Over the past three decades, Tierney Sutton has distinguished herself as one of jazz’s most thoughtful and incisive interpreters of lyrics, earning a Grammy nomination for each of her nine albums released between 2005-19.
It’s easy to understand why she’s gravitated to Tamir Hendelman, the Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based pianist with a vaunted track record accompanying many of the era’s definitive vocalists.
Tierney Sutton & Tamir Hendelman
Friday, Feb. 17, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland
Among instrumental jazz fans, he’s best known as an insistently swinging player for his work with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the trio of that ensemble’s co-leader and drummer, Jeff Hamilton.
Sutton savors Hendelman’s rhythmic acuity but “what really sets him apart is that Tamir knows a lot of lyrics,” she said. “Only Bill Charlap and Shelly Berg know lyrics like Tamir; they may know the lyrics better than a singer. Considering English isn’t even [Hendelman’s] first language, that’s quite remarkable.”
Longtime friends who started working together regularly during the pandemic, Sutton and Hendelman are bringing their duo act to the Bay Area for a series of gigs, including two shows Friday at Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland, and a sold-out Saturday show at the Main Branch of the Alameda Free Library, which kicks off the three-concert Live @ the Library series. The Palo Alto Jazz Alliance also presents the duo Sunday afternoon at Menlo Park’s Guild Theatre.
In a Southern California scene brimming with world-class accompanists, Hendelman has distinguished himself as an essential foil for a glittering cast of divas, recording with Natalie Cole on her 2009 Grammy-winning CD Still Unforgettable, while backing Barbra Streisand on her 2009 chart-topping standards session, Love Is The Answer. He reprised the role on One Night Only, the DVD that Streisand recorded at her exclusive 2009 engagement at the Village Vanguard (where Babs opened for Miles Davis in 1961).
On jazz sessions, Hendelman has contributed sensitive work: as a player and arranger on Roberta Gambarini’s 2006 Grammy-nominated CD Easy To Love, and joining forces with the great North Bay vocalist Jackie Ryan on 2007’s You and the Night and the Music. With the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, he’s recorded with Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, and John Pizzarelli.
Hendelman first became fascinated by jazz as a child growing up in Tel Aviv. He cites the experience of seeing Bobby McFerrin perform solo as a formative influence. “What I loved is he was able to be so expressive and drew from so many different styles—classical, jazz, folk—and got the whole audience to sing with him.”
His family moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and he won Yamaha’s national keyboard competition two years later. He graduated with a degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music in 1993, but vocal accompaniment isn’t something that’s taught in school. He learned the craft working with jazz singer Cathy Segal-Garcia, who regularly invited other singers to sit in as the night went on, “and vocalists would show up with all this sheet music,” he recalled.
“I noticed right away that a song like ‘Love Is Here to Stay’ was really open to totally different approaches. With just piano and voice I was able to hear that really clearly. I realized my job was to figure out how I could serve this situation and really meld with this vocalist. I started getting to know the songs better, listening to old recordings.”
He accompanied Sutton on several dates in the late 1990s, and they struck up a friendship. She’d already forged a distinctive approach after absorbing the work of jazz legends like Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, and Hendelman was deeply impressed with her insistence on finding her own path as a singer.
“She found that voice by emulating instrumentalists, both older masters like John Coltrane and Bill Evans, and some people she played with, like Gary Foster and Jack Sheldon,” he said, noting that her second release, 2000’s Unsung Heroes, featured lyrics for jazz standards by players who influenced her, including Joe Henderson (“Recorda Me”), Clifford Brown (“Joy Spring”), and Wayne Shorter (“Speak No Evil”).
They started working together again during the pandemic, when Hendelman live-streamed weekly concerts from home. With Sutton joining him every few months for thematic shows, they realized the duo had to take on a life of its own. For Sutton, the sheer visceral pleasure of his relentless swing is addictive.
“He sets up a feel that’s the greatest pleasure for me to sing over,” she said. “He’s also fearless and just unbelievably hard working. He’s always talking after a show, what about that chord, maybe that could be better. He’s a tinkerer, but in the best way.”
For Sutton and Hendelman, freedom and perfection and words and music add up to jazz at its most exhilarating.