Sean Jones

February 21, 2011
Sean Jones at the 2010 Twin Cities Jazz FestivalTrumpeter Sean Jones has a muscular, yet often lyrical approach to contemporary jazz. He has been called a Young Lion, a Firebrand, a Rising Star (Downbeat, 2006, 2007), and Best New Artist (Jazz Times Readers Poll, 2007). Barely thirty, he has released five albums on Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records, played on the Grammy Award-winning Turned to Blue by Nancy Wilson, and has served as a session man with Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, and Jon Faddis, as well as for label-mates Tia Fuller and Gerald Wilson. 

At his Twin Cities Jazz Festival performance on June 17, Jones and his quartet came out blazing, causing at least one fan to wonder at the band’s incendiary performance, declaring his awe with, “This is the warm-up?” [Note: Jones preceded Joe Lovano on the Mears Park stage.] Jones debuted original music from an upcoming album, sharing it as a gift to the audience. I talked with Jones by phone about a week before his performance, as he took a break from a recording session.  This interviewed was first published on Bebopified.

LE: Good morning, Mr. Jones, how are you today?
Sean Jones: I’m doing well, how are you?

LE: Just fine. You said you are in the studio. Are you doing some new recording?
SJ: I’m actually in the studio with Gerald Wilson. We’re working on his next record. Next week I’m in the studio with my band.

LE: I notice you’ve been on a couple of Wilson’s records on Mack Avenue Records. He’s one of the masters.
SJ: He certainly is. He’s one of the staples of the Big Band rep, and I’m honored to work with him.

LE: What is your first memory of music?
SJ: Wow. (Pauses.) Actually, the first memory of music that I have is being in church, I think I was about five years old and saw the choir director directing the choir and I thought it was pretty cool that when he made a gesture with his hands there was sound. I thought the sound was coming out of his hands. I know that sounds strange, but I actually thought the sound was coming from his hands. So after church, when everyone  was finding their way out the door, I went up to the choir stand and put my hands out thinking there was going to be sound, and there was no sound. I went to my momma and asked, “How come there’s no sound when I do it?” She said “Well, you know, that’s the music. They‘re playing the music, they’re playing the instruments.” So I’ve always been intrigued by music, man, since I was five years old.

LE: Was the choir director the first musician you admired?
SJ: I didn’t necessarily admire him, I think it was music as a whole. The first musician I ever really admired was a guy named Eddie Howard, an organist at our church. He would do stuff with his hands and feet that I thought, wow, that’s pretty amazing. I had to be in elementary school then.

LE: What was the impetus for your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: I would have to say, sixth grade, where I had a great teacher named Jessica Turner. She brought two Miles Davis records in. She brought Miles Davis’ Amandla, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and I kind of fell in love with jazz. Then I knew that I would at least be listening to that kind of music for the rest of my life. I didn’t know until high school that I would make a career out of it.

LE: When you made that decision, what was behind that, your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: Two things. Someone asked me what’s the first thing you want to do when you wake up in the morning. I said, “I want to play my trumpet.” They said, “Well, that should be your career.” Then I wrote a letter to my mother telling her what I would be doing ten years from my sixteenth birthday. Those two things really led me in this direction.

LE: When you made that decision, you went to school and studied classical trumpet.
SJ: Right.

LE: What made you decide to study classical trumpet, as opposed to going to a jazz school?
SJ: Well, I figured it’s very important to understand the instrument. I wanted to study the pedagogical component of playing music, which is: knowing your instrument inside and out. Studying jazz, or any genre for that matter, is pretty much about learning the musicianship required to play a certain type of music, swing, chords, all of that. That’s musicianship. Pedagogy is how to play the instrument, or the vehicle that you choose to make music. I think a lot of jazz musicians, sort of in hindsight, begin to study the pedagogy of their instrument, because they find out their musicianship far exceeds what they’re able to do with their vehicle of choice, their instrument. For me, I wanted to make sure that both were balanced, all the way through.

LE: Now you teach at Duquesne University.
SJ: That’s correct.

LE: What are the two or three main points that you tell your students when they take one of your classes?
SJ: First and foremost, you have to be able to play your instrument. It’s extremely important to know your instrument in and out. To be able to play anything that you possibly can on your instrument. Know a variety of styles, and also get in touch with your humanity. Those three things, to me, make you a great musician. Know your instrument. Know the music, and know how to be a great human being. It’s extremely important.

LE: That will all come out in your playing.
SJ: That’s right.

