Celluloid Heroes: Tierney Tackles Soundtracks

By Steven Libowitz   |   April 25, 2019

Jazz singer Tierney Sutton has such a clear, compelling, and communicative voice, it’s surprising to learn that early on in the 20-plus-year career of the band that carries her name, Sutton was a reluctant focal (and vocal) point for the group.

“When I came out to L.A., my heroes were Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Flora Purim – the instrumental kind of singers, not the ones who specialized in the lyrics,” the Wisconsin native recalled. “So when the group got together, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m the singer, but I’m really just another instrument in the band.’”

That initial impulse is still an element of the Tierney Sutton Band’s (TSB) philosophy – indeed, that Sutton’s flexibility and penchant for sound shaping with her singing along with the crack quartet is one of the band’s signatures. But Sutton soon eventually realized that the TSB’s arrangements, however musical, have always served the lyric. “The music never obfuscates the story,” she explained. “Everything has to make sense and it starts with the words. Now, that sensibility is thoroughly baked into the cake.”

All of which makes it even more interesting that Sutton & Co.’s latest project is ScreenPlay, featuring songs from the first century of American cinema, perhaps somewhat ironically as movie music is often intended to be unobtrusive, or at least not call attention to itself. But there is reason in the choice, as after tribute albums to singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Sting, the Tierney Sutton Band was looking to return to standards idiom. That, and the band’s penchant for painting pictures with its approach.

“The way the band arranges, how we go about things, has always had a kind of cinematic approach,” she explained. “There’s almost always a through-story, a narrative, to the song. The musical underpinning of TSB arrangement is ‘What’s the story and how can the music underscore it?’ Plus, we’ve been in L.A. for all of our existence, and everyone has had a hand in doing work for film.”

Most recently, it was as a band, as Clint Eastwood hired Sutton and the group to score his 2016 film Sully, a project that came together very quickly and proved popular among both audiences and the musicians.

But if Eastwood was the entry point, a more local set of cinematic heroes provided the actual avenue: Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the three-time Academy Award winning lyricists who live in Santa Barbara and have collaborated with Sutton for years. Bergman songs provide the first set of five suites that comprise the album – followed by Technicolor, Golden Age, Montage, and music from Sully – the bulk of which will make up the repertoire when the TSB returns to the Lobero on Monday night, April 29. The 93-year-old Alan Bergman even joins Sutton for a sublime vocal duet on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

Alongside such favorites as “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “On a Clear Day,” and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” – all of which feature unusual, often percussion or bass-led arrangements – the album takes a couple of decided left turns, first with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and much more so via two tracks from Grease: “Hopelessly Devoted To Youand “You’re The One That I Want.”

“When [pianist] Christian [Jacob] suggested them, you could have knocked me over with a feather,” Sutton said with a laugh. “But then he wrote these glorious arrangements, and I thought, ‘Wow, it’s very cool to go back and have a more sophisticated way to look at those songs I grew up with.’”

Also off the beaten track is Kevin Axt’s arrangement for “If I Only Had a Brain,” largely featuring only his bass and Sutton’s vocals on The Wizard of Oz track. So much so that you can hear the band members laughing at the end of the recording. “I wanted to do something groovy with it and this turned out to be a lot of fun,” she explained. “So when we laughed, we decided to just leave it in.”

Meanwhile, fans of the band’s instrumental interplay need not fear Sutton’s acceptance of herself as the singer. While the new arrangements are exacting, there is still a lot of room for improvisation from everyone on the stage, she said. “It’s very organic in the moment when we play. We can’t help that. It’s who we are.”

Miller Time, 2019 Style: 4 Qs with The Crucible director Havey

Stephanie Havey, who is directing Opera Santa Barbara’s season-ending production of The Crucible, has long been interested in working on the adaptation of the Arthur Miller work that was written during the McCarthy Era in the 1950s ostensibly about the Salem Witch Trials. But recent political and sociological events have made the message even more relevant.

