Trumpeter Sean Jones, who at 29 has become one of the busiest players of his generation is on the cusp of releasing a bracing new disc on Mack Avenue that deals with love in a more spiritual dimension. In addition to his recording and performing career Sean is a professor in the jazz studies program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and artistic director of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.
Through my ongoing work as artistic director of Tri-C JazzFest (Cleveland) its been a real pleasure to watch Sean’s development as a player and a true artist from the time he was a callow youth from Warren, OH participating in our jazz education program. Happy to say that he’s also a charter member of Tri-C JazzFest’s resident ensemble TCJF SoundWorks. But the focus here is on his sixth release for Mack Avenue, all of which have been produced by jazz renaissance man and one of the absolute most astute observers of the music, Al Pryor. The title is “No Need for Words” and it features Brian Hogans on alto saxophone, Luques Curtis on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, Kahlil Kwame Bell on percussion, and hard working Orrin Evans on piano.
With an increasing number of artists turning to self-production and release of their own recorded product, Sean Jones and Al Pryor have a decidedly old-school artist-producer-label relationship. With the release of “No Need for Words” questions were in order for both.
Sean, you’re exploring love from many angles as the overall theme of “No Need for Words.” How did you go about avoiding the ‘just another silly love song’ syndrome?
Sean Jones: It is important to me to record albums that are honest, fresh and new in the sense that it’s not a copied formula or prescription that’s already been used that seems to work. I avoided the “silly love song” concept by looking inside of myself and searching for feeling and my overall sense of what love is. Of course it’s very difficult to pin a definition on love, so I decided to explore various aspects of it that resonated with me. Honesty is key and I want the listener to feel my emotions through each composition.
Al, how do you go about developing a new recording product with artists you produce?
Al Pryor: Every true artist wants to document their work so there is never a shortage of ideas. Before we do a record deal, we have some idea of what that artist wants to do because there is dialogue on that subject prior to our entering into a contractual relationship with them. As every fan knows there is an arc of development in an artist’s careet that occurs over time because of the unique set of experiences that artist has – the same as it would be for a writer, actor, painter, dancer or in any other artistic endeavor.
Do you feel it necessary to have a thematic thread running through your records Sean?
SJ: All of my albums, especially Roots and those following, have a spiritual thread to them. This is a huge part of who I am and instead of running from it, I’m deciding to embrace it. I am beginning to realize that there is something that ties us all together and keeps us moving. Something that balances us. Something that propels life and energy forward. We call it different things. Whatever we choose to call it, I feel intensely every day. It resonates so deeply inside of me that I cannot help but to be that thing, whatever it is. This is not about religion, or any specific ideology, it’s about soul, energy, life, the oneness of all things. With this in mind, I want to have this theme and feeling as the underpinning of every album that I create.
When you met with Sean and he detailed his ideas of covering love from several directions on “No Need for Words”, how did you assist him in realizing that concept?
AP: Initially we had conversations about any number of different ideas for this recording. Gradually this particular concept rose to the top over a period of time in our discussions. Part of this process has to do with what provides the artist with the motivation to create. It should be no surprise to anyone that over the annals of time Love, in all its iterations, has no equal as an inspiration for creative endeavors by artists in all genres and categories.
As you work with artists to develop their recordings these days, do you find some level of concept absolutely necessary?
AP: Are you referring to the question of whether we are back to the record business once again being a “singles” business because some theorize that in the digital world the idea of an album concept is outmoded? Regardless of whether there is a unifying theme as obvious as Love, our recordings generally reflect an organizational raison d’etre that is reaily apparent to the listener.
Given the fact that so many of your peer artists are producing their own recordings on their own imprints, you’re in a somewhat unique position with having an actual label relationship. What’s your sense of the way records are made today?
SJ: I’m very proud of my peers in that most of us aren’t jaded by the industry. We all seem to want to express ourselves in a very honest and pure way. I do, however, feel the pressure that’s on my generation to put out albums that “sell.” I do believe that there’s a difference between doing albums that “sell” and doing albums that you want to resonate with people. When you want to reach people, make them think, inspire them, touch them, you aren’t solely concerned with units sold. You’re simply trying to get a message across. The world we live in is so money-driven that it can be difficult to stand your ground. That being said, I feel so fortunate to be a part of a label that understands this. I have a wonderful relationship with Mack Avenue and Al Pryor. I believe that Al and the label believe in my personal vision enough to allow me to express myself without the all-mighty dollar being the focus.
