The Bird Is the Word
The Tierney Sutton Band finds the mystic in the Great American Songbook
Gender has nothing to do with cojones. Anybody can have them. Two-time Grammy-nominated vocalist Tierney Sutton has ’em. That’s how she explains her performance of “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” the opening track of her latest, excellent recording, Desire.
The song, written in 1933, has been inducted into the Great American Songbook by subsequent generations of singers, all of whom have, to one degree or another, crooned the lyrics in a state of lovesick dreaminess. Sutton’s take has something else going on, though, something more pained than dreamy.
When asked to whom she is singing the song, she says apprehensively: “Well, I’m singing it ... I’m singing it to ... This is really going to sound really crazy and probably sound pretentious, but I’m singing it in the person of God singing to people.” She laughs. “I thought that showed a little cojones to start my record as the voice of God.”
Throughout the album, the Tierney Sutton Band—pianist Christian Jacobs, bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry (singly or together), and drummer Ray Brinker—does what Sutton calls a “meditation on materialism,” exploring the spiritual subtext of desire and attachment in great American songs. Thursday night, they’ll bring their signature cohesiveness (with Axt on bass) to the Outpost to continue the meditation, cojones and all.
The group meditation showcases the band’s astonishing musical interplay. The sixth sense they seem to share may not be surprising, given that they’ve been playing together for 17 years, but it is dazzling. Arrangements are credited to the entire band, whose five members are incorporated partners.
At the suggestion of other members of the band, Sutton had been exploring the use of spoken word and prayer over music, an approach that she uses on Desire, with texts taken from The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, written by the founder of the Bahá’i Faith.
For Sutton, a Bahá’i member, the core message in The Hidden Words is basically: “You are a spiritual being, you are not a material being.” That viewpoint informs the band’s take on Desire’s material, and in her research for the album, Sutton used texts from the world’s major religions to establish a context for each song.
The spiritual context takes nothing away from the carnal delights of the music, but it does cast a strange and wonderful light on some very familiar tunes—“My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” for example. “That song at its core is a very dark song,” says Sutton. “It’s not a happy little song. It’s about a kind of prostitution.”
“Skylark” is positively transformed by the band’s approach, taking on a stained-glass ache of spiritual longing. A Bahá’i poet friend once told Sutton that Johnny Mercer’s lyrics echo the mystical imagery of Hafez, Rumi and other Middle Eastern poets. They used skylarks and nightingales to represent “the manifestations of God, the beings who tell us we are spiritual beings,” Sutton says, ticking off the names of Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha and others.
“If you’re thinking that the heart of the human being is saying, Oh, skylark, have you anything to say to me? Can you tell me where my love can be?—so the person speaking is the heart, and the love is God—it absolutely alters the course of the song,” she says.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s what the song means, even if Johnny Mercer was not conscious of it. He tapped into it, because the imagery is word-for-word perfect. Otherwise, what are you singing about? You’re singing about a bird? What is that?”