Tierney Sutton at Birdland

May 3, 2022

Editor’s Note: Due to illness, Tierney Sutton could not continue her performances at Birdland. Her band has been joined by young vocalist (and Jersey Jazz Rising Star) Anais Reno.

In 1992, vocalist Tierney Sutton arrived in California to test the waters. She soon met trumpeter Jack Sheldon who had a strong influence on her career. When she saw Sheldon’s big band perform, she was particularly impressed with the rhythm section of Christian Jacob on piano, Trey Henry on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. Sutton asked them to perform with her, and soon the Tierney Sutton Band, one of the most enduring working bands on the jazz scene, was born.

The band’s May 24-28 engagement at Birdland is part of the celebration of its 30 years together. During the opening set on May 25, the band members quickly showed why their unique approach to the music has had an enduring appeal. Yes, the format is a vocalist with a rhythm section, but they are so much more than that. While Sutton is the primary focus of attention through her singing and between song patter, she is effectively one part of a highly integrated quartet of superior musicians who enjoy equal input in developing the wonderfully creative arrangements that they perform.

The songs that they choose to play include many that originated as part of scores from Broadway musicals, but Sutton’s familiarity with them comes from hearing them played by jazz musicians, not from their original sources, so they often take musical paths that make them sound like new creations. Each member of the band feels free to make recommendations regarding the material they consider for inclusion in the repertoire. This makes for an eclectic catalog of arrangements from which to program their performances.

Sutton indicated that each of the 10 sets performed at Birdland would be unique. During the almost 90-minute set I enjoyed, they performed about a dozen songs drawn from a variety of albums. Among the recordings that served as sources for this set were ones devoted to songs associated with Frank Sinatra, Dancing in the Dark; songs from films, Screenplay; songs written by Sting, The Sting Variations; and perhaps their most daring undertaking, one that explored the darker side of ostensibly happy songs, On the Other Side. The program included standards such as “What’ll I Do,” “On a Clear Day,” “Emily,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Two for the Road,” “Make Someone Happy,” “I Want to Be Happy” and “Old Devil Moon;” three songs from their Sting album, “Driven to Tears,” “Fragile,” which was nicely combined with ”The Gentle Rain,” and “Walking in Your Footsteps;” plus a tune from the film Grease that you are unlikely to hear from any other jazz group, “You’re the One I Want.”

Making full use of her rangy vocal instrument in executing the challenging charts, Sutton demonstrated why she is among the elite jazz singers. In addition, her informative and often witty commentary revealed a keen intelligence also reflected in her vocalizing. Jacob is a marvelous accompanist and has jazz chops to spare. Henry brings an extra dimension to his bass playing that reflects his arranging genius. Brinker provides an element of tasteful elegance to his percussive support that beautifully complements his rock-solid time-keeping.

All in all, the Tierney Sutton Band was totally engaging throughout their set, a total joy to experience. JOE LANG


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