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Served Our Country as a Military Jazz Guitarist, Shawn Purcell



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to a first-call guitarist in the Washington DC area, Shwan Purcell.

Pittsburgh has been the home to a number of world-class jazz musicians, whether it was composer Billy Strayhorn, bassist Ray Brown, or guitarist George Benson. One such Pittsburgh guitarist who deserves wider attention is Shawn Purcell.  Shawn studied in the prestigious guitar program at Duquesne University and went on to serve his country as an Air Force musician in some of the top military bands. Now, he is a first-call guitarist in the Washington DC area.

Jazz Guitarist Shawn Purcell

JB:  Talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

SP:  My father was a jazz trombonist, and my mom was an avid music lover/listener, so I was exposed to jazz as well as other genres of music throughout my childhood.  I didn’t really get into jazz until my senior year of high school.  I was playing in a rock band with some other high school musicians who attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School.  These guys turned me on to jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.  I also stumbled upon George Benson’s Breezin’ around this time and that was my initial introduction specifically to jazz guitar.  I quickly discovered players such as Jimmy Raney and Pat Martino around the same time frame.  Coincidentally, I started studying with a great guitarist named Jim Frazier.  Jim started showing me the various voicing types and how to begin to understand and apply modes to use over standard chord progressions.  At that point, I was hooked!  My dad was already putting me on jazz gigs by the time I was 17, so musically speaking everything collided in that one year.  I attended the Duquesne University Jazz Guitar camp the summer between high school and college, and that week put me on the path to what I wanted to do for the rest of my life!

JB:  Talk about the things you appreciated most about your studies with Mark Koch at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

SP:  Mark was most likely one of the first jazz guitarists I heard live.  When I was a senior in high school my mom would let me go to a local club every Thursday night to hear jazz.  Mark was the house guitarist and hearing him truly blew my mind!  It was also a jam session, so it gave me a chance to get up there and realize, “I have a lot to learn.”  I can’t remember the name of the club.  During my studies at Duquesne, there are a few standouts with regard to my time in Mark’s studio.  We worked almost exclusively out the Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” for an entire year.  That was truly ear-opening!  I also remember working quite a bit on Pat Martino’s 12 chromatic studies with Mark.  Mark played a Tele and was combining rock and straight-ahead jazz.  This was very appealing to me given my rock background.  This led me to discover players such as Mike Stern.

I also want to mention Ken Karsh as I studied with Ken for several years at Duquesne.  Ken, like Mark, had a huge impact on me at Duquesne and is a phenomenal guitarist and educator!  His “Fingerboarding Made EZ: Scale & Arpeggio Visualization for Guitar,” was something I worked on A LOT!  Duquesne had an incredible guitar program at this time (headed up by Bill Purse), and I also had the pleasure of studying with Marty Ashby and Thomas Kikta.

JB:  Did you study with Joe Negri and if so, how did he impact you as a player?

I studied with Joe during my freshman year at Duquesne University!  I knew Joe’s name from the “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” TV show.  Joe also worked with my grandfather around the Pittsburgh area, but I had no idea what a guitar titan Joe was!  I was just 18 during my year of study with Joe, and he exposed me to the early masters; players such as George Van Eps, Carl Kress, Eddie Lang, and Dick McDonough.  I had never heard anything like this before!  These players were true virtuosos on the instrument, and I worked specifically through some Carl Kress solo guitar etudes in Joe’s studio.  He also showed me a picking style that I adopted and still use today.  I was picking every note and trying to create the swing feel rhythmically, but Joe showed me a phrasing concept that focused on picking/accenting up-beats and slurring into downbeats.  This is in line with how horn players phrase and is so much more of a natural feel.  This made the swing 8th notes sound so much better, and also greatly helped my phrasing!  

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?

SP:  1.    Pat Martino – Footprints (Originally released as “The Visit” 1972 Cobblestone) was my first Pat LP, and it completely blew my mind; it still does!  Pat’s linear playing has had a deeply profound effect on me and I’ve spent countless hours learning and writing down many of the solos off of this record trying to digest his language.  Pat’s playing especially on “How Insensitive” and “Alone Together” is a masterclass in the creation of perfectly constructed lines.   In my opinion, Pat’s tone on this record is perhaps the most beautiful clean tone ever.  It just sounds huge and has this incredible darkness and warmth, but with a wonderful clarity mainly due to his heavy right hand.  I’ve been chasing this tone my entire life, but always fall short.    Pat is at his peak on this record, but rhythm guitarist Bobby Rose plays a nearly equal role in the overall “sound” of this record.  Hearing the interplay between these musicians not only shaped my perception of improvisation but also informed my approach to comping.  “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” is perhaps one of the most powerful tracks, and is an example of Pat’s ballad mastery!  I don’t know if there are any “perfect” records, but Footprints is as close to perfection as an album can get.

