Confident and completely at ease, the willowy Tierney Sutton sat perched stagefront on a stool at the Cistern last night. Surrounded by her jazz trio in tight formation, the group sailed through a dynamic set of originals pieces and standards, some of which were almost unrecognizably rearranged.
“It’s an unbelievable honor to be back here,” she said early in the evening, referring to the band’s previous Spoleto gig in 2002. “This is one of the finest arts festivals in the country and we’re so happy to be back here.”
After Spoleto Jazz director Michael Grofsorean’s elegant introduction, Sutton and her guys — pianist Christian Jacobs, Kevin Axt, and drummer Ray Brinker — launched into a peppery rendition of “Blue Skies,” originally composed by Irving Berlin. It was one of several cleverly reworked Berlin tunes in the program.
Brinker’s crisp and complex brush work across the snare and cymbals was textured and highly effective. It was exciting to hear a technically skilled drummer play brushes with such strength and precision. Throughout the set, he propelled the songs with an even pace, accented Sutton’s vocal lines and occasional scats, and locked in with Axt on complicated rhythmic patterns and subtle tempo changes. The drummer and bassist guided the big grooves of the set with ease; nothing sounded too complicated or distracting.
A quick “hoodoo duet” between Brinker and Sutton especially showed off the drummer’s agility with the brushes (and his sizzling single-stroke rolls) and the singer’s cool scat-singing style.
Sutton continually lauded each bandmate between songs, shouting out for Jacobs in particular for his creative ideas and virtuosic technique. Refined and fluid, Jacobs’ performance on the ivories — and his worldly, Chick Corea-like style — stood out as a highlight of the show, from the swingin’ version of Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care” to the carefully reworked “Cheek to Cheek.”
Other stand-outs in the set included the piano driven “The Peacocks” (by Jimmy Rowles) and a stunning, fast-tempo arrangement of Patsy Cline’s classic “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
Of course, at the center of the performance was Sutton’s rich voice and cool style, both of which seemed more emotive and hearty than on her recent more delicate and quietly-rendered recordings. Her little stories, anecdotes, and reminiscences between songs were quite charming, but her brilliant beautiful singing made the strongest impression on the Cistern audience on Friday. —T. Ballard Lesemann