Opening Concert of Jazzaar Festival 2008
The Tierney Sutton Band
It was a good indicator of things to come when the opening song of the Tierney Sutton Quartet’s Wednesday night concert at the KuK produced goose bumps immediately. The song, “What’ll I Do,” by Irving Berlin, revealed some of the hallmarks of the group’s style. Drummer Ray Brinker’s light-as-a-feather brush work, pianist Christian Jacob’s colorful and dramatic chord voicings, and Kevin Axt’s ostinato bass figures supported Sutton’s airy yet precise vocal styling. The band’s compelling contemporary arrangement of this classic from the Great American Songbook breathed new life into a song we’ve all heard before.
Later in the set, Sutton explained the band’s approach to playing standards. “If a song is well known, we feel we have a responsibility to make it unrecognizable,” Sutton told the audience with a wry smile. “If you guess what song we’re going to play from the intro, we’ve failed.” In the hands of lesser musicians, this philosophy might strike fear in the hearts of audience members. Not so with Sutton’s group, however. Every arrangement was a finely crafted gem performed with careful attention detail and an abundance musical finesse.
Sutton’s decision to play a 90-minute set without an intermission allowed the band to draw the audience deep inside their musical world. The set continued with a brisk swinging version of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me”, and a trio of Irving Berlin songs, “Face the Music and Dance”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and Blue Skies.” On the Frank Sinatra chestnut “I Get a Kick out of You”, the arrangement featured a canonic treatment of the melody during the intro and sections played in ¾ time before the band launched into a fast swing groove. Jacob’s fleet-fingered piano solo was a standout.
Adding dramatic contour to the set, the group settled down with an introspective piano-vocal duet on Henry Mancini’s poignant “Two for the Road.” Sutton’s breathy delivery of the lyric and Jacob’s yearning piano lines created a spellbinding affect. After sitting motionless on her stool until the very last traces of the final chord had evaporated, Sutton whispered, “It’s all fun and games until I start weeping during the piano solo.”
“Fly Me to the Moon” was notable for Jacob’s adventurous reworking of the chord progression that had little in common with the original harmonization. This tune served as a vehicle for Brinker to abandon the restraint he’d exercised thus far. His frenetic drum solo played over piano and bass accompaniment brought roars of approval from the audience.
“Sometimes I’m Happy”, was rendered sans piano with Sutton’s vocal supported only with bass and drums. The piano re-emerged on “Get Happy” supplying an ostinato figure in open fifths in the low end with the thirds of the chords filled in by Axt’s bass. The heavy, ponderous groove showcased another side of Sutton’s voice. Her clear and powerful treatment of the melody reveal a vocal timbre that was reminiscent of Grace Slick at times.
With Brinker providing a “succotash” groove on his hi-hat, the band romped through “Happy Days Are Here Again”, offering Sutton a chance to scat on the outro leading to a tight, button ending. Sutton told the audience that “I’ve Grown Accustomed to [His] Face” is from her favorite musical, My Fair Lady. After an intro of bass harmonics, the band treated the tune as an understated shuffle in 12/8 time with a flawless fade-out ending.
Sutton demonstrated that she is comfortable going out on a limb a bit by singing “Surry with the Fringe On Top” with only Brinker’s drum accompaniment. For the set’s final number, the quartet offered a total overhaul of “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Jacob’s piano solo turned up the heat as Axt held anchored the low end while Brinker’s thrashing drumming stoked the flames. Brinker got the last word as he soloed over the outro the vamp, bringing the set to a climax that had the audience on their feet demanding an encore.
Sutton and company returned for two more. The Bill Evans masterpiece “We’ll Meet Again” began with a somber three-part canon treatment of the melody realized by voice, piano, and bass. After Suttons deeply affecting rendition of the lyric, Jacob and Axt offered eloquent solos. The final piece of the night, “Ding Dong the Wicked Witch Is Dead” provided each group member a chance to stretch out over a galloping swing groove. Sutton began the song alone, snapping her fingers in accompaniment to her rapid-fire scat singing. Piano, bass, and drums each made closing statements that bolster the case that Sutton and company are among the most creative and accomplished contemporary jazz musicians playing the standard repertoire. After 15 years together, they have achieved a level of musical communication and sophistication that few groups ever attain.