“It’s amazing how timeless it is,” Havey said earlier this week, a few days before Opera Santa Barbara presents the opera at the Lobero Theatre this Friday night and Sunday afternoon, April 26 and 28. “At the core, the story is really about how fear creates division. But it feels especially prescient right now with what’s happening in Washington, and Trump accusing more and more people of being on a ‘witch hunt.’ Hearing the use of that phrase over and over made it feel even more timely. But it’s really just about the idea of how easily we fall into identifying people as The Other and then persecuting them.”

Haver talked about how an operatic adaptation and theatrical design help enhance the power of Miller’s now six-decade-old tale. 

Q. What is lost or gained in the conversion to opera?

A. It was unique adaptation because Miller was involved, and much of the text was taken directly from the play. The love triangle is more heavily featured, and it’s one of the few parts that’s not historically accurate. It exists to show us that the hero of the story is also a flawed character. What stands out to me is that when someone feels flawed or guilty, they believe they no long have the right to stand up for what’s right. He uses that as an excuse not to speak out. So it’s another message to us that there is no one who is perfect who can represent all of us and make change in the world. It has to be you. Come as you are and stand up for justice. If not you, who will?

I’m not sure how much this is your area or responsibility, but how does the music enhance the message of The Crucible beyond the words that Miller wrote?

As an opera director, I always look at the score. What is it bringing to the piece that’s new? The composer can drop hints and clues in a key change or tempo change. Those are the things I dig into in the rehearsal hall. What does this mean? What does the moment represent? There’s no correct answer, we explore and experiment… There are very dramatic transitions between the scenes – it’s almost like a story is being told in between each scene. So we decided to do all of the scene changes a vista (“in view”) so that the audience is watching it happen and feels part of the story. 

How else were you able to make this piece more modern, and your own?

It’s easy to look at the past and say “We would never do such a thing like the witch trials or the Holocaust. We’d never act this way.” But it happens again throughout history. So I wanted the design to avoid the Puritan style so people wouldn’t separate themselves from the story and instead be able to see themselves…. Our set represents more the emotional life of the town, very pared down and simple so the allegory rings through crystal clear. It’s still a period piece with period costumes, but we’re focused on human interactions and choices people are making, not the furniture. 

Can opera or theater have much impact in our current short attention span society?

My style and mission as director is to always find the message where we can learn from one another,– those are the stories I want to tell. Empathy is the beginning of change, the root of compassion. If you find what you have in common – realize there is no Other – it can change your actions moving forward. That’s why I do theater.

Classical Corner 

The annual Performing Arts Scholarship Foundation competition finals featuring vocalists and instrumentalists in both adult and youth categories takes place at 3 pm Sunday, April 28, at Lehmann Hall on the grounds of the Music Academy of the West, just a hundred yards or so from where MAW’s own concerto competitions finals take place in July. The annual PASF competition is open to musicians under age 30 who study, live, or have lived in the Santa Barbara area; past winners have included Camerata Pacifica’s Adrian Spence, Montecito-born MAW trained bass-baritone Evan Hughes, Grammy Award-winning flutist Sasha Lipay, violinist Nina Bodnar, and flutist and Westmont faculty member Andrea DiMaggio. CAMA’s Centennial Celebration Committee is co-sponsoring the free event, where the winners will each receive $6,000 (adults) or $3,000 (juniors). To reserve seats, email divadebbertling@gmail.com or visit www.camasb.org.

More MAW

Sophiko Simsive, who we profiled in last week’s issue as the winner of the Music Academy’s 2nd annual Solo Piano competition last summer, performs in recital at Hahn Hall this Friday, April 26… Subscriptions for the 2019 Summer Music Festival go on sale on Monday, April 29, for both renewals and new subscribers, with tickets for individual events except for Community Access will be available on May 18 (phone orders start May 20). Community Access $10 tickets go on sale in person and online on June 8, and over the phone on June 10.

Opera over satellite:Soprano Christine Goerke plays Brünnhilde, Wotan’s willful warrior daughter, who loses her immortality in opera’s most famous act of filial defiance in Wagner’s Die Walküre. The Met Opera’s Live in HD encore presentation that also stars tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, while Greer Grimsley sings Wotan, will be screened beginning at 2 pm on Sunday, April 28, at Hahn Hall. Visit www.musicacademy.org.

