Spirituality informs the jazz

Into the mystic: “One of the jokes that I’ve had with the band is, our goal for the show is that somebody should levitate,” jokes Sutton.

While the world is full of “ladies who sing with the band,” it’s a rare treat to listen to a vocalist whose tone and pitch are artfully aligned as an equal instrument with the other musicians on stage. Equally rare is a band whose members have worked together without changing personnel for nearly 20 years. In its 18th year, having just completed a ninth album together, the Tierney Sutton Band’s commitment to excellence and unity create a unique synergy that becomes palpable to the listener.

Thanks to the WNC Jazz Society, the three-time Grammy-nominated jazz band will be performing in Asheville for the first time. Xpress caught up with Sutton in advance of the performance.

Xpress: Will you be performing the songs that you’ve recently recorded?
Sutton: We always perform a combination of new and old. It’s a band credo we never do the same show twice. It makes it hard and it makes it really refreshing and challenging too.

I’ve listened to a few clips from your last album, Desire. Are they all love songs?
There are a few love songs on there, but that’s not really the core concept of the record. It’s really more of a statement on wanting things, looking at what we want and how some of those things are sort of better for us and higher for us, and some are not so good for us, and love is a mysterious one that hangs somewhere in the middle.

How do you come up with the concepts for your albums?
We all are sort of philosophical by nature and we are all very eclectic in our tastes. We like to look at some organizing concept that we can use to herd the material and find a focus. On the latest record [American Road], the loose concept is America and things that we think of as somehow American.

What is the band’s process when making these albums?
That concept comes to be through so much consultation in the band. Whenever we talk about the records or whenever we put a show together, we talk about the philosophical organization. I would put something out, but it would always be changed and morph as the process went on.

You’ve been quoted as saying you’re extending some Bahá’í principles through the music. What does that mean?
There are certain practical teachings in the Bahá’í faith, and one of the most important in group dynamics is something that Bahá’ís call “consultation.” It’s a technique that groups of people use to solve problems. We may have some disagreement that we’re dealing with. The first principle of consultation is detachment, meaning that once we start discussing an idea, it’s no longer my idea or your idea, it’s an idea that everyone is looking at and trying to remain detached from it. You also have to be striving for excellence and find partners that are striving for excellence, too. Then you figure out how to make the other person heard, and how to really hear the other person. Our principle is one that I think jazz musicians, especially improvisational musicians of any kind, really understand.

The idea of unity in diversity is very central to Bahá’í teachings. You will frequently be doing things that might be uncomfortable, but you have to be detached and give it a chance. That’s how we grow. If you really work with people that you respect, you want to know what they have to say about whatever is happening. You don’t want to use them for their talents, you want to empower them.

What do you hope your audience will feel?
Of course, the performance itself is a secular event. I’m singing standards for the most part. I’m singing lyrics that are secular, although sometimes they have implications to me that are spiritual and sometimes I choose to share that with the audience. The reviews would talk about this sort of uncanny sense of unity, that we would make one sound, or that we were reading each other’s minds. One of the jokes that I’ve had with the band, and everybody laughs about it, is our goal for the show is that somebody should levitate. We really are going for some sort of mystical experience for ourselves and for the audience.

Who has influenced your vocal style?
I listened more to instrumentalists. I listened to early Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. I also started to be exposed to some of the instrumental-sounding vocalists. Al Jarreau was a big influence on me, and Bobby McFerrin. There’s a great singer on the scene nowadays named Rachelle Ferrell who’s really extraordinary. I’m fascinated with the idea of tone and voice as instrument, voice as a pure sound that is integrating with other instruments. When I sing a note, it’s always like, “OK, how can I get this note right into the center of the band? How can I become one with the band?” which is of course a spiritual concept as well.

Is there a secret to keeping a band together for nearly 20 years?
I think you have to have musical chemistry. I think everyone has to feel that the band is a place for them to do excellent work and to shine as individuals, but also to become something that they wouldn’t be anywhere else.

— Wendi Loomis can be reached at wendi@jazzandpoetry.com.

who: Tierney Sutton
what: Grammy-nominated jazz artist
where: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square
when: Sunday, June 5 (7 p.m. $25 members/$35 non-members, $10 students under age 25. 257-4530. dwtheatre.com. wncjazzsociety.org)

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