Vocalist Tierney Sutton at the 2012 Avantgarde Jazz Festival Rovinj, with her band. Photo courtesy of Info Rovinj



The great jazz vocalist releases great recordings while holding fast to a great group of musicians.

Tierney Sutton, who was born in Wisconsin and later moved to New England, was living in the San Fernando Valley, a few miles from where I grew up, when we arranged to meet for the following interview. The location she chose was Dupar's on Ventura Blvd, where my German grandfather liked to take our family on Sunday mornings in the early '60s. It was a comfortably familiar location to meet the woman behind the voice that had become a familiar favorite. Sutton not only possesses an impeccable knack for phrasing, she has one of the finest voices in contemporary jazz to go with one of the finest bands. The Tierney Sutton Band, with pianist Christian Jacob, drummer Ray Brinker, and alternating bassists Kevin Axt and Trey Henry, have been the same for all the recordings Ms. Sutton has released since the 1990s.

CRISTOFER GROSS Let's start with the band . . . There are two bass players in your band. They're both shown on the cover photo of the live album, but you don't say who plays on what.

TIERNEY SUTTON It's just a mixture. We sort of regretted that after the fact. We ended up being cuter than we wanted to be. We wanted everyone on the cover, but not saying who played what. We basically alternated sets. We played four live sets over the course of two afternoons at Birdland and in the course of those four sets there are some things that only one of them played. In the end, they just wanted to be selfless about it and express that it doesn't really matter – and everyone in the band feels that way. So we just left it off and said let people guess. But then what happened is people sometimes think both of them are playing on some things.

On the new record both of them are playing and we explain who's doing what. Most of the time we tour we only have one bassist. Sometimes we have them both because it's more fun and it's interesting and we do some different things when.

GROSS If you did use both would you play every song with both or what?

SUTTON We would do most of it with both of them and then a few things we wouldn't. But it's up to them. Sometimes they'll say, you know what let him do this set and I'll do next set. When we play in L.A., one will come in and they'll do one thing together and then one will finish the set alone. It's sort of a mixed bag. We've arranged over 100 songs together and most of those were with a single bass part.

GROSS It's tough to describe how in the moment your music is.

SUTTON It's like describing a painting.

GROSS But there are groups that have that in the moment sound, no matter how many times you listen to their records. Start with The Beatles, and part of the reason they sound so different is that there is a sense of entitlement each of those guys had. That within the structure they can all . . .

SUTTON Be themselves.

GROSS Be themselves. And that's rare that band members have the kind of equality of ego and then the spontaneity and musical intelligence to take advantage of that chemistry.

SUTTON That's it.

GROSS So it feels spontaneous.

SUTTON I think you hit the nail on the head. You know they're my legal partners. It is The Tierney Sutton Band. They make as much or as little money as I make in whatever we do. We are in it, up to our necks, together. And there's really no separation for any of us. We also have full autonomy in terms of creating what part we play and editing each other in terms of what the others do. We have this consultative process that we go through when we arrange things, where we musically consult and then we verbally consult. So we'll play through the thing and then we'll have lunch the next day and one of us will say 'You know that felt a little funny on the bridge' [or] 'What do you think about how that interacts with that?' And 99 percent of the time, two other people will say 'I felt exactly the same thing. Let's try something to smooth that out.' So there's a really unbelievable quality in this band where we all have a very strong sense of what we sound like as a group, but we also have a sense of what our roles are in it. And we're all ready to express that. We've all changed how we play – and I how I sing – by being in this musical relationship. So it's this kind of combination where you're in the moment because you know [you're] going to get great ideas. But even when we're done with an arrangement, it continues to evolve. They keep changing because somebody does something in the moment.

On the new record the structures themselves are set up to be much freer. So, those really can be dramatically different in the moment. Where things happen. The amount of bars. The dynamics. How long my phrases are. Everyone has a lot more choice because we've been listening to each other now for 14 years and there's so much trust that everyone knows that we're going to catch each other.

GROSS And you're not necessarily the one who's going to call the change on the stand.

