Tierney Sutton wasted no time, last Saturday night, explaining to a Wisconsin Union Theater audience just what it is her band does.
"We take standard songs you know on some level and do things with them that are unique," said the Wisconsin-born jazz singer.
Then she and drummer Ray Brinker, pianist Christian Jacob and bassist Kevin Axt offered their own perfectly played arrangements of three Irving Berlin songs.
Remade by the Tierney Sutton Band, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" was suddenly haunting and restless.
"Cheek to Cheek" wandered in search of its own emotional boundaries, fueled by Jacob's energetic piano.
"Blue Skies" grew impressionistic, painted in dreamy, moody hues. The arrangement made the song's original upbeat disposition feel like a complicated emotional faade.
The Berlin set included everything that made the Tierney Sutton Band's headlining performance at the 2010 Isthmus Jazz Festival delightful.
The instrumental performances were breathtaking. The psychically unkempt arrangements were boldly original and accessible to mainstream audiences raised on pop. The time between songs became Sutton's own jazz teach-in, and it prodded me to appreciate musical improvisation in new ways.
The show was a homecoming for Sutton, who grew up in Milwaukee. As the evening's host, she was down to earth and personable in the most Midwestern of ways.
We learned she has a thing for frozen custard and had high school friends in the audience who might remember the bass player she dated in high school (and whom Sutton guessed would now be an accountant in Des Moines).
So many of the band's arrangements revealed states of mind not at peace. On "Sometimes I'm Happy," Sutton sang, "Sometimes I hate you, sometimes I love you, but when I hate you it's because I love you." The stark truth of the verse, made real by Sutton's wild-eyed gaze and intense vocal interpretation, was outright creepy.
"Autumn Leaves" was frantic, the rapid arrangement feeling unstable. The familiar lyrics, so often performed to invoke the pathos of a lost season of love, felt more like a window on the true madness of loneliness.
To close the first set, Sutton and her band performed a "meditation on materialism" from their latest CD, Desire. With irony perhaps unintended, the band then took a break and went to the lobby to sell material copies of that very disc.
Returning to the stage, they played two audience requests from older albums. While gracious, the songs didn't fit the evening's program design and were the low point of the performance. During this half of the show, the band broadened its emotional focus. The encore was a bittersweet Bill Evans song memorializing lost loved ones.
The Tierney Sutton Band reminded me what great improvisational music is and is not. It's not, ultimately, music that begins and ends as a showcase for instrumental virtuosity, despite the allure of that element. It's a way to emotionally and spiritually remake a song through an arrangement that emphasizes instrumental expression - expression that, at its best, ventures boldly beyond the bounds of traditional song structures.
That's what the Tierney Sutton Band did Saturday. That's why this year's Isthmus Jazz Festival headlining event turned out to be a gem.