Even after a dozen years on the road, life for jazz singer Tierney Sutton has yet to include private buses or stretch limousines.
It's still a matter of hauling around in a rented van, which is what Sutton was doing last month at the end of an early autumn tour, when she and her three-piece ensemble drove 3-1/2 hours across upstate New York from a date in Elmira to their final gig in Albany. It was a tour in which the jazz diva had performed in places as diverse as a bus depot in Dayton, Ohio, and a jazz bistro in Hollywood, Fla.
But a little luxury may be just around the corner for Sutton, who looks poised to enter the ranks of such successful vocalists as Madeleine Peyroux and Cassandra Wilson. Long one of the best-kept secrets in jazz, the singer is increasingly attracting praise from critics and audiences for her albums and live shows. This year (in addition to playing Elmira), she has performed with the New York Pops in Carnegie Hall and has been featured on the cover of the music magazine "Jazziz."
"My goal is to be a singer at oneness with jazz's great musicians," says Sutton, resting in a dressing room after her Albany concert.
When Sutton played Manhattan's prestigious Oak Room this past spring, the New York Times's Stephen Holden lauded her as "the real thing: a hard-swinging, soft-hearted devotee of a great tradition, a pure jazz spirit whose singing conjures up open skies and clean air."
September also saw the release of Sutton's latest album, "I'm With the Band," recorded live at New York's Birdland jazz club. The record is a showcase for the singer's astonishing voice, which is by turns supple, sultry, soaring, and ebullient. Sutton can, with equal flair, ease her way through an Irving Berlin ballad or scat Cole Porter into exuberant, blazing orbit.
Jazz tunes have been Sutton's companion for more than two decades, after she discovered them while studying Russian literature in college. Her first experience with the music was hearing a Sarah Vaughn recording in a jazz appreciation course. "I wept. It was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever heard," she recalls.
"But then I was a little angry," adds the former waitress from Wisconsin, tongue slightly in cheek. "I asked myself, 'How can this be out there and I've never heard of it?' I mean, I'd been listening to polka!"
After college, Sutton moved to Boston, where she studied improvisation with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. "She's a fantastic natural musician," Bergonzi says of his former student. "Most singers aren't musicians. They don't know keys, they don't know chords." In contrast to singers who work their way through a song on instinct and vocal inventiveness, Sutton is consistently praised for her intonation, the sharpness of her ear, and vocal tone.
"I never open my mouth to sing a note without being conscious of wanting it, willing it, finding it right in the center of the pitch," says Sutton. "I think about it all the time."
A measure of Sutton's musicality can be found in her list of jazz heroes, topped by innovative instrumentalists rather than jazz singers. Her 2000 album "Unsung Heroes" highlights songs by great players like Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Rowles, and Clifford Brown, while her follow-up, "Blue in Green," is a tribute to pianist/composer Bill Evans.
At the University of Southern California, where Sutton teaches jazz singing, she requires vocalists to master the same numbers as the instrumental students. This identification with musicians extends to Sutton's relationship with her own ensemble featuring Christian Jacob on piano, Ray Brinker on drums, and Kevin Axt and Trey Henry trading bass duties. She organized the band after relocating to Los Angeles 12 years ago, and - rare among jazz vocalists - she has performed with the same accompanists ever since.
The new album's title, "I'm With the Band," reflects the tight-knit collaboration that goes into arrangements of tunes by Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Henry Mancini. "Everybody in the band brings their own aesthetic to every arrangement we do," she explains. "Everybody's invested."
Such unity is at the heart of the singer's own creative philosophy. "It's all about getting rid of ego to serve the song. I want it to be excellent, something that can't be copied tomorrow."
• For more information visit tierneysutton.com
Nov. 4 Wesleyan University Middletown, Conn. (860) 685-3355
Nov. 5 New Jersey Performing Arts Newark, N.J. njpac.org
Nov. 9 Broward Center for the Performing Arts Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. browardcenter.org
Nov. 11 Tilles Center Greenvale, N.Y. tillescenter.org