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Marvin Sewell: Stepping Up to the Plate

By Published: August 15, 2013
So I started hanging around cats—there was a disadvantage to that because there were mechanics of the guitar that I was learning until later, but I wanted to see what the piano players were doing, or see how horn players phrase and things like that. It was a conscious effort. A lot of times guitar is almost like a community. It's this small community world and people have their favorite guitarist, and this group had their favorite, and (as Sonny Sharrock
Sonny Sharrock
Sonny Sharrock
1940 - 1994
guitar, electric
said) it's a very insular group. You have this tendency where they listen to each other and therefore everyone sounds alike. I'm not trying to say I'm not anything like them, but sometimes I try to avoid that a little bit.

GC: I think it's interesting too that this band that we're currently playing with—you're playing guitar, but you're not playing in the way guitarist play. And then you have someone like Don Byron
Don Byron
Don Byron
taking the clarinet, Eb clarinet, playing things you don't hear. That's already something that a little outside the box. And then the way Jack [DeJohnette] plays is atypical of a lot of drummers, but it's a very musical way. There are times where I don't consider myself a pianist because I think I have less—you probably took more piano lessons than I did, in terms of classical repertoire. I just try to play what I hear and I'm influenced because I played trumpet, and so on. So there's this interesting approach, and do you think—maybe this is a leading question—but do you feel that everyone should approach playing music this way, or improvising? Not necessarily to think in terms of their instrument?

MS: I think it's important for me, I would say. I think it's important to think more about playing music. I think you should, and being a musician...because somebody can be a great instrumentalist, but maybe not necessarily be a great musician. You know what I mean?

GC: Yeah!

MS: I think, because I come from a thing where, to me, it's all about the ensemble. And of course when it's your time to shine it's your time to shine, but the best feeling to me is when the ensemble is creating something, instead of what I call the "Concerto concept," where you have a blank-faced rhythm section accompanying the soloist. To me what makes people really deal with music is when the ensemble makes it happen. When you really have to deal with music instead of like "I'm going to dial this lick in," because someone might play something that rhythmically is in a different place, or a different chord, or playing in another key.

What you have programmed isn't necessarily going to work and at that point you have to deal with music and not with mechanics or your licks or whatever. You have to start using your ear and start creating. I think it's more important. I'd rather be a good musician than a great guitarist. My philosophy is sort of the same as what Andre Previn said. To me, if somebody says "man, that Marvin Sewell is a great musician," that means more to me. As one girlfriend told me, she said "just because a person knows how to type fast doesn't mean that they're saying anything when it hits the paper."

So that aspect of it is to me more important. I will admit that I do a few things, like solo guitar stuff, which is cool and I want to develop that more, but that's not where I have fun. To me the social environment of playing music and connecting with people on stage is the greatest feeling to me. When people have this connection...sometimes it's good to do your solo thing and to be there but when you have a community of people on stage creating something, and when it's on, there's no better feeling than that.

GC: I agree with that. That to me is what makes playing with Jack so special, there's always this sense of communication which is challenging, because you can never go on autopilot because you never know what's coming around the corner. The way he plays is so interactive, and it's not so much a beat as it is a conversation. Constant improvisation, and yet everybody has a place. I think that's what interesting about the way you approach this gig. I can tell that Jack is excited about it because things that you do with comping. He's reacting; he's trying to figure out stuff that works. It's that stimulation that keeps us alive.

MS: Jack is one of the greatest listeners in music. I can't tell you the depth...I remember I did a recording with him and I played something...and he just...when you hear him with Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
or any other group. I'm sorry to sound "Facebooky," but I feel blessed! God is good!

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