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Tierney Sutton - "showing up to stay"

This spring jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton who published her second album for Telarc in the beginning of 2002 was on "Rising-Star-Tour" in Germany . On Tierney´s off-day in Berlin, Carina Prange talked to this great singer and leader of the Jazz-Department in LA - The day before, her concert at the A-Trane had been a very successful evening in front of an enthusiastic audience: they didn´t want to let "their star" go ...

Tierney Sutton

Carina: In connection with your latest album "Blue in green" you said: "If people would listen to Bill Evans, there would be no need for smooth jazz." - However, smooth jazz is perhaps what people listen to most in the USA. How do you feel about that and how do you define yourself in this context as a singer?

Tierney: Well, first of all: I said that in a conversation with Bob Blumenthal - he put it in the linernotes and then I said to him: I donīt want that in the linernotes, that doesnīt sound very nice! And so it was taken out - it is not in the linernotes anymore, but somehow everyone found out that I said it anyway. So, I canīt tell a lie - I said it!

But I guess that my definition of the smooth-jazz that I was talking about, is not all the smooth-jazz. The definition that is in my head is music that is very easy to listen to and may be beautiful in its own way. But is pandering to the least common denominator to not challenge people in any way. Bill Evans had a way of "luring people in" and giving them something that was very beautiful and didnīt seem challenging, but it was challenging. And that is what I mean.

Carina: What criteria do you apply for the selection of the material for your CDs - do you choose songs because of a good melody, good lyrics - or is it about feeling? Do you have a vision of your own interpretation when you listen to "candidate songs"?

Tierney: I look for songs that "move" me. I mean that really is an over all sense. Some songs come alive when the band arranges them in a certain way. The reason that I was attracted to jazz in the first place - and this is also related to Bill Evans - is a sort of "bittersweet" quality that jazz has.


Thereīs always got to be a tension in a song
for me to really want to do it!

There is a tension involved in jazz, that is absent in much of pop-music and musical theater for example. Some classical music has it as well. That tension, that sort of "edge" - it can be in the harmonics, it can be in the melody, it can be in the rhythm. But thereīs always got to be a tension in a song for me to really want to do it.

And I think that thatīs kind of what the band does is if we take a simple song, that doesnīt have enough tension, we add some tension. If we have a song that has plenty of tension, we leave it alone. We just do it.

Tierney Sutton

Carina: "Old Devil Moon" - a song that was never recorded by Bill Evans - why did you choose this special song as the last song of your tribute album?

Tierney: Well, there were two reasons. One was that, if people were pure Bill Evans fans, they could turn off the record - and they are free to do that. I mean, the "pure" Bill Evans record starts with "Blue in Green" and ends with "We will meet again". And the two bookend-tunes are sort of ... - so that when I went on tour I didnīt have to "do everything slow". - "Just squeeze me" Evans did record, but it was as a sideman and it is not an essential Bill Evans song - "Old Devil Moon" he never recorded.

But the real reason that it is on there is that the band had been touring and we were doing it as a live-thing and it always was really fun! And when you do something live over and over again, especially if it is kind of a simple song like that, it gets stale. So I wanted to record it, so that the arrangement would feel fresh and it would have a life to it. And whether it made it on the record or not I didnīt care.

But then when I heard it I said: you know, after all this heavy stuff, these people just need a little break at the end of this record! So it is kind of an "after five". If I had to do it again I would start the record with "Blue in Green" - but the reason that we didnīt was that "Unsung Heroes" had started with "Remember Me" which has a similar kind of moody bassline introduction and we didnīt want it to sound like I had just made the same record.

Carina: As a singer, you are often described as "finding the right balance" between technique and emotion. Is there such a balance - or would you rate one of these higher?

Tierney: Well, that is a good question, that is a really good question. For me, it is about sincerity and it is about love. One of my favorite expressions - that somebody said a long time ago, I donīt know who exactly - is: "love is an action, not an emotion".

