Jazz singer Tierney Sutton takes a spiritual look at 'Desire'

June 14, 2009
Tierney Sutton has just released her eighth album. Two of the tracks include passages from "The Hidden Words" of Baha'u'llah.

LOS ANGELES, United States — Tierney Sutton is hardly alone among jazz vocalists in trying to bring a spiritual dimension to her music. But lining up jazz standards with the sacred writings of the Baha'i Faith takes the idea a step further, says Britain's Daily Express in a review of her new album.

The disc, called "Desire," features 11 well-known songs and has been garnering rave reviews since its release earlier this year. The first and last tracks – "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Skylark" – are introduced by spoken extracts from The Hidden Words, a work by Baha'u'llah that states spiritual truths common to religion throughout the ages.

Ms. Sutton's new album – her eighth – "comes across as a powerful, even spiritual, musical statement about the nature of human desire, both good and bad," says one online review.

"Material things that we want or desire are not usually a path to happiness," Ms. Sutton explains, "and are not usually a path to ourselves."

A member of the Baha'i Faith since the age of 18, she has emerged as one of the outstanding jazz singers of the past decade – "a serious jazz artist who takes the whole enterprise to another level," said the New York Times at one point.

Ms. Sutton, whose previous two albums each won Grammy nominations, says she has wanted for years to do a record challenging the modern tendency to exalt material wealth and self-gratification over humanity's higher, spiritual nature. Finally, the time was right.

The key, she said, is the 15-year relationship she has with her band – Christian Jacob on piano, Trey Henry and Kevin Axt on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums – and the way the five have learned to work together and with the music.

"I wouldn't have set about doing this in the first years that our band was together," Ms. Sutton says. "We are a collective and make all our decisions collectively. As time went by, we were all craving to get deeper – both musically and conceptually. We'd reached a place where we were all very comfortable about doing this."

Sacred writings

The Tierney Sutton Band includes Christian Jacob on piano, Trey Henry and Kevin Axt on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. Slideshow
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The Tierney Sutton Band includes Christian Jacob on piano, Trey Henry and Kevin Axt on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums.

As she began work on the album, she set about exploring the literature of the world's religions to find relevant extracts to use.

"My 12-year-old son and I have held an interfaith children's class for the last six or seven years, so I had all the books from the different traditions to go to," she says. "I read through all of them looking for texts about materialism. Of course, all faith traditions speak of this but in the end, I found that Baha'u'llah's writings seemed to be the most direct and concise in terms of materialism.

"In the course of researching this album, my understanding of the Hidden Words changed, and I now see the core issue of the book as humanity's struggle between its spiritual nature and materialism."

It took her many years to consider her work as a singer as a form of service to others.

"There are deep prejudices in our society about the usefulness of artists," says Ms. Sutton, who grew up in Milwaukee in the central United States and now lives in Los Angeles. "I first set out to study Russian because I thought I would be able to serve humanity with it."

In the process of pursuing a bachelor's degree in Russian, she discovered jazz.

"I knew there was something spiritual there, but I couldn't see standing on a stage singing 'do-be-do' as service," she remembers. "Then, after about 10 years, we started to get reviews where the critic could catch in our performances something of what I was trying to convey as a Baha'i."

Following one of her shows, a New York Times' review said she "conveyed a sense of jazz singing as an extension of spiritual meditation in which adherence to an ideal of balance and consistency and, yes, humility took precedence over any technical or emotional grandstanding."

Letters from listeners began to confirm her in the idea of service.

"One man wrote to me and said our concert had given him his first experience of joy since his 20-year-old son had died the year before," she says. "Another email came from a man who was thinking of taking his own life. He heard one of our songs on the radio and came to our concert that night, and he changed his mind."

Finding harmony

Ms. Sutton says she sees her voice as just another instrument in the ensemble. The band is incorporated, with each member an equal partner in the finances.

"Look at the state of art and music in the world. It's in a very sorry state. I see people changed by listening to the level of excellence in this band," she says.

"We want to offer our experience as a model to corporations and all sorts of organizations who struggle with problem solving. We are inspired by a true process of consultation. When we set out to make a song, one person puts out an idea and the others contribute theirs. We all know each other extremely well. We have different styles, strengths and weaknesses," she notes.

"We can only do what we do if we remain united. Unity changes the way you do everything. And when we are onstage we always need to have a deep and profound sense of humility. We are there to serve the music."

Ms. Sutton is one in a line of accomplished jazz musicians who have been inspired by the Baha'i teachings, most notably Dizzy Gillespie, one of the 20th century's foremost trumpeters. She believes that there are parallels between the way that jazz works and concepts found in the Baha'i Faith.

"Despite what people think, jazz is not a kind of music without rules," she says, "but its rules create a structure that inspires diverse expression. In the band, we all trust each other to follow certain rules. Likewise, the diversity and the variation of individual Baha'i experience are vast and personally directed in many ways, but there are core values or principles guiding it."

When she saw the beautiful gardens and terraces of the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, she says she found herself thinking about some of the solos by Christian Jacob, the pianist in her band.

"There was intricacy and beauty and great variation, but all in harmony. That's very much in the tradition of the best jazz."