By Ric Bang
Buy CD: American Road
Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: The Tierney Sutton Band is not a unit headed by a jazz vocalist who is supported by a quartet of great musicians. This is, rather, a quintet of exceptional musicians, one of whom uses her voice as an instrument.
Whatever the designation, this unit has been flying below my radar for too many years. It’s certainly not like these folks just arrived on the jazz scene; they’ve been performing together for 18 years. They have released nine albums in the past dozen years, received three Grammy Award nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and Sutton was selected by Jazzweek as 2005’s Vocalist of the Year.
Sutton, a Wisconsin native, is a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music; she taught in USC’s Jazz Studies Department and, in 2008, became the Vocal Department Chair at the Los Angeles Music Academy in Pasadena, California. The band is a legally incorporated unit; they make all musical — and business — decisions together. They decide on a tune to be added to their “library,” and the style/treatment to be utilized; they then rehearse it until satisfied with what they’ve created. In musician’s vernacular, the result is a “head arrangement.”
Nothing remains constant; they vary tempos, keys, melodic lines and harmonies during a performance, and everything meshes wonderfully.
The quintet consists of Sutton, pianist Christian Jacob, two bassists (Kevin Axt and Trey Henry) who play both acoustic and electric instruments, and drummer Ray Brinker. Sutton’s voice is in a higher range than most jazz vocalists; she tends toward soprano rather than alto. That said, her range is extensive, and her ability to use her voice as an instrument is exceptional. She enunciates clearly, whether on a soulful ballad (“Wayfaring Stranger”) or a rocking show tune (“On Broadway”). Additionally, she scats with the best I’ve ever heard, and at tempos that approach the speed of light.
Most impressive, though, is her interplay with the other musicians.
Jacob, born in France, is another Berklee College grad; he received numerous awards as a student and taught there for a period. His first professional job was with Gary Burton, after which Jacob served as performer, composer and arranger for Maynard Ferguson for a number of years. Jacob is an outstanding musician, in a class with Oscar Peterson.
Both Axt and Henry are exceptional; at times they alternate tunes, and at times they play together. Are they great? Axt has appeared on more than 150 albums, and it’s difficult to find a band or orchestra — jazz or classical — with whom Henry hasn’t worked. Both men are in a class with Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, as far as technique is concerned.
Brinker graduated from North Texas State, one of the world’s finest jazz study colleges. He, Jacob, Axt and Henry are close friends, and have worked together for years. As for Brinker’s skill, he’s a master with brushes; I’ve never heard better. And he often uses his fingers and palms to achieve unique rhythm patterns.
American Road is a splendid collection of folk, traditional and standard compositions. If “Amazing Grace,” “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “Tenderly,” “The Eagle and Me,” “Somewhere” and “Something’s Coming” aren’t enough to convince you, then this band’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” will bring tears to your eyes.
This is the best release I’ve heard in years!