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Marvin Sewell: Stepping Up to the Plate

By Published: August 15, 2013
GC: So your next project would be that band. Do you have any inclination to do something kind of orchestrated, more compositional—I hate to say classical, but more composed?

MS: Maybe. I've always felt myself doing the more composed stuff, because I always wanted to do soundtrack stuff. Or if I was commissioned to write something like that. But yeah, maybe. The more music I learn, I begin to start hearing things, and if I want more specific parts, like a string quartet or string section then yeah, it's possible. Sure.

GC: And you want to start playing more piano?

MS: Yeah, for a long time I've been using piano more as a device to steal ideas. To me I can just very well not play piano and just go to the store and get a record and check out what someone did, but it's something different when you're actually playing that music and you can manipulate it. What if I play this? What if I take the middle voicings, and make them louder than the high voices? And you start to hear new things, the little tricks the composers use.

A friend of mine suggested that maybe I start doing some accompanying. Classical accompanying, but I want to get into the jazz playing, more jazz piano. I've been hanging out with Barry Harris
Barry Harris
Barry Harris
every now and then, and checking out other people's approaches, trying to get the whole background and history. I know chords and stuff, but I need to know not just these chords but the scales that go with these chords, how they move. The voice leading, not getting lost and finger-tied. I know what to play; I just need to learn how to play it.

GC: That's interesting because the stuff you play classically is, to me, as much or more technique than you would need to play jazz. That's about as much chops as I have, to play that Debussy.

MS: I don't know about that! You know what it is? To me it's kind of like—I keep making these analogies—it's kind of like baseball. When a baseball player gets into a slump, people say "man, somebody needs to say a particular thing to him to have him get a different approach when he steps up to the plate." And sometimes that's all it is, you have to change your way of looking at stuff. Maybe I need to do that with piano technique. Because now I work out fingerings and learn these etudes. I have the speed and the agility that I could do the jazz stuff, but there are other things I just have to figure out, figure out a different way of looking at it. I watch Jack play piano and I think "oh, this is how he moves his hand over" and stuff. So I think I need to hang out with you, just watch piano players do their thing and then that would probably give me more of an idea on how to get around that.

GC: Probably what you should do is get a gig.

MS: [Laugher]Yeah exactly! There it is!

GC: That's how I learned!

MS: Dig that. Can you recommend me?

GC: [laughs] I'll see what I can do. It's interesting, because you talk about baseball. I haven't followed baseball in many years, but when I was a kid I was an Orioles fan, living near Baltimore. My father was one of those diehard Yankees fans. I used to go out in a little field on my street and pretend to play by myself. I was on the Little League team. That's interesting that you said you were left-handed. What did you want to do, pitch?

MS: Well I wanted to be, like every other kid when I growing up, an outfielder. I liked playing shortstop but I'm left-handed. To me it was an exciting position. What ended my dreams of playing baseball was when I didn't make the high school team. And guess what that coach said? "If Marvin had tried out as a pitcher, he would have been on my team." That was the thing that I was good at, I was a good pitcher, but I hated it! And part of the problem is that no one was teaching me how to throw the ball. I was throwing the ball with my arm; my elbow was getting messed up. Nobody was telling me how to throw it.

I remember the Chicago Cubs pitcher, Ray Burris, on one of those programs, saying "if you're a fifteen-year-old kid, you shouldn't be throwing curveballs, you should be throwing fastballs and change-ups." He said "your arm isn't developed enough to be throwing that stuff." And one of the best pitches in baseball is the change-up. If you have a good change-up, that scares the hell out of the batter. If somebody has a good change-up, that's scary. If somebody would have taught me the basics of pitching instead of just throwing a ball and using my body, maybe I would have been doing something else. Because I was good at it, but I hated pitching. I hated it!

GC: What a shame. I tried to be a pitcher; I think there was just one game where I hit a bunch of batters. I think I had pretty good speed, but I would just choke. I was a catcher for a while but it was hard to find a left-handed catcher's mitt. So we'd have to drive to New York and look around for one. I sort of just got into different things. But yeah when I was kid I thought maybe I'd play baseball. That's interesting.

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