2.    Joe Pass – Virtuoso:This record is literally THE BIBLE for solo guitar playing.  Incredible lines, jaw-dropping chops, second-to-none swing feel and phrasing, a deep ocean of voicings, contrapuntal concepts, double-stops, and genius harmonization/re-harmonization.  This is not to mention the incredible examples of intros and endings.  His balance of vertical harmony and horizontal linear playing is jaw-dropping.  Plus, every tune on this record is a “must-know” for anybody pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist/musician.  If you transcribe just one track, you have pretty much everything you need to be a jazz guitarist!  “Have You Met Miss Jones?” is a stand-out for me, but other tracks such as “’Round Midnight” and “Sweet Lorraine” are right up there.  If a guitarist wants to expand their blues bag, “Blues for Alican” is just what they need!  There are other truly ASTONISHING jazz guitar solo records out there by artists such as Ted Greene and Pasquale Grasso, but Joe is still the heavyweight champion in this arena. 

3.    Mike Stern – Time in Place (1988 Atlantic Records):  I had a tough decision to make.  It was between this and John Scofield – Time on my Hands (1990 Blue Note Records)!  Both are equally important in my opinion for similar reasons, but Time on My Hands has some incredible jazz guitar comping whereas Stern doesn’t comp much on Time in Place.   I was “metal-head” in high school, so to hear this ridiculously great guitarist playing bop-lines in the same league as Martino and Pass on a telecaster with overdrive, delay, and octave effects spoke to me immediately!  This record has it all; superlative band, virtuosic guitar playing, masterful bebop lines and jazz language, killing blues/rock bends, and vibrato.  I think “Upside Downside” was a pivotal record for a lot of folks, but for me, Time in Place was THE record!  It showed us up-and-coming jazz guitarists that we could incorporate all of the effects and textures of our rock heroes while staying and playing more traditional bebop-style language!  No matter what genres you’re into, “Chromazone” is a must-hear for any guitarist or musician. Wes Montgomery pioneered the “three-tier” solo concept with single notes, octaves, and block-chord style playing. Stern pioneered a more modern, sonic approach to this technique by going from clean to slightly gritty to full-on overdrive with loads of great “rock-isms.”  Also, do yourself a favor and listen to Stern’s playing of “Jean Pierre” from Miles Davis We Want Miles; it’s MINDBLOWING!

JB:  Which of your albums best represents you as a player?

My most recent record, 180, on Origin Records (2022) is probably overall the best representation of me as a player and writer to date as a leader.  My record, Symmetricity, on Armored Records (2019) also shows some different sides of my playing; “Swirl” and “You, and You Alone” are some standouts maybe.  

JB:  Reflect upon your US Air Force years and what you found so rewarding in working with The Airmen of Note.

SP:  I was with “The Note” just shy of 8 years.  During that time, I was fortunate to travel all over the world playing jazz guitar.  We went to Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, England, Canada, The Azores, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain as well as most states within the United States.  We toured throughout the U.S., played jazz festivals and conferences, and recorded several records during this time.  We also did a lot of educational outreach at Universities and high schools throughout the country.  The Airmen of Note hosted the “Jazz Heritage Series” at the time (they still do), and I was able to play with many of my musical heroes as part of this series including Peter Erskine, Bob Berg, Mike Manieri, Conrad Herwig, Terry Gibbs, James Moody, Kirk Whalum, Jimmy Heath and many others. The arrangers during my time were Mike Crotty and Alan Baylock; two of the best writers around.  It was fulfilling to play with a group of musicians who play at the highest level of artistry night after night, and it made me a better musician.  All of that said the most rewarding part of my time in the Air Force was meeting my wife, Darden Purcell.  Darden sang with the band for about two years, so we even were able to tour together throughout the U.S. and overseas.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Benedetto guitar that you use?

SP:  My Benedetto Pat Martino model guitar is without a doubt the best feeling and sounding instrument I have ever played!  Pat has had a profound impact on me as a jazz guitarist and playing his Benedetto model is truly an honor, as the instrument embodies his legacy and impact on the jazz guitar world.  I first got hooked up with Howard Paul, President/CEO of Benedetto Guitars, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in New Orleans, in January 2020.  I was there performing with the Navy Commodores (My current gig) and my Airmen of Note predecessor, Wayne Wilkinson, who is one of the best jazz guitarists on the planet, invited me to come to the Benedetto booth.  I got to play a Pat Martino model alongside Wayne and Howard, and I was hooked!  It even felt great with the crazy-heavy strings utilized by Martino.  I called Howard about a week after the conference, and placed my order!  I am also truly honored to be a Benedetto artist!  