LE: For the last few years you’ve been the lead trumpet for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. You’ve also put out five albums. You’re obviously doing sideman work with Gerald Wilson, Tia Fuller, and others. What have you learned from working with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?
SJ: Work ethic. Sitting next to Wynton Marsalis, I really learned how to work and what the meaning of work is. I’ve never seen a human being work as hard as him. He really makes you want to do more when you see how much he’s working on music, raising money, going to talk with kids, and all those different things. People can say all they want about Wynton’s musicianship, and his opinions, that’s fine. But you can’t knock his work ethic. That man works extremely hard. I definitely learned that.

LE: Is there anything that you’ve learned on your own that has been important to you and your development as a musician?
SJ: People want to feel you. People want to hear your story. People want humanity when they come to hear you perform. They don’t want to hear a bunch of notes. They don’t want to hear how good you think you are, or how good you are. They want a very human experience and then they’ll go home. Because they’re trying to escape their daily routines, and their daily issues. That’s what I’m trying to do each time I get on stage and each time I put an album out.

LE: Now you’re embarking on a tour. You’ll be here in the Twin Cities for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. You’ve played in the past with your own group. Is this a new aspect to your career?
SJ: I wouldn’t say it’s new. I’m trying to work with this ensemble a lot more. It’s become a priority. It’s always been a priority, but it’s definitely a priority now. I’ve stepped down from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to deal with my own band and my own projects full time. It’s a big step, but I’m ready for it. Also, I’ll be playing with different people. All summer I’ll be on tour with Marcus Miller, so I’m looking forward to steps in new directions.

LE: Who’s going to be with your band when you play here in the Twin Cities?
SJ: It will be Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Brian Hogans on saxophone.

LE: Your most recent album, The Search Within, came out last year on Mack Avenue records. It’s a very personal album.
SJ: It’s definitely very personal, about my journey into my thirties, looking back, and plowing ahead into the future. The next album is pretty personal, too. It’s about love, and exploring the different aspects of love. It’s not all about love with flowers and candy and all of that. It’s the varying aspects of love.

LE: Which brings me to my final question. What’s been the most satisfying aspect of your career so far?
SJ: Just being on stage and seeing people happy about what they heard. Being able to move audiences. I’ve been a lot of places playing with a lot of people. Nothing beats the energy and the synergy of the audience when they’re feeling you, when you’re feeling them. I crave that, and I’m looking to many more years of that.

LE: Thank you so very much for your time. I look forward to seeing and hearing you at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Saint Paul next weekend.
SJ: We’re going to have a ball. Thank you.

Photo of Sean Jones at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival by John Whiting.

Vocalist Roberta Gambarini

February 7, 2011

Never Compromise


The late pianist Hank Jones, who was revered by many vocalists, called Roberta Gambarini “the best new jazz singer to come along in fifty years.” Many who have heard Ms Gambarini concur.  She easily navigates a multi-octave range, shows considerable skill and imagination in scatting, and has a great sense of swing.  She was born in Italy, and came to the United States in 1998,with a scholarship to the New England Conservatory. Once here, Gambarini immediately entered the Thelonious Monk competition and came in third that year. Since then, her career has steadily grown, with a grammy nomination for her 2006 American debut, Easy to Love, as well as a second Grammy nomination for her most recent album, So in Love, from 2009.

Gambarini recently performed at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in Minneapolis, where she continually surprised the audience. She started with an accapella version of “Stardust,” then did a dozen or so standards, including “Estate,” in its original Italian. She would often sing the verse of a song (accompanied by pianist Eric Gunison), and sometimes would sing with just the drummer (Willie Jones III) or bass player (Neil Swainson). She scatted the solos of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt on “The Sunny Side of the Street,” from the album Sonny Side Up, played the mouth trombone on one number, caressed ballads, invigorated fast numbers, and used her supple voice to leap octaves without breaking a sweat. I interviewed Ms Gambarini in the lobby of her hotel on the day after her first performance at the Dakota.

LE: To start, I understand that your parents had a large record collection and liked jazz. Is that how you got into jazz?

RG: Yes

LE: You chose to become a vocalist, though you started out playing clarinet as a young girl. What made you decide to become a vocalist?

RG: I was already singing, always singing. Since I was very little. I took music lessons when I was about 12. I really wanted to play the saxophone, the tenor saxophone, because it was my father’s instrument, because he had it around the house and would play and practice. But he thought it wasn’t an appropriate instrument suited for a little girl, so he said, “You can study, but you’ll have to study clarinet.”

LE: At what point did you say jazz singing is something I want to do as a career?

RG: I was about seventeen. I started to have my first opportunities to sing around jazz clubs.

LE: This was in Torino, where you lived?

RG: It was in Torino and my first opportunities were all over Northern Italy.

LE: Would your parents take you to these places?