And my definition of love is "showing up" - you know, if you look at the people in your life, that really love you: they show up. They come, they donīt leave, they stay! If they stay, they love you. They may stay and be in a bad mood. They may stay and be jerks - but if they stay, there is a love there: If they stay and take care of you, they love you!


If you say: "I love music" - but donīt study it and donīt strive
to become technically great, then you donīt love it!

Emotion that does not have a service to the art is "false". If you say: "I love music" - but you donīt study it and you donīt strive to become technically great, then you donīt love it! You have a "hollow" emotion. For me the technical desire to be advanced is a natural expression of emotion and love.

And if I am going to sing a song that is great - a "great" song - I want to be technically as superb as I can - because I am "in service of something great" as oppose to something that doesnīt deserve it. This music deserves a high level of quality - as high as you can do. There is a demanding standard - and thatīs where the emotion comes from.

Now, thatīs not to say that people with very limited technique cannot sing very emotionally and I might just love it! I am just saying for me: I cannot got out there and feel like I am serving the music, if I am not trying my best.

Tierney Sutton and Ray Brinker (dr)

Carina: You were a major in Russian language at the university before you went to Boston to study jazz. How did you get interested in this language and culture? Are you still?

Tierney: The main interest in Russian for me was that I am a member of the Bahai faith - and our central believe is the oneness of mankind. I was in college in the early eighties - at that time the essential "disunity" on earth was the cold war and disunity between the Soviet Union and America. So I thought that one of the ways to "serve" that oneness would be to learn Russian.

But I wasnīt a great Russian student and I was a better singer - you canīt serve humanity by being "not so great" at something ...

Carina: You are head of the Jazz Vocal department at the University of Southern California. What´s your opinion as an active jazz educator - is singing something everybody can learn or do you have to be born with a sort of "singing-talent"?

Tierney: You know, I have thought about this a lot. I think, singing is something that almost everyone can learn. I really do! - And it comes back to love: It is hard to know what comes first - the chicken or the egg. When I was growing up, you know, my mother was singing to me all the time when I was a child. She says, that I could sing melodies before I could say words, that I would finish the last few notes of a song and all of that. But: I was exposed to it - someone sang to me.


The trick is "being O.K." with whatever god gave you
and then working hard for your craft!

Also I was encouraged in the sense that people would smile and say: oh, you know, you sing very well! - And what if somebody was just being nasty and said: oh, no, you donīt sing very well - what kind of effect that would that have had on me, and would I be singing now? So I think, this is a somewhat mysterious thing - and frankly I think that there are very few people that really are tone-deaf and really canīt sing.

Tierney Sutton

There is those people who have such amazing voices. But I myself donīt have an amazing voice: I donīt have the hugest range, I donīt have the loudest voice, there are many, many limiting factors in my voice. And that is something I accept: itīs all right. So, the trick is "being O.K." with whatever god gave you and then working hard for your craft, whatever that means to you.

Carina: What is your advice for young people who dream of becoming a star-singer?

Tierney: Well, I would like to become a "star-singer", too - so my "advice" to them is: "Tell me what to do and I will do it!." - Joke!

I suppose now I am finally getting to the point where I have some opportunities in my life, that would make others at times see me as a "star-singer". But it´s very hard: it is physically hard, it is emotionally hard, itīs a difficult life, and people say that, but it really is true!

Itīs a wonderful life, when there are ways to balance it. But my advice is: live your life, have a family, realize that everything is more important then how you sing. And that at the end of your life you made some records and people liked them - but how you treated your child and how you treated your husband and wife is much more important! And you really need to love it so much that the problems are worthwhile to you.

Carina Prange

CD: Tierney Sutton - "Blue in Green" (Telarc CD-83522)

Tierney Sutton im Internet: www.tierneysutton.com

Telarc Records im Internet: www.telarc.com

Fotos: Pamela Springsteen et. al (www.tierneysutton.com)

© jazzdimensions2002
erschienen: 6.6.2002
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