Music history isn't exactly short on drummers who’ve pushed the artform to new heights. Some of them, as we all know, managed to do it on a nightly basis. For today’s drummer, that means one thing: if you want to leave your mark, relying on chops and technique just isn’t going to do. You have to have a voice...
Though Sean Jefferson has certainly made it his life’s work to try and master the vast traditions set forth by drummers before him, he never set out to make music strictly for drummers. Or musicians. Yes, he has studied rigorously. Yes, he has a knack for putting a fresh, cerebral spin on time. Yes, he grooves hard and swings tight. But Jefferson has always, from day one, been in search of his own voice. And, though he is already pushing toward new horizons in jazz drumming, as a composer and bandleader he points the way to a vision of music’s future as a language, and is never content to fall into the role of pedestrian beat-supplier. As far as Sean is concerned, drums must always fit into the greater whole of the music.
While heavily inspired – and moved to see time itself in rich, metaphysical terms – by drumming trailblazers like Elvin Jones, Jack De Johnette, Steve Gadd, , and Jeff “Tain” Watts, composers like Thelonious Monk, Aaron Copeland, Paul Hindemith, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and renowned drummer/composer Brian Blade caught his ear as a young listener and forever changed his sense of scope as a musician. (Blade’s impeccable knack for making the drums serve the music would prove to be a crucial inspiration.) Inventive, ambitious, layered... Jefferson operates on many planes at once, approaching the drums as a small orchestra loaded with a variety of colors, shapes, and textures. And, even given the immense weight of drumming history, not to mention today’s vibrant creative climate, Sean sits perfectly poised to stand out and be heard.
Strangely enough, Sean almost never writes from the drums up. He feels strongly that all music should start with melodies than can be sung by a human voice, and that melodies “should stand up no matter who is playing them.” With any piece of music he writes, his intention is for the music to make its way from player to player, group to group... growing, changing, and living on. The composer Philip Glass once said that he doesn’t write music; he simply listens for it. Similarly, Jefferson considers music a constant existence – not merely a body of kinetic and potential energy, but a soulful essence with voice, awareness, and intent. In Sean’s view, music works with us and through us, dictating its will to be written. And, as it sits there, waiting for someone to give it a form we can comprehend, Jefferson listens closely.
Unsurprisingly, he takes multi-faceted approach to rhythm. He subscribes to Elvin Jones’ idea that “sometimes my 'fours' take a little longer” – often allowing his fills and beats to extend past strict definitions of where one bar ends and another begins. He finds wonder, not to mention amusement, in the fact that we don’t experience time in a consistent fashion from moment to moment. The fact that an hour can zoom by or drag on “forever” depending on how we feel at that moment (time flies when you’re having fun, a watched pot never boils, etc) not only fascinates him but provides a launching point to reflect everyday concerns in his music. Life, the natural world, is filled with miracles that tantalize us daily, right there under our noses. And Jefferson feels that you don’t have to be a philosopher, scientist, or monk to grasp at them. He doesn’t want the listener to feel alienated, and he has a knack for parlaying complex time acrobatics – a bass-line figure in five, a drum beat alternating between three and four, and a melody ascending and disintegrating into utter chaos – into music with a flow that the non-musician can wrap their head around with little to no effort whatsoever. “I’m not trying to give anyone a head rush, just share with them this beautiful thing called music” says Jefferson.
And it is rare indeed that music of such elegance and structural integrity can come off with such ease, without going over anyone’s head. Most likely, this is a reflection of Sean’s belief that complex musical patterns are innate to human understanding. He is a admirer of Greek, Latin, and Eastern folkloric musics where odd, complex meters and microtonal systems occur frequently and thus sound natural to listeners who are used to hearing them. “You have masters candidates at the conservatory level trying to figure this stuff out,” he says, “and then you see children dancing to those kinds of music, singing along and it all makes sense.”
Sean currently leads two of his own original projects: a modern jazz trio, “Sean Jefferson 3io,” and an "indie rock." Both are due to release their first singles in the fall of 2013. In addition to these projects, he also is a full-time member of the Grammy-nominated soul-jazz outfit Paradigm Shift. Sean has also performed with distinguished luminaries such as Dr. Lonnie Smith, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Jeff Tyzik, Marcus Printup, Wycliffe Gordon, Huston Person, and Bobby Militello. When he isn't busy gigging nationally and internationally, composing, or otherwise doing his part to push music forward, he spends his time teaching drums and percussion and conducting clinics.