Singing Before Soaring

The Westmont College Choir and Chamber Singers head out on the road May 5 for their first ever East Coast tour, with gigs from Virginia to Boston, but not before previewing the program at 7 pm Friday, April 26, at First United Methodist Church. Works range from Bach and Mendelssohn to Ola Gjeilo, Eric Whitacre Randall Thompson, and Carly Simon. Tickets cost $10 (free for students). Call (805) 565-6040 or email music@westmont.edu.

Curtain Goes Up for Lights Up!

Lights Up! Theatre Company, Santa Barbara’s newest youth theater organization, presents Big Fish as its inaugural professional musical production this weekend. The 2013 Broadway musical – based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August – is a magical realism/relationship story that revolves around Edward Bloom, a larger-than-life yard-spinning traveling salesman, and his adult son, Will, who wants to know what’s behind his father’s tall tales. Montecito mudslide survivor Lauren Cantin and fellow Teen Star finalist Julia Galloway are among the cast of 26 teens who have been rehearsing and/or working on production for the past six months. Amy Love, who founded Lights Up! after a performance and production career in New York and L.A., directs. The production features dancing elephants, a mermaid, an actor being shot out of a cannon, and a live orchestra. Big Fish previews this Wednesday, April 24, and has three performances Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, at Marjorie Luke Theatre. Details and tickets at www.lightsupsb.com. 

‘Beyond’ the Boxes

Back in the professional world, Rubicon Theatre is opening Women Beyond Borders, a world premiere play inspired by and loosely based on Lorraine Serena and the group of California-based artists who founded the nonprofit of the same name. Serena and her friends came up with the idea of box as metaphor – hope chest, treasure chest, womb, coffin, etc. – then replicated a miniature wooden box and sent them to curators and friends in other countries with the goal of encouraging dialogue, collaboration and community among women and honoring creativity. What came back was an expected experience of the universality of women’s experiences throughout the world, the boxes accompanied by artists’ statements as letters, poems, and stories about transcending barriers. 

The Rubicon premiere of Women Beyond Borders has company members sharing the journey of the organization interwoven with excerpts from many of the artists’ statements. Presented in the style of Love, Loss, and What I Wore and The Vagina Monologues, the play features a rotating cast of five actors of different ages and backgrounds – including Tony winner Lillias White, Emmy winners Susan Clark and Michael Learned, Golden Globe winner Amanda McBroom and five-time Emmy nominee Meredith Baxter – reading the script from seated positions on high-backed stools. Women Beyond Borders plays April 27-June 2 at the Ventura theater. Visit www.rubicontheatre.org or call (805) 667-2900.

Elsewhere, Speaking of Stories’ penultimate performances in its 25th and final season is its perennial Nothing But Laughs presentation, featuring nothing but funny stories. Featured on the April 28-29 program at Center Stage are Devin Scott (reading “Odd Jobs” by Stuart McClean), Dan Gunther (“A Letter to My Grandson” by Dave Barry), Rudy Willrich (“The Bleacher Couch Bum” by Jess Walter), Michael Bernard (his ownBar Mitzvah”), and Gunther, Scott, and Robert Lesser teaming up to take on “The Amazing Randi” by Alan Arkin.

All’s Fair 

With the weather warming and the rain in the rearview mirror, two big outdoor events gets festival seeing underway (not to mention the final four days of the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo). The Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival comes 50 years after the devastating oil spill off the coast in 1969 gave rise to the first Earth Day a year later. That’s also when the Community Environmental Council was formed, and the nonprofit now hosts the annual festival at Alameda Park April 26-28. Among the activities are exhibitor booths, speakers, a huge Green Car show, and lots of entertainment – including DJ sets, yoga classes and lots music from myriad local bands. Details online at http://sbearthday.org.

Out at UCSB, the 13th annual All Gaucho Reunion brings alums and others out to the campus for a long weekend of mixers, lectures, sports events, and more, with the Taste of UCSB presented by Hotel Californian serving as the centerpiece attraction on Saturday afternoon. Visit www.alumni.ucsb.edu/events/all-gaucho-reunion/schedule-of-events.


You might also be interested in...