SUTTON Noooo. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And there's actually some strange little things built into the arrangements where there's a call and response thing and sometimes it's me, sometimes it's the bass player, sometimes it's Christian on piano. Sometimes it's the drummer. I can think of all the arrangements we do and there are little pieces of each one that are ruled – not by me – could be by anybody.

GROSS Essentially you've got these stretches where anybody can signal for a lane change and everybody's watching for blinkers . . .

SUTTON That's right. And it's certainly not me who does the signaling. In fact a lot of times I prefer when it's not. I like to react. And to me that's what jazz is supposed to be. It's supposed to be communication and reacting to the moment to something that happens that's not under your control and then hopefully having the ability to land on your feet. That's where the fun stuff comes. If you just know where everything's going to be then you can't provide that in the moment atmosphere.

GROSS You've got a unique ability there from other vocalists where the musicians know there's an eight-bar solo coming up. It's like the whole thing is . . .

SUTTON The whole thing is. The whole thing is. And every piece of it reflects that. When we do a sound check: the amount of time we spend listening to how everything is mic'd. The balance of the trio in the room. I go out and in the room and listen to the balance of the trio. And then Christian and I do a piano duet and the bass player and drummer go out in the hall and say, okay – usually – they say the piano is not loud enough. Because what they [the stage techs] do is make me so loud that a lot of the musical things that we do are not able to be done their greatest effects. Most bands are not as sensitive and as dynamically complicated as my band. These guys are not going to play so loud you can't hear me. That's not what they're going to do. You have to trust them. Others do sound checks and call it a day. But if they don't sound good I don't sound good. So we spend a lot of time listening to each other and taking care of each other and making decisions based on what each of us is going through. I mean we'll create a set based on the fact that the piano is not that good.

That's our main concern. The variables are endless.


GROSS What did you think of the Monterey Jazz Festival last year?

SUTTON It was wonderful. It was great. Our show was at 11:30 at night or something. It was a really late show, but it was wonderful. There's nothing like the Monterey Jazz Festival. It's a really special thing to do. That was our first time there.

GROSS One of the things about vocalese, I was surprised to find out that there are different lyrics to all three songs that you do that also Karrin Allyson does –

SUTTON "Con Alma?"

GROSS Yes, "Con Alma," "Joy Spring" and "Footprints," Who did the lyrics that you sing in \"Joy Spring?\"

SUTTON I actually am not sure. I was asking LaRue, Clifford's widow, who lives here in town, about that lyric and she said Clifford hated it.


SUTTON I felt bad. But I'd already recorded it. So I don't do that much of it anymore. I'm thinking of doing 'Blue Rondo ala Turk,' but it ain't gonna have no lyric if I sing it! Just to do those things clean. There's one recording that makes me a liar about this and that's the brilliant recording with Bobby McFerran, Al Jarreau, George Benson and Jon Hendricks. What they're doing is all the solos from Kind of Blue, from \"Freddie Freeloader.\" It's just so amazing because they're just such musicians, and tt's so instrumental that it gives the spirit of the solo they're singing and after that they manage to fit in that lyric in an honorable way. I actually love to do text-based improvisation. I would rather sing the second or third chorus of something with the lyric and play with it and render it crazy, with the lyric. There's something about that in my brain that works better than just scatting. And, it's improvisation. There's very little of the original melody left by the time I'm done with it.

GROSS Well, you're arrangements, particularly on the new record, take the melody only as a suggestion.

SUTTON That's true. A little bit here and there. But those things, you do at your own peril. And it's very easy for them to sound cheesy.

GROSS Too ornamental.

SUTTON Too ornamental and sort of self-conscious. Not organic. Kurt Elling can do it to a certain extent, too. He does a great job on it. But most people who do it, sound like doing an exercise rather than . . .

GROSS More head than heart.

SUTTON Yeah. And I want my audience to think but foremost I want them to hear something that is beautiful and that sounds good. That it was meant to be [that way]. Not, 'Oh listen to how clever that is.' We talk about that when we are doing the arrangements. One of us might say, you know this just sounds too clever. We sound too heady here. We gotta bring it into the heart.

