Sean Jones: Progress and Passion

R.J. DeLuke By

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The progression of the art form comes with people being allowed to be themselves in their rawest form, with no compromise. If we can't be ourselves fully, then what we're putting out is a lie.
Trumpeter Sean Jones is always moving forward, developing his sound and getting involved in jazz elbow-deep, believing in its richness and its importance as an American art form. He wants to make an impact and he's doing that, whether with the prodigious technique displayed in his solo projects and spots as a sideman, or as an educator. And lately, it's also directing big bands, because he believes jazz needs to be presented in an orchestral setting.

Jones was the lead trumpeter with Jazz at Lincoln Center for about five years, but left early this year in order to go more his own way. He also lives in Pittsburgh now, rather than New York City, so he can help bolster jazz in a smaller but significant American city. And he released a new recording this year, carefully developed to both chart his career progress and deal with a theme that inspired his new compositions: love.

He's been documenting his progress on Mack Avenue Records, which is the home for each of his albums including No Need For Words (2011). In the topsy-turvy state of today's recording business, it's unusual for a young artist—Jones is 33—to stay in one place. It speaks to the strength of his musicianship and his playing.

Meanwhile, Jones took time this summer to tour with a Miles Davis Tribute Band involving Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Marcus Miller. At the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Jones was up to the task of the vital trumpet role, weaving strong, aggressive trumpet lines throughout improvisations with the Davis alumni greats.

But Jones is fond of the band he's been working with for some time, which includes pianist Orrin Evans, drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Luques Curtis and saxophonist Brian Hogans. He's greatly pleased with the cohesive sound of the unit and the way Evans and Hogans, in particular, play such key roles in its sound.

No Need For Words is strong. "Look and See" is a driving tune. Evans has a great feel over the hip rhythm section, and Jones is buoyant and bright. Hogans is equal to the task, charging ahead through the swinging tune. "Momma" is for the type of mother-son love, Evans' pensive opening giving way to a loping melody—carried softly, but not maudlin. Evans is elegant in his improvisations, clear and articulate and tasteful, while Jones blows majestically in his solo. Jones muted horn is sensual on the aptly titled "No Need for Words," which expresses the feelings that need no verbal communication.

"Obsession (Cloud Nine)" is Hogans' contribution, a strong motif with shifting rhythms with that allows both horn players to explore the harmony. "Love's Fury" is more tempestuous, depicting when the line between love and anger can be blurred. It's followed by "Forgiveness (Release)," which hopefully follows any relationship fury. The gospel-tinged tune employs Jones rich trumpet sound, emotional but not melancholy, with the band hitting the emotional release at the song's end.

This is a trumpet player of considerable talents and one who wants to continue to grow, continue to offer music that is changing, yet grounded in jazz.

All About Jazz: This is your sixth CD?

Sean Jones: Yeah. For Mack Avenue Records. Still on the label. Still a good relationship and I'm happy about it.

It's ultimately a reflection of the label. When they commit to an artist, unless they do something derogatory or something that won't allow the relationship to continue, they're behind you. They've been behind me from the beginning. When they signed me, they believed in me. They believed in my musical vision. They're committed to that. The bottom line, the almighty dollar, hasn't been at the forefront every single time. It's been great. They believe in me. I keep giving them product to sell that's been good. They celebrate who I am and I've been very fortunate.

AAJ: These are all love songs.

SJ: When I was doing The Search Within (Mack Avenue, 2009), I decided I was going to dive into who Sean is. I started to do that with the album Roots (Mack Avenue, 2006). That was about visiting my upbringing, going back to my roots in gospel music as a child. I left that idea for a bit to do something different. I wanted to do a play list of a few young vocalists that I thought were really talented [Kaleidoscope (Mack Avenue, 2007)]

I've always tried to do albums that are different. I didn't want my music to sound like every other jazz CD that's out there. That was Kaleidoscope. The Search Within, I really tried to dive into who I was. What that means. From a compositional standpoint and artistic standpoint. Who the man is. My beliefs. My views. My feelings. And just put them out there.

No Need for Words is a continuation of that. I wanted to do as love songs album. I've always thought about love. I've always believed in love and how it sort of is the gasoline or the fuel that makes humanity progress, along with imagination. And I wanted to visit as many aspects of love as I possibly could on a CD. Or at least those that resonated most with me. I didn't want to just put out a ballads record. That's been done. I talk about love in regard to certain romantic relationships, but I wanted to deal with love in a broader scope. That's what No Need for Words is.

