying matter-of-factly, “This is from our latest CD, and it’s about sex.” After playing “It’s Alright with Me” as the thoughts of someone looking to forget somebody with somebody else, she told us, “I don’t know if that was fun for you, but it was really fun for me!”

Mind you, Sutton had fun all night, and she wasn’t the only one onstage with that experience. The pleasure this quartet takes in each other’s playing is palpable, and the looks and laughs they exchanged throughout the night showed they can still surprise each other. Jakob is the perfect foil for Sutton, with a touch that ranges from crushing to crushed velvet and a solo voice that’s just as strong and expressive. Brinker’s got a pretty strong voice himself, as he and Sutton demonstrated on their duet version of “Day In, Day Out.” Axt makes a double-bass resonate like a Fender, and that effect added the proper urgency to his foundation figure on “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

A lot of great artists play the Swyer Theatre, but very few play to its strengths like the Tierney Sutton Band. As much as I’d love more people to experience Sutton, she and her band were in their element in this space, and the night was pure pleasure for all concerned.

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) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.