GROSS It's amazing for people who don't your band and be absolutely amazed by Christian. I felt the same way when I saw John Pizzarelli and there's this unknown headliner over at the keyboard.

SUTTON You mean Ray Kennedy?

GROSS Yes, that's who it was. I think there would be people who come to the show to see Christian and say, who's the singer?

SUTTON No question. People stake out tables right in front of the piano. Piano players come to see him very frequently. You know we go up to San Francisco and Denny Zeitlin comes down to see us. I mean, he likes my singing and all, but I know there's a big part of them that want to see one of the greatest living jazz pianists. Wants to see what this guy's up to. And that's true to every guy in the band. Drummers come to see Ray, take notes and they're assigned to come see him by their professor at school. And the same with the bass players. People come and stake them out.

Very high level stuff. The fact that I've been so fortunate is never lost on me.

GROSS Christian's Maynard Ferguson presents album preceded your first album by a couple years.

SUTTON Yes it did.

GROSS And you've been working together since before then.

SUTTON Yeah. We went in to record it in '95. And I had met the guys . . . I had heard Christian and actually tried to hire him when we were all playing in Boston, but it didn't work out. He didn't have a green card and I had a gig that was a . . . you needed a social Security number kind of gig . . . and then I moved to L.A. and I met Ray and Trey playing with Jack Sheldon. And Christian was the piano player. They were the rhythm section in Jack's Big Band. And I came to visit L.A. in late '92 or '93 and when I heard how many great . . . and I sat in with them . . . and they were the rhythm section with Ron King's band at a little joint in the Valley and I went and sat in with them and I thought. . . . Wow, instead of moving to New York, what if I moved here? It's sunny here. What a concept that I could do that. So I had some friends in L.A. who said you can live with us and get yourself . . . And I knew some arrangers and some people who were in the industry here and I thought 'Maybe I can make a little career for myself here if I could get some commercials and stuff,' 'Cause I knew the money was good and stuff like that. And I started to realize how many great jazz players there were. And I used to go to the union and listen to Jack's Big Band and just take notes on the songs Jack played and I love his singing and I love his playing and that's kind of how it started. And those guys were playing with him.

GROSS The West Coast gets a bad rap.

SUTTON Well it's just ignorance. I mean, come on, Pete Christlieb? For crying out loud. These guys are . . . I was listening to Peggy Lee's 'Mink Jazz' the other day, and Jack plays on it, and I'm sorry you tell me who plays better than that. Pony up and tell me who is playing on any record that sounds like that.

GROSS There's some of a power trip that the East Coast gives.

SUTTON That's okay. I think there's a huge advantage to that and I have reaped the benefits of that. And what I'd like to say and what I think is really true is that we have the virtuosity in this town without the ego. And what that does is, you get on the bandstand, and the singers who come here, and use ick-up bands in L.A., they know. Because what happens is, you bring your sheets to your pick up band and it's like the tenth guy you'll call from the L.A. studio scene and that guy will read down your chart like nobody's business and make it sound better than it's ever sounded in any time you've ever had it played because the skill need to make it in this town, to be in the moment on the country record that you played on yesterday and the jingle for toothpaste that's like some kind of hip-hop thing you played the next day and to work for this writer who doesn't really know what he's doing but you make their stuff sound so good that they feel good about themselves . . . .

GROSS They get an award.

SUTTON That's right, that they win an award, and that is what these guys to, day after day after day. If there's any training better for a jazz musician, I don't know what it is.

GROSS When I heard Karrin at Catalina's in advance of interviewing her, I didn't know her band so I thought I'd get a feel for them. The bassist and pianist looked similar so I thought she might have brothers which would explain part of why the music was so tight: years of playing together that preceded even being with her. Come to find out, her bassist had missed the plane and this was a guy she'd never met who was called in at the last minute.

SUTTON And you would never know.

GROSS You would never know.