RG: Yeah, yeah. Well, my parents would take me to these places for a long time when I was little, to hear jazz music. They were also on the board of volunteers for one of the jazz clubs.

LE: So you were surrounded by jazz.

RG: Oh yeah.

LE: You mentioned that you started singing very early on. What singers caught your ear?

RG: The first one was Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, of course. I’m talking about a very, very young age, like two, or even earlier.

LE: Then when did you start studying voice?

RG: Oh, studying voice. I used to sing naturally, and started to study around eighteen or nineteen years old, studying the vocal instrument.

LE: You have such command of your instrument. Was there any lesson that was particularly hard for you to learn about using your voice?

RG: Well, for me, and I don’t know how standard is this type of path, but I used to sing naturally when I was little, and used to enjoy going up and down, and had no problems. And then the first teacher I had was at the Conservatorium of Genoa. At the time, the teaching was pretty rigid and it was considered academically correct, and jazz was like a, I’m not sure how to say it, a game, or something on the side. You have to learn the important things first. Important in quotes. But that was a type of academic study. It’s not even the way you really study opera. But this teacher was applying that academic method. It became disruptive and I started losing my freedom, and it became a constriction, where I was losing that facility I had. And it took many years to go back to that state, and so, in trying to go back to that state of natural freedom I then worked in completely different ways to with my voice

LE: Was that after you had come to the United States?

RG: No, no, no, it was way before that.

LE: When you came to the United States you managed to meet some significant people who gave you ideas on your repertoire and things like that.

RG: Soon as I got to the States, I entered in this Thelonious Monk competition. I had been in the States maybe two weeks. At the competition I met several great musicians and great people. The first one was Jimmy Heath, who also became one of the people that I’m so fortunate to have worked with. So I started right away meeting people that were so wonderful to give me a lot of suggestions and tips. How to improve musically, and almost right away I started working in New York. It was 1998, and my gig in New York was with Jimmy Heath, and right after that I got to work a lot with Billy Higgins at the Jazz Standard which was then a new club but is now one of the main clubs in New York. I worked with Curtis Fuller, Ronnie Matthews, James Spalding, I remember Harold Land.

LE: A number of folks from what I’d call the classic era of the 50s and 60s who were still around at the time. Talking about your repertoire, at last nights show, you did two dozen songs seemingly without a set list. How many songs do you have in your repertoire?

RG: We have a lot of songs. With the band, and this rhythm section, Neil Swainson and Willie Jones, we’ve played together all over the world.

LE: How do you choose your repertoire? What do you look for in a song?

RG: It’s got to have a good story, and of course, a good lyric. The way the melody, the lyric and the harmony interact to make a great song.

LE: After coming here in ’98, and entering the Monk competition and meeting all these musicians, was there any particular lesson that you learned, say from James Moody, Hank Jones…

RG: Benny Carter

LE: Benny Carter. Have there been any lessons that have stuck with you?

RG: Absolutely. Benny Carter was one of my idols and he befriended me, honored me with his friendship. He was a great encounter for me, and so was Hank Jones, and so was James Moody, who recently left us. Moody was like my second father, not only a great musician but a great, great human being, as were all of the musicians I mentioned. Moody was really special to me. Well, each one them, in fact all of them, I’ll try to synthesize.

Moody, for example, would tell me anecdotes about his time with Dizzy Gillespie, who was also a natural teacher, as was moody. He told me that when he was young, back in the 50s, it wasn’t that he was self-taught, but he didn’t have a regular academic path because of his life vicissitudes. He was born in Savannah and moved to New York. He’d say to Dizzy “Oh Man, I wish I had more of the theoretical preparation behind me so I could better understand things, I should have studied earlier, and got more academic training.” And Dizzy’s answer was, “Moody, you ain’t dead yet.”

Moody would always tell me that, because I’m self-taught too, in a way. Sometimes I would express some doubts, and he would tell me this episode. Moody was always concentrating on playing better than he was, if that was possible, since he was at the top, but… he was always striving and struggling to play better and know more and learn more from everybody. From young people for example, and that’s a great lesson. He’d go around and listen to some youngster play something that he would find interesting, and that he would incorporate in his own work. He wouldn’t hesitate to ask a young player “Can you hip me to what you just did?” Most of the time the younger player would say, “Moody, I got that from you!”

Hank Jones – the great lesson about Hank Jones was the way he operated and worked. The essential thing is to take a song and peel off layer after layer of unnecessary things. He would say, “Peel off all those things that are not necessary to express the emotional core of the song. “ That’s a very important thing, because we always do too much, even unconsciously. But he would say, “Do this conscious surgical work, until it becomes the emotional core, which is the reason why you want to do this song.”

