When Sean Jones took part in a 2011 “Tribute to Miles” tour, he not only had the unnerving task of being the sole horn in a band devoted to the iconic trumpeter, he was also playing alongside some of Davis’ most distinguished alumni-men who are, of course, some of the most distinguished players and composers in all of jazz. Offstage, Jones had the chance to bask in the wisdom of these musicians, including Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. One night he asked them why they picked him for the job.
The answer: because Jones was the furthest thing from Miles they could get. Remembering the exchange three years later, Jones laughs, wondering if it was a compliment or not.
Shorter’s unique philosophies proved especially illuminating. At one point, bassist Marcus Miller, who organized and performed on the tour, asked the saxophonist what he felt was his most important attribute. “Wayne said, ‘Imagination,’ without hesitating,” Jones recalls. “And he lives that. So it took a couple of days, but I said if I want to play with this guy, that’s what I need to do: [Forget about] preconceived notions. No ideas of scales. No ‘What chord is this?’ No ‘Oh, this is my sound.’ I just want to play everything that came to mind.”
This new perspective was liberating, to say the least. “It was the freest musical experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Jones says. “It’s seriously a gift to stand next to an individual [like Shorter] who’s completely free. Wayne lives 100 percent in his freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom that’s in his mind. Freedom to imagine.”
In the years since that tour, Jones has developed a greater sense of exploration, though he’s always had a thoughtful yet seeking attitude toward his art and career. After earning a master’s in musical performance from Rutgers University in 2003, he put further studies on hold to join the Wynton Marsalis-led Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, where he quickly became lead trumpeter. In 2010 he stepped down from that prestigious post to focus on other opportunities.
In 2006 Jones accepted a teaching position in the jazz department at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, where he eventually received tenure. The position gave him the security that academics crave, while allowing him the flexibility to build his discography as a bandleader for the Mack Avenue label. But opportunity came calling again. After eight years, and following a string of fiery performances at Pittsburgh’s JazzLive festival in June, he recently bade the city farewell to become the chair of brass studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a move he describes as “a huge leap of faith.” He also released album number seven in July, im-pro-vise: never before seen (again on Mack Avenue). Leading a quartet of expert players who have worked with him for seven years, Jones is heard at both his most robust and his most intimate.
While some might question the common sense of a jazz musician who leaves the enviable steady gigs Jones has landed, the trumpeter wouldn’t have it any other way. “For a jazz musician, I think the risk is in not risking,” he says. “I want to push my envelope. I want to see what this new experience is going to do for my music. Even if I fall flat on my face, at least I’ll have the experience.”
“When I was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I started to get antsy,” he explains later. “‘I got this salary. I got this health insurance. I’m too comfortable, man. I’ve got to do something else.’ So I left. But I left on good terms.” He had a similar feeling when he was ready to settle in at Duquesne. “I got tenure and I was excited for about six months,” he says. “‘Yeah, man, I’m going to be cool. I don’t have to worry about whether I can pay the next bill, getting ready for retirement and all of that.’
“Then I thought to myself, ‘Man, what am I doing?'” he says with a laugh. “‘Why am I thinking like that?’ I play music. Music’s not about retirement; music’s not about all that stuff. That’s life stuff and you need that, don’t get me wrong. But no real artist is going to say, ‘Alright, I’m comfortable. Let me just do this and be cool.'”