Friday, February 14, 2014

Chicago musician Shawn Maxwell expands musical vision with new CD


Chicago musician Shawn Maxwell's musical vision continues to get bigger.

Maxwell,, who has been playing with his quartet for 10 years now, elicits even more musicians for his latest project/CD, "Shawn Maxwell's Alliance," which features 10 of the best jazz musicians in Chicago.

The CD will be released Feb. 18 and in celebration of its release, the group will perform Feb. 20-23 at Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court, Chicago. Tickets are available at

I had the chance to talk to Maxwell about his latest musical project.

Q - Great talking to you. Of course, your new CD, "Shawn Maxwell's Alliance," will be released soon. How did you go about assembling the musicians on the album? Was it difficult making the adjustment from playing with your quartet to playing with such a large group of musicians?

I’ve been performing with my quartet for ten years now and have recorded four albums with them. I wanted to change things up and experiment with a new sound. 

I knew I wanted to involve different, or “odd,” instrumentation so I started looking at friends that I didn’t get a chance to perform with as much as I’d like. Chris Greene, a great Chicago saxophonist, was at the top of the list.

Unless we’re in a big band, or some kind of larger combo, he and I don’t usually end up on the same band stand because we’re both saxophonists. My quartet focuses on the tonal center of a piano providing the chordal structure so I wanted to change that entirely and use good friends and great musicians, including Stephen Lynerd on vibraphone and Mitch Corso on guitar. 

Marc Piane and Stacy McMichael are two bassists that have subbed in my quartet over the years and I wondered how we could pull off having two bassists in the same band. With writing a mixture of walking/comping and composed lines for each, both bassists straddle the line between a standard jazz bass and a solo classical instrument. 

I wanted to use a vocalist on this project but (a) didn’t want to write lyrics and (b) wanted the vocals to be more of a “horn like” instrument. I didn’t want it to be the main focus, but something that was on equal footing with other lines. Keri Johnsrud was an easy choice because not only is she a great singer but is an old friend who I don’t see as much nowadays. 

Paul Townsend is a fantastic drummer who I’ve been working with for the last 15 years. I wanted the group to have a sense of jazz but wanted to do much more straight/funk/rock rhythms. 

Paul is one of my favorite drummers who can go easily back and forth between these grooves, sound great and still keep the time together. Lastly I was looking at one more addition to top things off. I wanted one more part of instrumentation that would offer a classical or chamber music vibe. 

My wife, Rachel Maxwell, is an educator and French horn player as is her colleague, and friend, Meghan Fulton. I knew that with this last addition we would have a large, different group who could do great things.

It has been an adjustment going from a quartet to the Alliance. With a 10 member band, we need to have very tight arrangements and make sure everything stays under control. 

That said, it’s been great to write and arrange for such a larger, ensemble with odd instrumentation. I’ve been able to flesh out chords and lines that I just can’t with only four musicians.

Q - The new CD roams through a number of genres, including jazz, rock and funk. In sitting down to record the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

When I wrote tunes for this band/CD, I wanted it to be “different.” I’ve recorded four CDs of original music that, perhaps with debate from some, pretty easily fits into the “jazz category.” 

While I’ve always like to write more rock-like tunes with angular melodies and time signatures, you wouldn’t confuse [those with] anything outside of jazz. I wanted it to be different with this group. 

The Alliance was created to be an ensemble that could perform at a jazz club/festival as well as in a concert hall, rock venue and/or any other type of musical setting. Also, while we’ve all studied music and most of us are full time jazz musicians, we wanted to incorporate more of the music that we grew up with.

There is a long list of bands, from the 70’s to today, who come from the genres of rap, rock, funk and more that have influenced us as musicians and people. It seems odd to not incorporate that into what we’re doing, even if it is jazz. I wanted this group to allow everyone to be themselves and allow ALL influences to come out. Yes, I feel that I accomplished writing tunes/arrangements that allow us to step out of the jazz world, while still being close by, and showcasing individual musician’s personalities and influences beyond the genre of jazz.

Q - How did the fact that you had multiple players, including two French horn players and two upright bass players, add to the recording process?

It made things a bit more challenging than a standard quartet. Often times with the quartet we were in the same room, or perhaps the drummer would be in an isolation booth. 

Nick Eipers did a great job of recording and isolating all instruments to receive an excellent sound. We still recorded everything live but each bassist had his/her own isolation booth and the French horns were in their own little part of the main studio recording room.

Q - Who are your main influences and how do you think they have influenced your music? How do you think your music has evolved since you formed The Shawn Maxwell Quartet?

I have too many influences to list here, but a person who has influenced me as a performer and writer would have to be Kenny Garrett. I love the way he plays and his approach to soloing. 

He may have the best alto saxophone tone I’ve ever heard. There isn’t one thing about his playing that I don’t like, and didn’t try to copy/emulate for most of my twenties. 

Along with that, Kenny is also a fantastic composer. I think that he might not receive all the credit he deserves in this category because his tunes are just great.

When I started the Maxwell Quartet my goal was to be a Kenny Garret clone. As I’ve performed more, composed more and grown as a musician and individual, I have maintained my Kenny Garret influence but also added to it. 

I’ve picked up other little things from other musicians/composers that I dig while all the time putting much more of me into it. I have learned that it’s great to be influenced by others and, especially as a younger musician, you need to study and try to emulate those before you, but at some point you need to let your inner voice come out and become your own person/musician. 

I believe that I’ve very much created my own “voice” although it has influences from many others.

Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and where do you see yourself fitting into it?

The scene is a very delicate ecosystem that has several layers. Even the jazz scene has about a hundred sub-structures to it and even little cliques. 

I’ve always tried to avoid the cliques and embrace all aspects of the music, even outside of jazz. That said, while I do believe the Chicago scene is very strong, and one of the best in the country, I wish that we as musicians could work more together. 

I have always tried to be open and supportive of all other musicians, regardless of genre. Unfortunately I don’t find that [to be] the case with everyone. 

As far as my role in the Chicago scene…. that’s not for me to define. I’m just trying to be myself and let my voice be heard. If I can do that successfully, my role in the scene will be defined at that point.