Benny Carter taught me so many things about repertoire and also how to move about in the business, which is very difficult. How to be true to your self, and never compromise, try to never compromise. Which was true about him, because he is a synonym, another word for excellence. He would say to always associate yourself and keep yourself on a level as high as possible, and to never compromise for the sake of, I don’t know, success or money.

LE: Those are good lessons. Whenever I talk with older musicians or read about older musicians, they’re often saying they’re still trying to learn new things every day, and that’s what keeps them going. I think that’s what keeps them young.

RG: Right, that’s true. Certainly all of them said that, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess,

LE: You do a wonderful job of scatting, and I have to admit I’ve not heard many singers scat on slower songs. Did you teach yourself how to scat?

RG: Yes, but I taught myself how to scat by letting the records teach me. Then, Moody was a great help in that, because Moody was one of those who wrote the book about scatting, so just standing next to him was great. Listening to instrumentalists, listening to records

LE: From a distance, at least, it seems you have led somewhat of a charmed life, even before you got to New York, in terms of your ability to absorb different kinds of music and to meet all of these wonderful musicians, and becoming a wonderful musician yourself. What kinds of things have slowed you down, or worried you, and so Moody said, “You’re not dead yet.”

RG: Well, everything, because in spite of what it might look like, it wasn’t a charmed life. As a matter of fact it was a very difficult condition… (pauses) I don’t talk too often about these things, but maybe now’s the time, because it’s not a fairy tale. The years in Italy, the years of my apprenticeship, so to speak, were done in Italy, and the situation is very difficult. It used to be difficult, it’s even more difficult now.

In Italy, there is a system… At the time there was no jazz education in place… There is a system, as we can see in the recent political developments, and I won’t comment on that, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Ed Note: there is a scandal involving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). There’s a system in place that does not reward merit. It’s an anti-meritocracy. It’s a system that pushes people down, to thinking that they will never, ever succeed. I was told that when I was nineteen. I was told by a music journalist, “You’re very talented, but not even if you would be as good as Sarah Vaughn, you won’t go anywhere here.” This is because the system that places personal relationships over talent and hard work. We saw that exactly… (pauses)

It’s a hard thing to talk about, especially to Americans because everything is based on meritocracy and there’s so much respect for talent here, it’s hard to believe. Now that you see current events, you see that in every level of political and artistic life it’s a matter of exchange of favors. Merit, talent, or being able to make money or stir up things, has no influence. So in that situation it’s very easy to get discouraged or be depressed. I was strong enough to always stay on my path, but it was very difficult.

When I came here I didn’t have the background that kids have here, where everything is positive and you’re given props and respect. I had that from my parents, which is the greatest thing. Without them I wouldn’t be doing this, but nothing from the outside world, and that slows you down in the end. A lot. A lot. It makes you more vulnerable. I think that maybe some of these greats, who had a certain age saw something in me or perceived that there was a certain type of struggle, and they wanted to help. It’s mostly mental.

LE: No wonder you jumped at a chance to come to the United States.

Gambarini when she isn't singing

RG: Absolutely. In a way, I wish I could have done it before, but it was not possible, financially and everything, but I’m glad I did it anyway.

LE: We all are happy you came here.

RG: This is the greatest country in the world. I’m telling you.

LE: You’re continuing to grow, continuing to gain respect. You’ve had a couple of Grammy nominations already. You’ve released three albums in the U.S. and have had two nominations. You’re doing really well. What is it you hope to do now, as you move forward.

RG: I want to do more writing, arranging, and conducting. I know they seem like big things. Back in Italy I studied composition, classical composition, and I always loved arranging. I would like to get the opportunity to play with a larger ensemble, and do some writing. That, and I’d like also to work on the next recording with a big orchestral ensemble, and with a great arranger.

LE: In each of your sets last night you did an Italian song. It was a little hard for me to tell, but it seemed you didn’t do too much embellishment of the melody.

RG: There are many many great songs, and I hope I can introduce them, little by little, to American audiences.

LE: You have a website?

RG: I do have a Myspace page and I’m active on Facebook. I’m going to be setting up a new website pretty soon. But for now it’s Myspace.

LE: Is that where people can find out about your tour schedule?

RG: Yes.

LE: And on this particular tour are you heading back to the snow of New York?

RG: I’m heading back to the snow for about a week, and then going to Europe to work with a larger ensemble, the Metropole Orchestra, and I’m really looking forward to that. Then I’ll go to Spain and then to Indonesia. Then back to Europe and back to the US.

LE: Well, thank you so much for your time.

RG: Thank you so very much.

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