Poets and Prayers
Turtle Island Quartet recently premiered a new program, “Poets and Prayers” with our friend and collaborator, jazz singer Tierney Sutton, at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, California. Tierney is a three-time Grammy Nominee for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” and a selection by Jazzweek as Vocalist of the Year, in 2005.
I had been e-mailing her for several years to try and make this program a reality. Tierney and the Turtles had agreed to work together back in 2011, and the quartet added her to several old arrangements so we could perform at the Iridium Jazz Club in NYC last fall as a trial run. This time we took great care to create something special. There were numerous texts, e-mails and phone calls between David Balakrishnan and Tierney and myself. In fact, David, Tierney and I got together several times before the quintet began rehearsals at my home in Novato, California.
Tierney lives close to where I grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, only 15 minutes from my mother’s house. I had met Tierney at the San Jose Jazz Festival about 10 years ago, after getting a copy of her album, Dancing in the Dark, a recording celebrating the songbook of Frank Sinatra, one of my favorites of hers. I have listened to this recording countless times. It’s a beautiful recording, with powerfully evocative vocals and intriguing arrangements done by Tierney and her band. In fact, it was this way of working, insisting on being integrated into the ensemble, as opposed to being simply the singer/diva, that drew me to Tierney’s work. For as we all know, a cellist’s life in a string quartet is one of collaboration, exploration and above all being a team player. I think that understanding helped forge a musical friendship between us.
Our collaboration began last year when Tierney and I met to rehearse an arrangement I had done on Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” from the seminal recording “Blue”, released in 1971. I was nervous, yet thrilled to meet the singer whose work I had admired for years. Tierney was gracious and fun to hang with, yet possessed an intensity and work ethic that helped me to quickly understand how she had achieved her success, and had kept the Tierney Sutton band together for over 20 years.
David joined us for the second round of get togethers, and as the three of us kicked around program ideas, it became clear that we shared a love of all things Joni. Tierney had a special affection for Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”, a song that Mitchell would later reveal was written about the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965. We recorded this session, as well as the subsequent trip Tierney took up to my home in Novato, California to flesh out several arrangements including the spiritual “Wade In The Water” that Tierney had suggested. By this time, it was decided that we would present several tunes from “Blue” and eventually we created four arrangements from this iconic recording, adding an exquisite arrangement of “Blue” by David, and a group arrangement of “Carey” to provide musical center to “Poets and Prayers”.
In a brainstorming session, we had decided to include a couple of Beatles tunes extremely well suited to the theme: George Harrison’s “Within You And Without You”, and John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”. After taking dibs on both these iconic tunes, I eventually decided to tackle the one Harrison tune. I spent an entire week singing the melody to myself while walking in the open space near my house. I wanted to keep the best of the original arrangement which Harrison, the producer and arranger George Martin and a group of incredible Indian musicians assembled for the recording had created. I also wanted to change the even rhythmic meter for the verses into something more exotic than the original 4/4 time. I finally settled on alternating bars of 6 and 5. I was grateful to our new violinist, Mateusz Smoczyński for his reading skills in making this complex rhythmic pattern successful. For her part, Tierney put her all into making the arrangement work, and her enthusiasm for the piece has been extremely welcome.
Our rehearsals in Santa Barbara were focused and intense. In addition to the pieces mentioned, we had arrangements of Bud Powell’s classic Be-Bop tune, “Bouncing with Bud” done by Mateusz and “Softly As A Morning Sunrise” written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II and arranged by our violist Benjamin von Gutzeit. Rounding out the repertoire for the program was a fabulous new original piece by David, “Voice Of The River” which was inspired by the Sufi poet Hafiz.
The concert in Santa Barbara, a closed event for donors of the Lobero Theater went remarkably well. We made it through all the new repertoire without injury and spent the rest of the evening basking in our success, before heading back to our homes in the Bay Area, for a concert at San Francisco’s premier jazz club, Yoshi’s SF. Please check our website, www.turtleislandquartet.com for date and venue information on the upcoming fall tour with Tierney.