Workshop: The Mind of the Jazz Musician
“It’s important to take an analytic approach to music,” said New York-based alto saxophonist Tia Fuller. She has played with top jazz artists as well as toured with world playing with singer Beyonce. Fuller spoke about the basics of improvising over jazz standards in her Wednesday morning workshop. “You can approach learning standards in a few ways. Jazz improvisation is like a house. The foundation is the harmony and rhythm. The walls and the roof are the melody of the tune. You need to build your solo on these things.”
Fuller used the Charlie Parker blues “Now’s the Time” to demonstrate her approach. “It’s important to know the roots of the chords in the progression to understand where the tune is going,” Fuller said. She then played the roots of the chords in quarter notes. She moved to the next stage by filling in the harmonic structure of the chords, arpeggiating each of the chord structures in time. Finally, she improvised freely over the tune. “The most important thing is the self-discovery that happens by moving all of the notes around and taking chances,” Fuller said.
She emphasized the importance of transcribing and learning to play solos by other jazz artists. “Study the masters,” she said. If you listen to John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, you’ll hear that they have a certain sound they’ve developed. You grow very quickly from learning solos because you learn much more than the notes. Playing what others have improvised will teach you about their phrasing and vibrato. It helps your technique and mastery of the overall language of jazz. Learn to play the solo first, and write it down afterwards. Otherwise you may get too caught up in writing down the notes.
Fuller recommended five elements for developing a productive practice regimen. “You need a clear vision of what you want to accomplish on a daily basis,” Fuller said. “First, horn players need to practice long tones for about 15 minutes to become one with the instrument. Second, you should practice scales for about a half hour. Third, practice working out melodic patterns. Fourth, learn tunes to build up a repertoire. Fifth, transcribe solos by the masters. Each of these things will enhance the other. Set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. Without doing that, you won’t go anywhere. You need to crystallize a vision of where you are going.”
Workshop: Soul Singing
For their Wednesday evening workshop, organist and vocal director Dennis Montgomery teamed up with singer Kamaria Ousley to discuss soul and gospel singing styles. Montgomery, a Berklee College of Music Professor, has been rehearsing the choir for the Grooves & Moves concert planned for Friday evening, and Ousley, a Berklee graduate, will be one of the featured soloists. Ousley told the crowd that she has sung gospel music since she was a child. “Black gospel music came from spirituals, they are the source for everything that we are singing here,” Ousley said. “My younger sister taught me how to do runs [soulful elaborations on the melody], and I picked up more in college. I was taught that when you’re singing an r&b song, you should sing the first verse straight without doing much ornamentation. You’ve got to feel the lyrics and then you can you bring something to the song. After the bridge, a good r&b singer will start to do something new.”
Ousley then demonstrated her approach on the Anita Baker song “Sweet Love” as Montgomery accompanied her on the Hammond B3 organ. Afterward, she told the class, “Breathing has everything to do with phrasing. People ask how I developed a big-sounding voice, it’s all from knowing how to breathe properly. I didn’t have a big voice until my singing teacher taught me to support the voice from the stomach area. You can’t song a Tina Turner song with your chest voice, you have to sing from your feet up.”
Montgomery spoke about technical considerations for embellishing melodies. “When you do your runs, make sure you have a place to go, and then get there with accuracy.” He demonstrated that all of the notes in a riff have to be executed well, and sound best if they’re primarily drawn from the key of the song. “Don’t go too far out of the key,” he said. “As well, don’t think about your riffs too technically, let them flow, and remember to stay relaxed.”
As for using vibrato, Montgomery said it should be reserved for a special effect, not used on every note. “It’s produced with the muscles that surround the larynx, assisted by the diaphragm,” he said. “If you produce vibrato from the diaphragm exclusively, you will sing flat. The diaphragm is an assistant that keeps the muscles around the larynx from getting too tired.”
Responding to a question about manipulating the colors of the voice, Montgomery said, “Mixing the chest voice with the head voice will help you conserve your voice. If you are comfortably singing a song in your chest voice, you don’t need to mix. But when you sing up high, you need to mix. If you sing just from your head voice, you will wear it out. To practice using your mix voice, do scales and cross smoothly into the mix voice.
Ousley recommended that the young musicians listen extensively to internalize soul singing. “You can’t find soul in a half hour,” she said. “To capture the essence of it, you’ve got to listen to Sam and Dave, Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and the Staples Singers. The best singers have taken ideas from them and incorporate them into their own singing.”
By request, Ousley and Montgomery closed the workshop by giving an ultra-soulful rendition of “Gotta Be There” that elicited applause and whistles from the audience.
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