SUTTON That's right. Her luck was that that happened to her in L.A. And because it happened to her in LA. she had nothing to worry about. There are 25 guys in this town who could have walked in and done that. And, the standard of how good you have to make it sound on that first take, and how you're supposed to serve the situation you're in, it's not about you being a star, so what is the situation you're in and how do you make it sound as good and musical as possible? And that's a philosophy that I think anyone who's the star of anything starts to lose. And it's a kind of philosophy, but it's a great philosophy and I think it's that that made the guys in my band sound the way they sound. They were so used to making it work.

And then there's this wonderful feeling of gratitude that guys in this town for playing something that's really good music that they're really enjoying because of all the nonsense that they deal with. And they don't always get to play some of this music that's really good. So when they do there's a real camaraderie and a real purity to it because ain't nobody getting rich and ain't nobody getting famous. There's not even the glory that there is on the East Coast. And these guys aren't going t make the Downbeat Critics polls even though they totally deserve it. So, that's not what life's about.

GROSS You were a 'Jazz Times' artist of the year

SUTTON I got JazzBeat, which is the radio international program I was on the cover of 'JazzIz.' And I've made the Downbeat Critics' Poll, which I think is a huge accomplishment because I'm on the West Coast. The only West Coast artists that get in that poll are John Clayton and me and that's kind of it, which is kind of crazy based on all they play on, all the stuff that they do. There's no question. But it's just the craziness of the business. But that's all right. Nobody cares. But it's getting to do the thing that you love. I don't know that these guys would trade places with a l lot of the artists who maybe get that recognition.

GROSS Regarding the material, the Great American Songbook, is that a volume that is expanding anymore?

SUTTON I'll tell you, I think about that a lot. I think about that a lot. And my initial response is that it's not expanding very fast; it's not expanding very much. Because of the difference in how music is made. And I don't think it's a matter of, or like 'Oh the good old days, when songs were good.' It's just different now. Because so much of what goes on now is the art of production.

GROSS When you say now do you mean the 21st Century or are you going back?

SUTTON In the 2000s, or even back from about 1970 on. I would say the majority . . . . For instance if you listen to a Stevie Wonder record, and I used to listen to a lot of Stevie Wonder records. And the songs are really perfectly honorable. They're good songs. But what makes them unbelievably great recordings are the arrangements, the horn parts, the vocals . . . There are so many elements.

GROSS But when you take it down to the skeleton . . .

SUTTON Yeah, when you take it down to the skeleton it's a good song but what makes the soul of 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' is the horn part. It's just great. It's great art. But it's a different kind of art. Somebody asked Keith Jarrett years ago why he doesn't record Joni Mitchell songs. Now, Joni Mitchell is a genius, I love Joni Mitchell and there may come a time when I can figure something honorable to do with something she does but it's really hard because the art there is the song itself, but so purely the song itself that it's very hard to do anything to it. And this is the way I would say it . . . the requirements of a standard are two things, that it have a structure that has potential to be messed with and two, that it has a structure that isn't so closed that you can mess with it without destroying it. That's a very specific set of criteria in order for something to be a standard. So a lot of times I'll listen to a song and I'll really like it, but I'll think, 'What can we do with this?' It's too closed, it's too finished. The I's are dotted and the T's are crossed and anything I would do with this would take away from what Joni Mitchell did.

GROSS It's sad to think of that whole singer-songwriter era just floating into history without anyone able to keep the tunes alive. If your band can't convert them to standards, nobody can.

SUTTON It could happen. It could happen. There are a few. But this is the thing about that structure. I think about this a lot. I really do. I listen to the songs and I think . . . and you know, we've done a few Patsy Cline things here and there, every once in a while something will creep in. But there's a couple things there. One is, now being at a point in my career where you know Johnny Mandel is a friend of mine, and the Bergmans are friends of mine, I know some of these people who wrote these iconic songs and they got more of 'em, that nobody ever heard, and these are the masters, so you find this little gem by Henry Mancini, like 'Two for the Road,' that's not recorded very often. Or, I just found one by Johnny Mandel called 'Unless It's You,' just this beautiful little touching gem of a song. These guys knew something and the way that they wrote is so beautiful in terms of the art form that we do.

