Sept. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Tierney Sutton Band pleases flesh, spirit


    Tierney Sutton smolders. A torch song comes as naturally to her as fire comes to a match.

    But flames are dangerous outside a fireplace. Good thing Sutton is only one-fourth of the Tierney Sutton Band.

    “The way the band presents itself, the way I present myself, I don’t get hit on, hardly ever,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

    She admits to feeling “a little insulted” sometimes.

    “Here I am, I’m a performer, I go out there and sing. I try to get on the treadmill so I look OK. Why doesn’t anybody hit on me?”

    But that’s how the sultry, silken-tressed singer wants it. Oh, it’s OK to lust after Sutton, but try to keep your libido metaphorical, in accordance with the writings of 13th-century Muslim Sufi mystic Rumi.

    “There’s a sense that our lusts and our desires are a kind of metaphor for the soul desiring God, desiring its true home,” Sutton said.

    As an adherent of the Baha’i faith, Sutton wants to seduce her listeners into a collective high. Her jazz combo is a metaphor for harmony among people and the continuity of human history and thought. Dig?

    “We’ve been together 17 years. We’re incorporated,” Sutton said. “When people talk to us after the show, they compliment the band, not me, and I’m very proud of that.”

    The collective stance continues after the show, when the whole band will sit down and sign CDs together.

    “If people come up to the table, they’re meeting me and my brothers,” she said. “It’s a group experience, not a Beyoncé video.”

    “The idol of your self is the mother of all idols,” Rumi warned.

    Sutton’s disdain for pop-culture celebrity goes to the heart of two inseparable passions: music and faith.

    Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, another adherent of Baha’i, pointed out in his memoir, “To Be or Not to Bop,” that Baha’i and jazz have a lot in common.

    Both traditions teach a deep respect for prophets of the past and seek to build on their work.

    It’s common to see the symbols of older religions — crosses, crescents and stars of David — carved into a Baha’i temple, the same way you can hear Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Thelonious Monk in younger jazz players and singers.

    “The great jazz instrumentalists and what they create melodically have been my heroes ever since I started in jazz,” Sutton said.

    That’s obvious from the first arresting bars of the band’s new CD, “Desire.”

    The title refers to lusting after ultimate truth.

    In a drastic makeover, the band refracts the peppy standard “It’s Only a Paper Moon” into a slow meditation on materialism. Sutton’s pure, vibrato-less voice floats over the rhythm section’s minor-key vamp like Miles Davis at his most pensive.

    “When I was first introduced to jazz, I listened to horn players more than anything,” Sutton said. “I listened to a lot of Miles Davis from that period, trying to create as good a tone as I could.”

    Sutton is now working on a trio project with flutist Hubert Laws, feeling the “joy of trying to match his tone.”

    The affinity between Baha’i and jazz extends to the question of musical taste, too.

    The world is full of people arguing over whose prophets or gods are “true,” just as musical doctrinaires hand down laws like “there’s only one way to rock” or “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

    Why pick? Life is a tough enough lock without throwing most of the keys away.

    “Large swaths of the population all over the world are only exposed to a certain kind of music,” Sutton lamented.

    She ought to know. She grew up in Wisconsin: “I listened to whatever dopey white girls in Milwaukee listened to.”

    She first heard jazz at 19, in a college jazz appreciation course. Exposure to legendary singers Sarah Vaughan, via recording, and Betty Carter, in concert, was a revelation.

    Now she burns with the zeal of the late convert.

    “If all you ever had at home or school is macaroni and cheese and french fries and somebody makes you sushi or Indian food, you really appreciate it.”