JB:  As an educator, what traps do jazz guitar students easily find themselves in?

SP:  There are many traps depending on the student, but one of the biggest today is streaming. When I was in my formative years as a musician, I had to find my way to a physical record store and comb through the stacks looking for the classics.  One particular trek found me at Tower Records in NYC and I luckily happened on Grant Green’s Talkin’ About and Dave Stryker’s Blue Degrees.  I only had enough money for these two CDs, and man I wore these out!  The CDs also had great liner notes so not only could I listen and study what I was hearing, but I could also read about the tunes and other musicians.  This led me to other musicians and records and so on and so on and so on.  Students now have streaming services as their main format for music listening and because of this, they can miss big pieces of the puzzle.  Most of the time when someone streams a track they have no idea who the artist is let alone what musicians are in the band or who composed the music.  Also, the set of music on an album takes the listener’s musical journey, and because students may tend to listen piecemeal, they also miss how to put together a one-hour set of music.  They also miss learning about the history of these artists as there are no liner notes on streaming services.  

JB:  How do you immerse yourself in a guitarist?

SP:  Let’s take Kurt Rosenwinkel for example.  Kurt is one of the most important and influential jazz guitarists of our time and deserves a high degree of study, but I’m also interested in the artists who influenced Kurt and how they impacted him as a musician.  Once this is discovered, the next step is to seek out those artists and discover who influenced them.  Rinse and repeat and you get a much broader overview of the history of the instrument/music.  Many album covers these days don’t list the side musicians, so again, the listener has no idea who is backing up the artist they are hearing.  These days I really try to encourage students to focus on one or two records rather than consuming hundreds in a surface-level way.  Get a few records and learn all of the tunes, the solos, the comping, bass lines, try to find the original liner notes, etc.  REALLY learn one record inside and out and you will have a large part of what you need as a musician.  Do this with 5-10 records and you arguably have everything!  I’ve had teachers in the past say that “all of the answers are on the records,” and I can’t agree with this more!  If you want to improve your solo guitar concept, check out Joe Pass. If you want to get your lines and changes playing together check out Martino, Grant Green, and George Benson.  If you want to get your octaves and block chord playing together, check out Wes.  If your comping needs work, check out Ed Bickert on Paul Desmond’s Pure Desmond, or John Scofield on Chris Potter’s album Unspoken.  This should go on and on throughout your life. 

I hope I am not overgeneralizing how my students listen to music and I apologize if it comes off like I am as most of my students do really immerse themselves in the tradition.  But I do think because of streaming and the overwhelming amount of information out there it has become more challenging to break the surface and do a deep dive into the music.

JB:  Talk about the jazz scene in the greater Washington DC area and the type of gigs you do.

SP:  In my opinion, the Washington D.C. area has one of the strongest and most unique and vibrant music scenes in the country.  We’re also about an hour from Baltimore which also has a great scene.  Many musicians work regularly in both cities.  D.C. has a very good jazz scene, an incredible show scene (countless professional theaters throughout), and a ton of corporate/restaurant-type work.  A versatile guitarist can work a ton and do very well.  As far as the types of gigs I do, I’ll list everything in the past year or so and I hope these gigs represent the variety D.C. has.

Currently, my main gig is as a jazz guitarist with the US Navy Band Commodores jazz ensemble in Washington DC.  I’m actually about to retire from this gig in June.  The Commodores perform about 80-85 gigs per year in the D.C. region as well as throughout the country.  It has been a great steady job for a jazz guitarist, but with retirement, I will be able to pursue so many other opportunities.  I am also an Adjunct Professor of Jazz Guitar and Jazz Arranging at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, about 15 minutes outside of downtown D.C.  Mason has a great jazz faculty and program, and although I am an adjunct I am there several days a week.

As far as different types of gigs aside from my main work:  I play at the historic “Blues Alley” jazz club about 5-10 times a year as a leader and as a sideman.  In fact, Darden and I have performed our last 4 CD release shows there.  “Blues Alley” is consistently listed as one of the top jazz clubs in the world, and we are so grateful to have this venue right here in our backyard.  I have also had the honor of playing at “Keystone Korner” in Baltimore.  Another great jazz venue!

I also get a chance to occasionally play with the National Symphony Orchestra, and I just this past week had the honor of performing at the Kennedy Center for their tribute to the great Duke Ellington.  

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