Al you’re kind of a throwback as a full-fledged record producer working with a label, what what so many artists self-producing and releasing their records on their own imprints. How do you see that marketplace development, and are there times when you think an artist could obviously hae benefited from working with a producer; and why/why not?
AP: Artists are very sophisticated today about their production needs and how they want the final record to sound. In fact I know a number of artists who are so sophisticated in their use of software programs for musical production, like Avid’s Pro Tools, Apple’s Logic, or Merging Technologies’ Pyramix — that they hire themselves out to their colleagues to help the artist/client doument their work. And there are any number of artists who come to the record production process with the necessary resources and neither need nor want what an outside producer can bring to the table. As everyone knows the good news is that the Internet, file compression, and other technologies have leveled the playing field and made it possible for any artist to produce and distribute their own work.
The bad news is that with the inability to protect one’s intellectual property rights in composition and performance beause of digital piracy, much of the business model for the recording business has been destroyed. It can also be argued that with everyone working on their records out of their bedrooms and other “home studios” of widely varying quality and capability and the closing of many professional studios the sound quality of some of these recordings, especially those that require acoustic instruments, can be less than acceptable, to put it politely!
It can be very useful to have another set of ears of someone that you trust “on the other side of the glass” in the studio working with you to help you realize on the final master recording what you’ve been hearing in your head. I am first and foremost an A&R man who represents the artists’ interests and point of view to the staff of the label and the label’s interests to the artist. This can involve anything from input on creative decisions to the most mundane but necessary aspects of the administration of paperwork and the budgeting process to back line equipment issues. I only produce a small portion of the Mack Avenue Label Group releases. Some of these might more accurately be described as a “collaboration” in the production of the recordings. When I do get involved with an artist as a producer it is to bring whatever that artist needs to complete his or her vision of what that recording should be — be it ideas as to the direction of a composition, the technical means to document some aspect of the artist’s work, or anything in-between.
Overall , what do you see as the quintessential role of a record producer? As you might imagine there are some misconceptions out there — just as there are misconceptions about the respective roles of artist manager and booking agent.
AP: The producer’s responsibility is to help the artist document his vision (in this case as a sound recording) in whatever way, using whatever methods are required in a manner that the artist and the label agree will help that artist reach the audience and sell records, digital downloads, or whatever the current medium of distrubution for music might be.
Sean, talk about some of the many hats you’re wearing these days and how you juggle those — educator, university and community bandleader, artistic director, etc. — with making albums and leading your own small group.
SJ: “To whom much is given, much is required.” That passage, as do many, run through my mind on a daily basis. I feel very forunate in that life has brought so many wonderful opportunities my way. However, I know that these opportunities are coming because I have a job to do. I feel that I am here to serve. I am here to take this gift and lift up my peers, my community, and the whole of humanity. I am currently a professor, artistic director of two wonderful organizations, and a solo artist. Although they seem to have no connection, they feed each other. I try to make sure that everything that I’m doing accomplishes certain things. 1. Enhance my community. 2. Lift up people. 3. Help me accomplish certain things as an artist and a human being. 4. Propel jazz music forward. As long as I keep those things in mind, they will balance themselves out. I also do my best to create ties between the organizations that I’m involved in. Making connections between the worlds that I work in ultimately makes the ride more smooth.
What’s the project you’ll be touring this summer with Marcus Miller, and how did the two of you connect?
SJ: About a year or so ago Marcus’ manager Bibi Green reached out to me. Marcus was planning on featuring the music of “Tutu”, the landmark Miles Davis recording, with new faces. One of those new faces was me and I was and still am thrilled to be a part of the tour. I believe that Marcus heard of me through a few different sources. One was the great drummer Poogie Bell, a long time member of Marcus’ band, and my former manager Robin Tomchin and my current manager. With those recommendations, Marcus gave me a shot and I’ve been with him since. This summer Marcus is putting together a project with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, feauring the music of Miles, and I’ll be the trumpeter. I’m looking forward to playing with these legends!