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10 Questions with Shawn Maxwell

Saxophonist Shawn Maxwell, although still fairly young in jazz years, has been performing throughout Chicago and leading groups for over 10 years. He is not only known for his playing but also his composing which has helped him to release several critically acclaimed recordings on the Chicago Sessions label. You can hear Shawn and his new group “New Tomorrow” at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival so we thought we would catch up with Maxwell, learn about how he first began performing and composing and find out what we can look forward to hearing at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival.


Did you grow up in a musical house? What were your influences?

There were no musicians in my family. No one could play and instrument or sing, but my father could play the heck out of a record player. Some of my very first memories are of him playing records, describing the albums and groups. Bands and genres varied, and went anywhere from Jimi Hendrix to Pete Fountain. The latter being why I started playing clarinet in the school band in fourth grade. This exposed me to a good amount of music that most of my friends in school had no idea even existed. So, it wasn’t a musically talented household but I did learn to love several types of music.


How were you drawn to playing the saxophone?

I played clarinet in the high school band and was strictly a concert band musician. But during my senior year jazz caught my attention. Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sonny Rollins were just a few that I started checking out. I found the saxophone soloists to be my favorite. It was a mixture of the tone and sound and what these performers did on the instrument. It was just hip. To me, they were rock stars. Unfortunately, my high school jazz band was packed and couldn’t accept any new players. The following fall I started attending Joliet Junior College to major in music. I will always remember that the director of music, Jerry Lewis, needed another saxophone for his jazz band and suggested I join. It took me a little while to get there but I finally landed on the instrument I had grown to love, and I owe him very much for it. He reminds me every now and then. [laughs]


Talk about the musical experience you had that opened your eyes to jazz.

My first exposure was in high school, but it was at Joliet Junior College that my eyes were truly opened. While I did listen to a number of jazz greats, it was there that I learned that there were more than four jazz bands around. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bird—all new names to me. I still can’t believe it took me that long, but yeah! The exposure to these great artists and the playing schedule the jazz band kept really made me know, Yes, I need to do this! In that same semester the group opened up for Maynard Ferguson and the Count Basie Band. Let’s just say that at that point I was a jazz guy.


There are so many music schools that you could’ve attended. How did you decide on Millikin?

Millikin was great. As much as I consider myself a jazz guy, I still wanted to be well rounded and perform, teach and understand as many genres as possible. At the time, there was a great clarinet instructor, Bill King, at the university who really pushed me to my limits and made me the man I am today on that instrument. While that focus was all classical music, the saxophone instructor, Perry Rask, really kicked my butt in all genres. I could list several other staff and faculty members who were instrumental in my success—and for choosing Millikin—but I’d have to list those two as the main reason. The expertise they had, not only with performing but teaching, and the ability to convey it to students, was remarkable. Plus I was able to study with them right away and receive a good amount of one-on-one attention. Some schools make undergraduates study with a TA, but not here. I was in the deep end right away, and it was fantastic.


You have recorded seven CDs, all featuring your original compositions. Talk about how you first began composing and arranging. Did you study with someone or does this just come naturally?

At Millikin, I attended a few arranging classes; Dr. Dave Burdick was a great teacher and really helped me with that. I do remember he and I reharmonizing standards and just going insane with them. Other than that, I’ve never really studied composition. After years of learning and playing tunes and figuring out how and why they work, I finally decided to take a shot at writing my own stuff. I’ve always felt that we jazz musicians are composers every time we take a solo. Now we’re just writing it down. I always was a big music theory guy, so that helped. So my answer is a little yes and no. I do have a good grasp on composing and the do’s and don’ts, but a lot of it is a natural feeling. I like to go against the grain, and in the process hope to create my own sound and style.


Learning the history of jazz is important. Jazz standards not only help musicians learn from the masters, but it also is a history lesson of sorts when you play and listen to music from other eras. Has the study of the history of jazz helped you in your composing?

I feel studying everything that came before you and soaking in everything that’s currently going on around you is important. I like some more than others, but regardless, I want them all to influence me. If you bypass that tradition and don’t learn from what was first, how can you improve? The funny thing is, I’ll write a piece that is in an odd time signature, has a modern groove, an odd form and can kind of sound out. That said you probably wouldn’t know that my influence to produce that piece was a mixture of Art Pepper and Cannonball Adderley. While it may sound nothing like them, bits and pieces of what they were and how they influenced me helped to construct what I’m doing. So jazz history is very important to me. Beyond that, I mix my influences in from other genres as well. One of my last discs had original tunes that I composed directly off of the influence of Guns N’ Roses. Yes, I really dug them in high school. Every time I hear any group play I’m influenced by them; I put it into my own voice.


You’re performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival at 2 p.m. on September 2 at the Von Freeman Pavilion with your group Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow. Tell us about the group and the name.

This group is a bit of a new direction for me, thus the name, New Tomorrow. I’ve performed and recorded a good amount with my quartet and my large 10 piece group, Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance. I wanted to do a smaller group—less than 10 people—that was a bit edgier that has a lot of composition to it and where the tunes’ twists and turns seem important and build something where we’re not just playing a 30-second head and then blowing for an hour. Something along the way a classical musician would compose, with a good amount of improvisation placed in there. It’s also a mixture of different genres I’ve been influenced by—clearly a good amount of jazz, but also rock, rap, classical and more.


What players will be performing with you at the Chicago Jazz Festival?

I’ll be joined by one of Chicago’s finest, Victor Garcia. He’ll be playing the trumpet and flugelhorn—one of Chicago’s finest. Longtime friend and bandmate Matt Nelson will be on piano and Rhodes. Junius Paul will be holding down the bass chair and Phil Beale is our drummer. These guys are all fantastic and I always look forward to working with them.


What can people expect to hear at your performance on September 2?

…Fun, different and unique. As I mentioned earlier, with all my influences I still try to perform and compose in my own voice. Those in attendance will hear the way we approach things, and that both the compositions and improvisations are very different. “The Maxwell Sound” is what some of my friends call it. As much as I love and respect the greats before me, I don’t want to be a clone. I want to sound like me and try to make my own path. If you show up, I’m sure you’ll hear that. Lastly, we have fun. You can see and hear that from the audience and it’s pretty contagious.


You’ve also been performing throughout the Midwest. Do you have any other notable performances coming up?

We have a good amount of upcoming dates listed on our website and will be adding more over the next few months. The band will be hitting some new venues and festivals as well as some old ones. Right now we’re finalizing things and placing the tour together. There will be a few dates taking us to Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland and New York, to name a few. For Chicago, you’ll have to show up to the Jazz Festival and we can also fill you in on what’s next from there.

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