The Arts

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

In Brief: 
  • Jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton is gaining recognition for her complex and beautiful interpretations
  • The Bahá'í Faith has influenced her musical insight and collaborative relationship with fellow musicians
  • Her latest album, Desire, explores whether material things lead to happiness

LOS ANGELES - Tierney Sutton is hardly alone among jazz vocalists in trying to bring a spiritual dimension to her music. Some trace jazz back to African-American spirituals in the 1800s. More recently, musicians from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane have touched on spiritual themes.

But the 46-year old singer has taken this to a new level, not only because of the way she incorporates the Bahá'í sacred writings into her latest album but also the manner in which she uses spiritual principles to help create her music.

Her album Desire, released in early 2009, exemplifies these elements — and, like her previous albums, has received rave reviews — and a third consecutive Grammy nomination.

"Over the course of her widely acclaimed career, jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton has made several splendid concept albums," wrote Mike Joyce in the Washington Post in August. "Now she has made a splendid and spiritual one, her most personal statement yet."

Reviewer Suzi Price at wrote: "Tierney Sutton brings forth personal hope, self-worth and honesty in a world gone awry—a stunning inward look into your own soul from an exceptionally gifted vocalist."

A member of the Bahá'í Faith since the age of 18, Ms. Sutton has indeed 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 in 2007.

Desire features 11 well-known songs such as "Fever" and "Cry me a River." 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 Bahá'u'lláh that states spiritual truths common to religions throughout the ages.

Ms. Sutton, whose previous two albums each won Grammy nominations, said 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.

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

The key to this exploration, 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 with one another and with the music. Together, they are known as the Tierney Sutton Band.

"I wouldn't have set about doing this in the first years that our band was together," Ms. Sutton said. "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."

As she began work on the album, she set about exploring the literature of the world's religions to find relevant passages 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 said. "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 Bahá'u'lláh'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 form of service.

"There are deep prejudices in our society about the usefulness of artists," said 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 said. "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 Bahá'í."

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 said. "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 said 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 said.

She also said that even though the other band members are not Bahá'ís, they use a Bahá'í-inspired method of collaborative decision making, referred to as "consultation," in the process of making music.

"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 Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í Faith.

"Despite what people think, jazz is not a kind of music without rules," she said, "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 Bahá'í experience are vast and personally directed in many ways, but there are core values or principles guiding it."