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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Singer Tierney Sutton seeks musical and spiritual unity at 2010 Isthmus Jazz Festival
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After Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan sang the jazz standards, does anyone else really need to? Listening to rehashes by contemporary copycats, I tend to think no. But Tierney Sutton, the Isthmus Jazz Festival's headliner, brings something of her own to the jazz vocal tradition.

It's partly musical. Sutton has amazing chops, evident as she twists and turns her way through supercharged tempos. Like all great improvisers, she artfully rearranges melodies so that you hear "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" or "Fly Me to the Moon" in a new way. She keeps you guessing with surprising rhythmic changes, and she pulls you into her own private space with an emotionally potent take on ballads.

But Sutton distinguishes herself not only musically, but also spiritually, intellectually and, well, organizationally. Her unique approach to life is echoed in her unique approach to art.

Tierney Sutton, 46, grew up in Milwaukee and studied Russian at Wesleyan University. She didn't know much about jazz until she worked as a singing waitress one summer at Green Lake, Wis.

"There was a jazz trio at the country club across the street," she says. "They were mind-blowing to me because they were playing great songs with great integrity, and they had a great feel. It was pure music. I was singing songs from the radio that weren't great songs to begin with."

Sutton had initially decided against a singing career because she didn't write music, but she realized she could put her stamp on other people's material through jazz improvisation. She took inspiration from instrumental geniuses like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who could reshape standards from the Great American Songbook. That's exactly what Sutton wanted to do.

"In terms of improvisation," she says, "the structure of standards lends itself very well to doing unusual things."

Sutton moved to Los Angeles and formed the band of her dreams: pianist Christian Jacob, bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt and drummer Ray Brinker. They've been together over 17 years, with eight albums and three Grammy nominations to their credit. This is not your usual singer-and-sidemen arrangement, but a true democratic collective. They do all the arranging together and split the profits. Indeed, they're a legally incorporated unit.

"It's really hard to find people who are so invested artistically," Sutton says.

The band members share not only an aesthetic sensibility, but also a spiritual one. Sutton is an adherent of the Bahá'í faith, which affirms the oneness of mankind. She prays backstage before shows and considers singing to be a kind of meditation - evident in her remarkable intensity at the mike. Her bandmates aren't Bahá'ís themselves but are sympathetic to Sutton's approach.

"They're very spiritual, open-minded people," Sutton says. "They have the same perspective I do. In a way, they're my spiritual community. Making music together is a kind of communion."

Don't go to Sutton's show at the Wisconsin Union Theater expecting an overtly religious experience. Onstage, she's secular. If you perceive a Bahá'i element, it will be in the group's cohesion - the oneness of mankind reflected in oneness on the bandstand.

"The most common response to our shows is that we play in one voice," Sutton says. "The first review we got in The New York Times said something like 'an uncanny spirit of unity.' And I just thought, wow."

For her Madison show, Sutton knows she'll perform songs from her latest album, Desire, a subtle critique of American materialism inspired by Bahá'i philosophy. But beyond that, she can't say. The set list comes together on the day of the performance, during a long sound check.

"It depends on what's going on in that moment," Sutton says. "The piano might have a certain quality, so Christian says, 'I'd rather not play this song.' There may be acoustics in the room that make the bass sound a certain way."

In other words, the show we get will be chosen specifically for us. For one night, we, too, will be part of Tierney Sutton's "spiritual community."

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