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Marvin Sewell: Stepping Up to the Plate

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

Marvin Sewell might be the greatest guitarist you've never heard of. I first met Sewell at a recording session in 1995. (Sewell, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and I improvised over hip-hop tracks for two days; these sessions were edited into what become Thomas' Overkill: Murder In The Worst Degree, an album that we promoted in Europe on tours in 1995 and 1996.) I was struck immediately by Sewell's melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic approach. His improvisation sounded more like a saxophonist than a guitarist. His lines were very angular, and very unpredictable.

After touring with the Overkill band a few times, we met again in 1999 for my first tour with Cassandra Wilson. In that setting, Sewell played acoustic guitar with alternate tunings and played a lot of bluesy slide guitar. I was impressed with his versatility. Sewell spent over a decade with the legendary vocalist. Most recently, Sewell and I met up again on a tour of the U.K. with drummer Jack DeJohnette. Again, Sewell's unique approach really bowled me over. I found myself wondering why all guitarists didn't approach music like Sewell. (Also, Sewell, is not too shabby as a pianist; in fact, he easily knows more classical repertoire on piano than I do.)We had a small window of time during our detour to Tbilisi (in Georgia, the former Soviet territory), so I was able to grab an interview. Enjoy!

George Colligan: Marvin, how did you get started playing music? Describe some of your earliest musical memories, and how did you go from that to wanting to become a musician?

Marvin Sewell: There was a guy by the name of Wallace Beard, he lived across the street from me and played bass. At the time I was heavily into baseball, wanted to be a professional baseball player. I played baseball every day.

GC: How old were you?

MS: Probably about nine, ten to around thirteen or fourteen. I played baseball every day, watched baseball, knew everything about baseball. I used to really enjoy when the games were delayed by rain. In between that, they would show these clips of professional baseball players giving tips. It's because growing up in an inner city, a lot of times the problem with playing baseball is not that you're not good, it's that you haven't been trained. You don't know what to do.

GC: And you're from Chicago. What part?

MS: Primarily the west side, I grew up in what we used to call a rough part of Chicago called the Lawndale Community, or K-Town, its nickname. Then we moved near the suburbs to the Austin area, which is right across the street from Old Park, Illinois. So when we moved to the Austin area there was this guy named Wallace Beard who played bass. He was a really cool guy, had all the girls, great bassist. I wanted to be like him, so I'd hang out with him and learn to play bass. But I'm left-handed, so I learned to take a right-handed bass and play upside down. And then I started hearing cats like Ernie Isley, Jimi Hendrix and I started hearing more stuff on guitar, so I switched to guitar. And Wallace used to play with a lot of gospel bands, basement R&B bands, so I used to go to the rehearsals and hang out and watch the guitar players and see what they were doing, and finally decided that I thought because it would give my parents an incentive to get me a cheaper guitar, I decided to switch and play it on the right side. But that didn't work [laughs].

My uncle had bought my brother a guitar a few years back, he had bought him a Silvertone that you'd get from Sears and Roebuck. They're worth a little bit of money now, it was a guitar that came with the case and within the case there was an amplifier. So I started messing around with that and hanging around the guitar players at these basement bands, and I was just trying to learn chords and pick up what the rhythm guitar was doing. So I started getting into that and one time I found myself trying to be slick.

A cousin of mine gave me a Mel Bay book to check out and then one time I found a book that had thousands and thousands of guitar chords. And it was good, and it was almost like that old saying where a dog chasing a car, and once he catches it he doesn't know what to do with it. I knew all of these chords, I didn't know—the book didn't have any applications. And I learned how to do a lot of that. Somehow I got hooked up with a summer job at Malcolm X Community College and they had a big band. And I started getting into that and I really start going into a jazz stretch, but before that I was into the soul, rock, R&B. Then I heard Stanley Clarke's record School Days and that flipped me out.

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