GROSS And they weren't writing for themselves. So many of the recent generation of songs were written by artists for themselves to perform, or by house writers for the label's acts to perform, that it played to certain styles and strengths.

SUTTON Maybe so. And I love that stuff. But sometimes the songs are so sacred that you don't want to mess with them. And other times if you take them down to their bare bones there isn't enough to mess with. Because the real art of the song was something other than the structure of the song. So it's a tough thing. Sometimes the structure is just too complicated. You know, there are too many parts of it. And how would you do this without making it this great opus. Whereas if you take a little theme, like 'You Are My Sunshine,' that everybody knows, you can ride that wave and sort of make this improvisational thing about it, while the basic through line is something you're really familiar with. That's the other element of a standard. If the audience is familiar with the song, you can really take it in a weird way. It's just a tricky business. I don't close the door on it, but really, in terms of the art form of jazz, there aren't as many of those songs. And the bar is so high. That you can write a song that fits those criteria: the structure is honorable and it's got a nice little through line and it's not so complicated that you nobody can mess with it, but nobody's ever heard the song. Therefore, it as to be a truly excellent song. It has to be so good that it's going to sit next to Duke Ellington, and next to George Gershwin, and next to Rodgers and Hart. And if it can't, it ain't coming in the show. So it's really hard for new songs to come in there.

GROSS Let's talk about the new recording, 'The Other Side,' which I think is at a whole other level. I mean that in a number of ways: the synthesis of everybody, the arrangement risks, there's a little less ornamentation . . .

SUTTON More freedom.

GROSS A little more funkiness. So I think it's a really classic. Not that anything was missing from what you've done before. This just seems to open up on a new dimension.

SUTTON Well thank you and I really appreciate that. Because I think what happened when we made this record for us was that we were all very frightened. We knew we were taking some risks. We had performed this stuff live in a tentative order and it kind of fell flat, is the only way to describe it.

GROSS Fell flat with the audience?

SUTTON Well, we felt like it did, but actually . . .

GROSS They just weren't responding the same?

SUTTON Yeah, I think people were so kind of taken aback. So the thing was we got all this feedback from our manager, who said. Well, first she said to me afterwards, 'I don't care if you're uncomfortable. This is important and this is what you have to do.'

GROSS Oh, good. So she was behind it.

SUTTON Oh absolutely. And then we sent a recording of that gig back to our producer at Telarc and she emailed back I don't know if we're going to sell any records but this is important and you have to do it. And so that's where it's been really fortunate for us to have those kinds of relations instead of the same old crap that artists get. I was able to record with my band from the get-go. I was encouraged to do that. If I hadn't been, I would have blown them off, and recorded with Kenny Baron and . . . I mean I didn't have any big scruples about that at the beginning. I'd have been happy. I mean the first record I did with them, but if someone had said oh we want to sign you with . . . I'd have been okay with that. But then by the second or third record I sure did. Then I knew we were on to something. Now it's a different thing.

So we were very fortunate in that regard. But what happened was, that some of this feedback we got from our supporters and people in our inner circle was, that really freaks me out, hearing you guys do that, and in a good way. And you have to do that. But it wasn't the same kind of happy, happy. Oh, that's so great [rapid salon clapping] kind of reaction that we kind of got used to. And it was very scary. And I knew that vocally it was going to be a very challenging record. But I always know that the guys in the band can do anything, at any time. But I've often worried about my ability to keep up with the new crazy idea they have in the key that may not be my key and the tempo I don't know if I can handle. With the range that I know I have to grow into. And I think that every time we've made a record, with the exception of the live record. Every time we've made a record, I have left the studio think, okay I think we did it, but how am I going to do this live. I gotta grow into this material. And it's okay, now I feel confident about doing it on the road and it's been going very well on the road and it's not a problem. But every time there's this growth process. But that's what keeps everybody in the band.

GROSS Well, now that you have the record out there people have heard it in anticipation. . .

