Sean Sullivan is a musician’s musician, a consummate student of the art form itself. A Southerner transplanted to Manhattan’s Upper West Side at an early age, Sullivan’s training at the Berklee College of Music left him well-versed in the techniques of jazz, but his true musical roots come out on his newest album, Hereafter. We sat down with Sean ahead of his upcoming performance at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall to talk about the album, as well as his thoughts on jazz’s relationship with the audience and the musicians that influenced him most.
Elmore Magazine: Your new album moves away from jazz and takes from more folk and blues influences. What prompted this shift in style?
Sean Sullivan: I was there to start with. I was influenced by the great singer-songwriters like the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, people whose music was a product of folk-based songwriters. Everyone listened to early roots music. And certainly everyone in the rock world was influenced by people like Leadbelly and the early blues folks. So that’s kind of where I started and did a lot of that stuff. I always loved jazz, and it was half and half in my act. And then I met Jon Hendricks and ended up hanging out with him and learning the ropes from him, so to speak. Jazz became a big part of my repertoire and then I really went into that full tilt for quite some time and learned all the instrumental heads—Monk and Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and all that stuff. I wanted to show off everything that I knew with my previous projects, where one was a slice of all of my jazz training. And then of course this album goes full circle and brings back everything I know and love. It’s distinctly American in the sense that I have a Southern background and a Northern background, having been born in Florida and My mother’s from West Virginia. Then I was raised on the UWS so I like to tell people I’m at home with Gershwin and Cole Porter and the down-home blues. I’m kind of an unusual bird in that respect.
SS: They really don’t. There’s a lot of talk that jazz comes from the tradition of the 12 bar blues. Things like Pharaoh Sanders and all of those out cats, people that are playing free jazz; if you listen to that stuff, it’s really just extended versions of the blues in many respects. There’s just more extensions, more notes. It gets further away; it becomes more cerebral. But the feeling of the blues and the chord changes are still basically there. A lot of the stuff in jazz is call and response. The traditional notion of a shout chorus; the notion of letting people solo and the conversational aspect of jazz is really derived originally from folk and blues. There’s no separating that. It’s just that when it got into the cities, it started incorporating a lot of different aspects and became more and more cerebral. And jazz was originally dance music after all. In the 50s, of course, there was a shift away from that and now jazz is likened to classical music as a way of making more accepted in academic circles. It makes some sense because it takes a lot of training, but it also involves a tremendous amount of balance between the spirit and the intellect. My theory is the intellect serves the spirit so that’s really the highest form of intelligence. And most of the music in jazz—the best stuff you hear—is coming from a gut level, even though it’s filtered through more tools. Jazz just gives you more weight to your music and more tools, so when I lay into a Sun Sessions kind of feel—the raw blues—I feel like I bring a little more weight to it because I’ve gone through all of this jazz training.
EM: Do you think jazz has become too cerebral in recent years?
SS: I think it can. What happens is the jazz ends up being noninclusive of the audience. I think that even if you’re blowing stuff that’s maybe above the head of the average listener, for it to be real art, it has to be like Shakespeare. Shakespeare had flowery prose for the Elizabethan court, for the royalty, but at the same time he had swordplay and all kinds of things going on that would entertain the people standing on the ground watching the show. So there’s multiple levels to it. If you remove the everyman level that music should contain, then you’re not communicating. And music is all about communication to everyone. I think you can balance all of those things.
When I write, if I find myself becoming too crafted or too cerebral I tend to check myself a little bit. Although I have some songs that tend to go into Greek mythology and literary motifs that I have likened symbolically to my own struggle—when I get too cerebral, I have a tendency to want to back out a little bit. There’s a fine balance. Hereafter, touches on all the facets of complex composition, and it’s very accessible blues gospel and rock and Americana. There’s a lot of flavors in there. I don’t think the genre police are going to come in here and bust the door down. That’s the wonderful thing about being able to release your own music in this day and age: you can be, as people have noted, extremely eclectic. I like to think of this project as dangerously eclectic. But somehow or another it works, and a lot of people have said this. There’s a thread of things going through the music, and that’s blues and soul.
EM: You released this album on your own (NOTE: Hereafter is being distributed via Sony (RED)). What advantages did you find to putting the album out yourself?
SS: It seemed natural to just record it and get it out there. I had no real opportunity to deal with record labels; nor have I shopped around very much. I just wanted to do it. And it happened that [the album’s producer] Mat Pierson, who was formally with Warner Bros and was a record guy himself for many years, was able to introduce me to some people and get the distribution involved. It seemed like the natural course of events to release it myself and see how’d I do with it. Since I’m hopefully, with this project, going to be flying at least on the radar a bit more.
EM: Tell me about your relationship with Jon Hendricks.
SS: Jon’s an amazing character. He’s in his 90s now. John is probably one of the last connections with the real thing; it’s like knowing Louis Armstrong and having somebody like that to show you the ropes. In the old days especially, I was around him and watching how he works and audience and how he gets a set together. He’s up there telling jokes and does everything short of juggling in order to entertain that audience. And going back to jazz being too cerebral: John lyricises Miles’ composition and all the great artists. He’s lyricized nearly every major jazz pioneer. He’s taken their work and actually written lyrics to their solos with his group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. But when you catch him on stage with this highly cerebral stuff— The tour de force is Freddie Freeloader. He’s got Al Jarreau, George Benson, and Bobby McFerrin all singing his lyrics to the actual solos of the artists playing on Freddie Freeloader. And each of those solos has a story in itself. It’s like a character in a play. It’s just immensely complex. But when you catch him on stage it’s humorous; it’s entertaining. He’s engaging the audience. So it’s that balance between being entertaining, or at least considering the notion of entertaining people without feeling as though you’re exclusive of the audience.
Jazz can tend to be a bit of a tight knit community. And it is a difficult position to be in. In the US we don’t really honor and pay our jazz musicians the way we should. There’s a certain amount of bad blood that’s built up. People tend to be somewhat exclusive of the people that come to see them because there’s only a select number of people out there who are going to actually understand what’s actually going on. But it’s still got to swing. It’s still got to be enjoyable. And I think if you can keep some aspects of what jazz had at its nascence then it will continue to thrive as an art form. It’s about the art of improvising. The Grateful Dead were jazz artists in a very real sense because it was such a jam-based music and there were conversations. It’s just a question of making sure that what you do that you relate to the audience. I come from that camp; not everybody does, and I understand that. But you can do it without being cheesy. It’s not like you have to be a Vegas entertainer and go and sit in peoples’ lap and sing to them—pick up the old ladies in the audience and talk to them. You don’t have to go to that extreme but you can appreciate the people that are there to see you and not everybody knows that. In my case, in a set out in the club I could play “In Walked Bud,” a Monk composition and the very next thing I could play is a Willie Dixon tune or something of my own that’s a very basic blues. And people might dig the basic blues more but they’re happy to hear the Monk thing.
In the past you had this control of the powers that be in terms of what people had to listen to, but peoples’ taste have become far more eclectic now, and I think that’s a great thing. And they’re not as stupid. People used to spoon feed them this commercial nonsense. Clones of a clone of a clone of a clone. How far away was Mariah Carey from Mahalia Jackson? How far away is that? How watered down does that become?
Check out Sean Sullivan this coming Monday, March 17th at Rockwood Music Hall. Sean’s new album Hereafter is available now.