AAJ: It has a lot of different textures to it.

SJ: Exactly. I wanted each song to stand on its own and have a different feeling. Also, with the listener nowadays, for people to listen to a record front to back you better have a lot of different things, a lot of different energies, a lot of different vibes on it. I think that keeps people's attention. So I try to take all my musical experiences and what's in my head and use those devices to portray a mood. Hopefully allowing the listener to go on a journey, with each song, into what that theme is.

AAJ: That was the focus of the album?

SJ: That was definitely the focus of the album. Eight different aspects of love. And I wanted to create a mood or energy for each one of those different viewpoints, so they stand alone while bringing together, or tying together, the overall arching theme of love.

AAJ: You feel you achieved that pretty good with this band?

SJ: Definitely. This band has been with me since Roots, with the exception of Tia Fuller. Orrin Evans on piano, Obed Calvaire on drums, Luques Curtis on bass. I feel like I have one of the best rhythm sections in jazz music today. They're diverse. They're flexible. They listen to one another. They have created a sound that is very unique and I really dig that platform to improvise over.

The addition of Brian Hogans on saxophone, that started with Kaleidoscope. He's not only brought a certain type of dynamic to the front line which is unique, he's brought some amazing compositions in as well.

AAJ: I thought the rapport between you two was particularly good on the album.

SJ: It's amazing. If I can make a correlation, I sort of think of him as my Wayne Shorter. Of course I'm not Miles Davis. (Chuckles). No one could ever be Miles Davis. But the way that Wayne Shorter was to Miles Davis is the way Brian Hogans is to me. He brings so much to the table from a composition standpoint and a frontline standpoint that I really think the band dynamic would change drastically if he was not there.

AAJ: Orrin Evans sounds fine as ever.

SJ: Orrin's been in the band since the beginning. He's going to be there. I love Orrin as an artist. He's become, over the years, a good friend. We didn't start working together as friends. I didn't know him at all. In fact the first two albums I did we barely knew each other. But we've grown together in so many ways over the years that we just kind of know what we're thinking. If there's a certain chord I can't think of, he knows exactly what it is. In fact, sometimes I bring in tunes and I won't put in a chord and he'll just fill it. Because he knows what I mean.

AAJ: You reminded me when you were talking about your albums. It's a little unusual today. To use Miles as an example again, every album he did along the way showed a certain progression. That was intentional by the record company. Other musicians too. That's not the motivation today, but you seem to be doing that. Each one shows where you are and where you're going.

SJ: That speaks to two things. The label, number one, really believes in me. They believe in the progression of me as an artist. A lot of record labels out there are just trying to make sure the bottom line is there. They want to get the artist out there, have them do their thing, go on tour, produce revenue, sell CDs X, Y and Z so their bottom line is there. Which I understand. But at the end of the day, does it really progress the art form.

I think the progression of the art form comes with people being allowed to be themselves in their rawest form, with no compromise. If we can't be ourselves fully, then what we're putting out is a lie. Or a half-version of ourselves. Which I think ultimately people can feel. With me, I'm willing to take that risk. Risk getting a bad review. Risk not being at the forefront. Because I know in the end, my body of work is going to show a progression of who Sean Jones is in its most honest form. What I'm hearing, what I believe and what I have to say.

Some people may think that's egotistical, but I think people want to hear you be yourself. They want to hear your honesty. They want to understand what's in you. I don't think it's ego at all. I think I'm trying to be honest with the listener and say "Hey, this is me."

AAJ: Does this also mark a move in your career now? I know you left Jazz at Lincoln Center.

SJ: It's time for me to not necessarily be a sideman as much anymore. I've done a lot of sideman work in the past. I do some sideman work with Marcus Miller, but it's more in a feature format. I'm featured prominently in the band. I think it's time for me to get out there and do what I need to do to put a stamp on the music from a solo prospective, as well as what I can do for various projects I'm working on.

I have two big bands. I have the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and I have the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and I believe that jazz music, being America's indigenous art form, should be celebrated in an orchestral format, which is the big band. So I'm doing those two projects, I'm still teaching, and I'm recording and touring. I like the fact that my career is diverse. I can do all of those things and make an impact.
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