SUTTON Yeah. We're stuck. Gotta do it.

GROSS But I mean, they're primed for it now.

SUTTON Well, often they haven't listened to it, so we're just. . . . There you go! People are buying it like mad at the shows. So they gravitate towards the new stuff. And I think it took awhile before I kind of realized that this kind of . . . . that we were really moving into a new place as a band that was redefining some things and we didn't' mean to. We just wanted to keep ourselves interested, really. We just wanted to keep ourselves interested so we were playing with the forms and the way that we're able to play with forms because of this 14-year relationship is at a higher level than the way that a lot of bands would be able to play with the forms. So we've invented some new kind of techniques in arranging, based on being able to do call and response with each other. Just because of the way that we play together. So it's been kind of exciting. But it's been like everything else for us. It's been very organic. And by listening to everyone, and the fits and starts and the worrying that maybe this is going to be horrible.

GROSS Well, given that it's your seventh album and the one in which you seem to have taken the biggest step is a defining event since but that point it could be easy to just settle in and give fans more of what they've bought before.

SUTTON That isn't going to happen in this band.

GROSS That's great.

SUTTON Yeah, there's no way that we would do that. And I think that's the gift of having this kind of band relationship. And, the gift of having that kind of relationship with the mentality of L.A. musicians.

Somebody asked me at one point, 'What's your goal, in terms of your career or whatever?' And I realized that what it really is and it seemed very much what I thought was the goal of every jazz musician that I knew and that was to make a record that in 50 years somebody would look back to and say, 'Oh this is a great record, have you heard this? This is really cool.' Period. Not to sell a million of them tomorrow. Not to be on Jay Leno. None of that is my goal. My goal, as I thought every jazz musician that I know is, what do we do, we listen to 'Kind of Blue.' We listen to 'Mink Jazz.' We listen to these records and we go, 'Hey man, check this out. Isn't this gorgeous?' And we're listening to these records 50 or 60 years after they were made.

GROSS So by making something timeless you've defied the whole mishegas.

SUTTON Defied the whole mishegas, the long-term sales yo hope will be good, but you don't attach yourself to that because you know how crazy it is. You're doing jazz for crying out loud. This isn't Britney Spears. I have no expectations of that kind of thing. So in jazz, that's the goal. So, to be in this process with other musicians who obviously have this same goal, that's all they're interested in: making sure that the next record does not repeat the last record. Because, we already did that. Or someone else already did that. So every time we've done an arrangement of any song, the goal has always been.

We're not going to do something the way Nat Cole did in 1943 is so great. What purpose is there for us to do that? It can't be improved upon. What possible purpose would there be for us to do that again? We're here to do whatever it is that we can that moves the story forward. And that's it. It's not about reinventing what somebody else did because we think it's going to sell a lot of records. I think that's just a losing game anyway.

GROSS Well, can I get an autograph . . .

