Tierney Sutton on music: ‘Look for the thing that’s moving you’

It’s hard to determine which part of Tierney Sutton’s career is the most admirable: her celebrated recordings, her multiple Grammy nominations, her clever and unique arrangements for which she and her band are highly respected, or her overall ability to entertain any and all crowds she encounters.

For more than 20 years, the American jazz vocalist and her band — pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker and bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt — have made more than 14 recordings, earning Grammy nominations for nine of them. In 2016, they scored the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film Sully, starring Tom Hanks. The band has toured the world, including headlining performances at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Sutton joined us for a conversation about her band’s approach to arrangements, and how their collaborative approach and experience made it possible to score a major motion picture.

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I want to start with arrangements. I have to say I’m a huge fan of what you do with these tunes. You can just mold so many wonderful things. When you start these arrangements, are you very specific about the type of attention you give to certain tunes?

Our band is an interesting kind of thing. The arrangement of You’re the One That I Wantthat’s a Christian Jacob arrangement. He’s a genius and fabulous. We definitely consulted to a certain extent about that arrangement, but it really is his. On this record, there are a few that are just mine, a few that are just his, a few that are Trey Henry’s. In our past records for 20 years, almost all the arrangements were all of us together. We’re all busy and we’re all running around, and sometimes we haven’t locked ourselves in rooms to bash it out together like we used to.

You’ve also done some other projects working with some various other instrumentalists. What prompted those collaborations?

After Blue, the Joni Mitchell project, was something that I really became very passionate about. I had been listening to Joni’s music almost more than any other artist for about 10 years. I’d started doing a collaboration with the Turtle Island Quartet at that time, and we were doing a few Joni things, and I got the idea to do a whole Joni Mitchell project. Right around that time, I had a consultation with Peter Erskine, and also at that time, Al Jarreau contacted me about maybe singing on a record he was doing. So I said, I’ve got an idea, I’ll sing on your record if you sing on my record. His record didn’t end up happening, but mine did. It was a perfect storm of everything coming together at the same time, That record has some incredible arrangements by members of the Turtle Island Quartet, and some of them are mine. You just look for the thing that’s moving you at that moment, and that you can really narrow your focus on.

I’m curious about the soundtrack to Sully. You did the music for that film. How did that come about?

Clint [Eastwood] has been a friend and fan of mine and of the band for a couple of years, and we’ve done a couple of private performances for him at his country club in northern California. One day he called me on the phone, and he said, “I’m wondering if you and Christian might want to come over to Warner Bros. and see a picture I’m working on. I want to show you some bits of your music that I’m using.” When we went, we had no idea that he was asking us to do the soundtrack. We thought he was just going to ask to use some things from our record, or ask us to recreate them. But they did a whole screening and then turned to us and said, “What do you think?” And we realized what he was asking. It was crazy because that was a Thursday, and by Saturday, we were in the studio recording stuff to picture with Clint there. It was a really incredible experience. The fact that we had been working this way for more than 20 years at that point made it possible. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to. We went over to Warner Bros. together the night after we got hired, and we looked at the film and we could go through each scene and say, “Hey, what if we do something here like we do on the introduction to blah-blah.” By that time, we’d done over 100 arrangements together. We had a certain vocabulary together.

Is that something you’d want to do more of?

Oh, yeah. Although our experience with Clint was so rarefied, because you don’t usually have a director who’s so concerned about the music. He really advocated for the music to be in the film, and he was a part of its creation so much that it was a really special experience. It would be wonderful to do more of that.