Shawn Maxwell's Alliance Has 18 New Tunes And 9 New Concerts For You This Weekend
By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 19, 2014 7:15PM
It's not often that a jazz musician cites Guns N' Roses as a major influence. Chicago-area woodwind player and composer Shawn Maxwell doesn't seem intent on following the traditional rules though. With four solo albums already under his belt, Maxwell's latest project, he told Chicagoist, was as challenging as it was rewarding.
This weekend, Shawn Maxwell's Alliance, a ten-piece modern jazz troupe, makes its formal debut at Jazz Showcase and celebrates the release of its self-titled album. After giving the disc an advanced listen, we can confidently say Maxwell and company's eighteen new tracks manage to touch every corner of the jazz landscape while remaining accessible to even the most novice jazz listeners.
Before playing a full weekend's worth of shows to celebrate the release, Chicagoist spoke to Maxwell about his new group.
CHICAGOIST: How did you decide on the nine musicians you did to round out the Alliance?
SHAWN MAXWELL: You know, when I was writing, I tried to emulate heroes and people that I like... and one of my heroes, as far as compositions is Duke Ellington. I'm not going to pretend that I sound anything like Duke or am as talented as Duke Ellington, but one of the things that I think was always really great about what he did was he wrote for the individuals in the band. He would compose his arrangements based on who he had playing what part. So I've got to admit, when I started putting together this group I was trying to think like that and whose individual voices I thought would fit best with what I was going to do.
C: I know a lot of jazz is based in improvisation but did you have to be a little more structured with your songwriting while trying to coordinate a group this large?
SHAWN MAXWELL: Quite honestly, it was a challenge I wanted to put forth for myself. Like you hit upon, when you have a smaller group, you have the melody and the composition but still 95 percent of the tune may be improvisation, which I love. But I wanted to do something that was more composed. So when we started writing for the Alliance I have to admit the first couple tunes didn't just fly out of me. I had to do a lot of learning of voicing of different instruments. Once that started happening, it wasn't like I sat down and wrote 18 tunes in two hours but mostly it was a lot of fun and it wasn't as rigid, as hard as I would have thought.
C: Obviously it's a jazz record but I also hear a lot of other influences like rock and pop. Did you have any other inspirations outside of the jazz realm when you were writing?
SHAWN MAXWELL: Oh, definitely. The majority of us are classically trained and professional jazz musicians but you don't have to go very far in our band to find really strong [musical] knowledge outside of jazz. If you talk to [soprano saxophone player] Chris Greene, he is an insane fan of Prince. It's actually a little sad how much he loves Prince. [laughs] That's a great example of a guy that has so many influences, Prince and funk and soul bands. Our drummer is huge into rock and progressive stuff. Throughout the band, we all have influences like that.
A lot of the tunes' grooves and feelings came from things I was listening to when I was growing up in the '80s. I'm not trying to say that we sound like them, but it was kind of influenced by the fact that I listened to a lot of Guns N' Roses. I thought they were gods at one point....We always talk about in the jazz world about how you have to listen to what came before you and incorporate that—obviously—but one of the things I've been thinking about is why isn't that true for other stuff outside of jazz that's happening?
C: Let's talk about the release weekend. You're playing nine shows. Is that right?
SHAWN MAXWELL: Yes, I'm going to have to bring some Gatorade. [laughs]
C: Tell us a little about what to expect.
SHAWN MAXWELL: Well, we'll be at the Jazz Showcase Thursday through Sunday. There's going to be shows at 8 and 10 p.m. each day and a 4 p.m. matinee on Sunday that kids can come to. We'll be showcasing all the tunes on the new CD as well as 10 or 12 of my other originals that have been arranged for this band that we'll mix in throughout the weekend.
C: Was this just a one-off ambitious project or do you plan to keep this group together for future shows and more records in the future?
SHAWN MAXWELL: Oh, yes. We're in the process now of getting other things booked and getting out of Chicago. Nothing against Chicago, we love it, but we can't play a hundred days a year in the same city.
C: Very cool. Any final thoughts?
SHAWN MAXWELL: Just one more thing about the release show. I hope I'm not sounding full of myself but if you come out to any of those shows I feel confident telling anyone that they're going to have a good time, whether you're a jazz purist or you know nothing about it. I feel that you can relate to this music no matter what.
Shawn Maxwell's Alliance is Shawn Maxwell (alto and tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet), Chris Greene (soprano saxophone), Keri Johnsrud (voice), Stephen Lynerd (vibraphone, percussion), Mitch Corso (guitar), Rachel Maxwell (french horn), Meghan Fulton (french horn), Stacy McMichael (bass), Marc Piane (bass) and Paul Townsend (drums).