SUTTON . . . . The whole thing is a mystical enterprise. I mean our goal, when we sit down on a stage, is to have a mystical experience. And we want the audience to have that too. But, first and foremost we want create a kind of aware out of ourselves and if we're really lucky, and I think one of the reasons the band stays together is that in over half of our shows, we go there. And we crave that. I think it's like a drug that we want to have. Because the world is not the happiest, most carefree place. And I had a really interesting experience just last week, actually. I was fasting – in Ba'hai it's the time of year where we fast from Sunrise to sunset – and it's uncomfortable. It's not fun. But it is deep. And things happen while you're fasting. The reason I do it is because I can't deny that it gives me something. I've been doing it for 25 years. I'd love to be able to say this is not doing anything. Unfortunately, I can't deny. And the gift I got this year was that I was actually going to rehearse for a tribute to Buddy Childers, who is also Ba'hai, and I'm in the hospital and it was such a pain in the butt because the rehearsal was 3 to 5, then we would break for dinner between 5 and 7 and the sun wasn't setting until 7 and the show started at 7. So I was going to have to rehearse from 3-5, starving, then watch everybody eat for two hours, and, you know, it's up to you what you want to do. And I could argue that I'm a singer and I need to be hydrated, and I'm putting all this stuff in my head as I'm driving to the gig and I've got my Power Bar in my purse. So I get to the gig and I'm all cantankerous and its' 3 o'clock it's prime time for being uncomfortable. After about 4 you're not that uncomfortable anymore. Your body is fine, just get over yourself. So I walk into the gig and it's in the Crown Plaza, this ball room – and speaking of acoustics, it's incredible I've never heard a big band in a room where the acoustics were better than this band sounded. You could hear every bass note, every piano note, every horn part. For some reason, the acoustics . . . it was crazy. I've never heard anything like it. The ceiling was really low and it was carpeted. It was just freaky. And I walked in and I was just stunned. Ron Stout was playing lead. And because of this, the way everybody could hear each other, and the unity with which everybody could play, and the in-tune quality of every horn part was way over the top. I had never heard anything like this. And it wasn't just me, it wasn't just because I was delusional. Everybody was saying it was cool, and they could hear everything. So I sat down and I listened to the band and I just went, 'Wow,' and I thought it was so beautiful and I realized that I was not uncomfortable at all. And my discomfort had passed and was gone. And I thought if this is all I get out of this year's fast, just to realize that music has such a strong effect. And the purpose of the fast is not a physical thing. It's to remind you that what you are is not this [body]. And the essential quality of your being is not your physical body. It's not whether you're hungry, not whether you're sane even.

GROSS [laugh] That's reassuring . . .

SUTTON Yeah, it is, isn't it. Phew! It's something beyond. And when you get that feedback to realize that music actually took me out of my own physical discomfort, that's how powerful it was, was a huge gift. And I know that's true in terms of doing it, but I don't always get that it's true for the listener. I don't always get that. I get nice fan letters, but \u2026

GROSS They've got to be there, too. The audience has to meet you halfway. But playing music, as I say to people when they ask if I'm a good trumpet player, is, I can play good enough to hear my soul. And that's all I need. Because to me, the instrument is what summons up the wind and the chimes it blows through is an individual's soul. That's what gives music its individuality and its spirituality.

SUTTON It's essentially a spiritual enterprise. It's not physical. It has a deeply physical effect on us, and a psychological effect, but the deeper effect is something else. And to get in touch with that makes you not want to make music any other way. The principle around which this band runs has made it able to function in that way for all this time

GROSS Collectively.

SUTTON Right. And that unity that we feel when we're doing it, that loss of self, that loss of your personal self, which is what makes us free. I mean if I'm sitting on stage and I'm thinking about someone who came to the show and how he'll hear it, then it becomes about myself and I can't do my best work. But if it becomes about joy and this group of musicians, and I guess I felt that way the other night with that big band, I thought, wow, listen to that music. How good are these guys, how good are these guys. And I get to sing with them, and they're going to say nice things to me. I don't even deserve to wash their shoes and I get to get up and sing with these guys.

GROSS Well, let me tell you. As one who pretends to know something about something, you have a very pure instrument there. I mean, you've heard it from The New York Times, so you don't need it from me. But, to do this story, I immerse myself in your music 24\/7

SUTTON Well, everybody doesn't, believe me.

GROSS Well, I've heard every recording you've made and there's a perfect balance of control and freedom in the lines and the tone is so rich and pure. It's quite impressive.

SUTTON Well, thank you. I may have a good voice, but the musician ship these guys have . . . I'm not in their league. To be frank about it, I never get over that feeling of, Man . . . And I have to say that, 75% of my show I just get to sit there and be a spectator like everyone else. And I'll say, 'Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?' And that's very sincere for me, because that's the way I feel. So what I always tell my voice students is, you just have to be really honest about what you know and what you don't know. You don't have to be self-deprecating in a negative way, but do have to understand how lucky you are if you get to sit down and play with the caliber of guys like this.

GROSS I feel fortunate to have been able to sit down with you – in this familiar old shop – and spend so much time talking about jazz. Thank you very much.

SUTTON Thank you!


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