Tierney Sutton: In Union There is Strength
TS: I became a Baha'i at 18, having been an atheist or extremely cynical agnostic. And it was the oneness of all religions, and the oneness of all religious leaders being the same spirit expressed at different times in history that made sense to me. At first, I believed that it was all nonsense, yet I now believe it's all true. It's just skewed by disunity and the fight for power.
AAJ: How did this affect performing together? And was it challenging to apply it to the band's dynamics?
It wasn't a conscious thing; it was extremely individualistic. We don't have dogma or religious, spiritualistic protocol. As I was deepening my understand of my new faith, I discovered that Dizzy Gillespie was a Baha'i too. I was keen to have a band that was more united, with a higher-level partnership. I wasn't trying to be different or revolutionary. It was a gradual, organic process, and I became aware that there were explicit principles of consultation. After 10 years, for example, people were asking me to pray with me before shows, rather than me praying on my own. This was the band adopting some of these ideas and teachings. And without even thinking about it, we were striving for the Baha'i principles of consultation. Each of us tries always to detach our ego from whatever we put out on the table, which has a very positive outcome, thanks to the sensitivities and wonderful musicianship of each member of the band.
AAJ: So the ideas fall into a collective domain, either for exploration, further development or refinement?
TS: Or even rejection. Everyone has the right to veto a song or an arrangement idea, or whatever. But the energy is positive, so it keeps the energy flowing. And what was interesting is that, after a decade or so, reviewers would start noticing the benefits without realizing what our principles were. They would say that we had "an uncanny unity," or were "like five fingers on one hand." We all strive for excellence, understanding that once we come to an agreement and we go out on stage, we are all in it together. To give you a small example, in the Tierney Sutton Band, the idea of two members chatting during, or not paying attention to, another member's solo would be anathema.
AAJ: If there is a fundamental difference of opinion, say, over a particular arrangement, how do you resolve creative differences?
TS: There are differences; it's like any relationship. But they are all such great musicians and have such strong ideas. When you've been together as long as we have, you gain a wisdom as a collective, and appreciate that being overly attached to your own idea is counterproductive. Also, understanding that the sound of the Tierney Sutton Band is something other than any one person's idea, and collectively understanding that it's a much more satisfying outcome when we've decided on something togetherwhen that happens literally hundreds of times over 18 years, you learn to compromise and find it is much easier to detach. We think of it like United Nations' favored nation status, where everyone has veto power. And it works for us; it works very well.
AAJ: It must be a blessing to get all members of the group in a creative environment that can easily adapt to or engender that kind of attitude.
TS: From my perspective, this form of consultation, and following these principles, works.
AAJ: And out now on the relatively new label BFM Jazz is your band's ninth release, entitled American Road. The Tierney Sutton Band thrives on the spontaneity of its live performances, yet recordingespecially with studio time being so expensiveis a different beast. How much freedom did you allow yourselves in the studio recording of American Road?
TS: There were arrangements that we did for this record that we'd been playing for two years. And there were a few that we had arranged in the two weeks leading up to the recording, and there were a couple that we did live in the studio. In fact, some of the most complicated things on the album were quite new, such as "The Eagle and Me," which was the most spontaneous track in the three days of sessions which made up the album.
The interesting thing about recording with musicians from Los Angeles is their gift: their unbelievable skill in being able to go into the studio and play the weirdest stuff and make it sound as if they've been playing it forever.
We also split up into little groups to work on the arrangements. On "Wayfaring Stranger," it was me, Ray Brinker and Kevin Axt. And, for the Porgy and Bess selections, it was Christian Jacob and Trey Henry getting together and coming up with an idea and putting it to the rest of us. But it really started with me saying, "These are the songs and here are the keys," and we'd go and try to find a nugget. We'll get together and bat it around.
AAJ: How did you select the material for American Road? And is that process as collective as making the decisions on the style and arrangements?