Track by Track – Sean McGowan Reflects on His Latest CD Portmanteau!

Benedetto Artist and Jazz Guitar Life writer Dr. Wayne Goins found himself in the thick of it at the most recent Rocky Mountain Archtop Guitar Festival in Arvada, Colorado. Serendipitously bumping into Denver Jazz guitarist Sean McGowan, Dr. Goins was put to work to deep dive Sean’s latest solo outing Portmanteau. The resulting review/interview is below and is a fascinating and insightful look into the “behind-the-scenes” that make up this wonderful piece of work. So sit back and enjoy…

But first…


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I recently participated as a Benedetto Artist at the prestigious Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival in Arvada. On the very first day I arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn near Olde Town, I found myself huddled with the masses of jazz guitar stars lounging in the lobby. Seemingly within minutes, none other than Sean McGowan strolled by and we caught each other’s eye. After an embrace, he handed me a copy of his newest recording, and we both knew I would be not only digging the sounds but also cookin’ up a review immediately. Once I was able to get home after the festival and had allowed the stardust to clear from the heady experience we all had in Colorado (and it truly was indeed a star-studded occasion for jazz guitar enthusiasts), I got down to business.

Portmanteau is an Old English term rarely used in today’s lexicon, but it’s the perfect title for this album—after all, the definition of word itself represents, at least according to Webster, a collection of pieces specifically gathered together in one setting. More recently, however, the term also has been redefined as a blending together of two disparate items, resulting into yet a third, newer moniker (i.e., a breakfast and lunch suddenly becomes a brunch.) With that spirit in mind, this album invites you to feast upon Sean McGowan’s tasty blend of the four musical elements of basslines, chords, melody, and solos as he unveils the latest forays of his beloved fingerstyle jazz.

Sean McGowan has gathered a collection of classic jazz standards which serves to remind listeners that he still has great depth of understanding and appreciation for the foundation of great songs writing. These well-constructed tunes pretty much play themselves, and in the hands of an orchestrator of McGowan’s caliber, the possibilities seem boundless.

When I asked him to tell me about the concept of the entire album project, he offered this:

SM: Sure. Well, usually I like to have a theme when I go into the studio to make a record. And you know, I did that with the Monk record and with My Fair Lady, and this time I just wanted to do a collection of some of my favorite standards. Some of them are very well known and some of them lesser known, and I thought I was really attracted to the title of the album, Portmanteau, which basically…I guess the official definition is two words put together to create a new word, to create something new. And that was the concept behind this. Even though they’re time-honored standards and jazz classics, I think I draw on so many different influences and inspirations for my style of playing that the metaphor is a portmanteau— lots of different things to create kind of a new take on standards for solo guitar.

I then asked him about how he eventually chose the songs that he did for the album.

SM: Well, those are tunes that I play quite a bit with bands. Of course, you know, “All The Things You Are” is something that’s been recorded a million times, but I knew that I wanted to do a reharmonization of that. So with each song that I planned to record I had certain things in mind that I wanted to accomplish with them, whether it was a feel thing, a rhythmic thing or a specific reharmonization. With “All the Things,” generally when I go into the studio for a solo guitar record, I kind of have three different modalities or modes of thinking. One is that the parts are very intricate and worked out in advance, almost like a classical guitar piece. That’s the case with “Anthropology” for sure. A second area is kind of like half and half. I have a blueprint for the melody, and I kind of know where it goes in a few different places on the neck, but there’s also quite a bit of improvisation in there as well–harmonic improvisation, single note lines, and even rhythmic improvisation. And then a third thing that I go for is just going into the studio and improvising a hundred percent, almost as if I was on a gig. And so each of the songs in this recording fit into those three categories.

Have You Met Miss Jones,” was a great way to start off the set. I hear so much of Joe Pass here—the countermelodies weaved throughout the solo. I especially appreciated the bluesy line during the last chorus of solos, yet another touch of Joe Pass. I appreciated the clarity of tune, the punchiness of his touch.

SM: That’s a tune that I think a lot of guitar players love. It’s so much fun to play, especially over the three tonic system and the bridge. That one, I knew that I didn’t wanna necessarily keep a walking bass line throughout the whole thing. I really treated it as a counterpoint. So when I arranged the ‘head,’ I tried to imagine like, you know, playing with a great bass player and what the bass player might do in response to the melody. Not just play a walking bass line, but more of a conversational effect. So I imagined what it would be like to play with somebody like Ray Brown or Sam Jones and what they might play. So that’s how a lot of the bass line counterpoint is constructed in that idea. And then the solo section is pretty free-formed. Some of the things however, I have already worked out—the really intricate double stop things and a lot of things that are inspired by various guitar players. And I kind of work it out so that I have the geography on the neck, and then I can improvise freely from there. So I have some things worked out on that, but counterpoint was the essence that I wanted to go for in that tune.

“Our Love Is Here To Stay” has a great introduction. A beautiful languid run at the front. Of course his right hand harmonics are on point. The touch and tone of Earl Klugh permeates the entirety of the piece. When I mentioned Klugh, Sean replied:

SM: That is one of my favorite tunes. And that’s a similar approach to “Ms. Jones” in that I really wanted to create some dialogue, but in this case, dialogue between the chords comping and the melody, while the bass just keeps the feel, moving and propelling forward with chord notes. So that one has a definite arrangement, but the solo is improvised and it’s more of a block chord solo. With that song I hear more of like a Wes approach or a piano approach, rather than a lot of single note lines.

I went deeper and asked him about the influence of the nylon-string jazz guitar master from Detroit, Earl Klugh (who, by the way, was the very first publicly-acknowledged prodigy of none other than George Benson). Here’s what Sean had to say about Klugh:

SM: Yeah. So I mean, I think musically I just, I love playing solo guitar. I love creating arrangements and I love improvising and it’s something that I knew I wanted to do. Of course, I think you know, my biggest inspiration in that regard is Earl Klugh, just in terms of his accuracy and elegance in the way he plays multiple parts so convincingly and so musically. That was an aesthetic that I really went for on this album! To not only play multiple parts technically, but really create a feel so that a melody might be really like long and sustained while the other backup parts are legato. And to really focus a lot of energy on the articulation of parts so that it really does create a musical illusion of more than one person playing.

On “Anthropology,” he doesn’t try to burn through the classic bop tune, yet instead treats it with all the subtly and nuance that the tune deserves. Still, he applies the Coltrane back cycles of chords in fourths, and also does a beautiful double-time run of sixteenth notes, as well as a sequence of minor second chromatic passages. The blues runs that he weaves during the second chorus is equally impressive.

SM: That’s like a classical guitar piece in the sense that it’s all worked out because there’s no way I could play it any other way! <laughs>. I couldn’t improvise that. So I worked out the melody and again, thought of it like a counterpoint-type of bass. So there’s really the feeling or the sense of a dialogue, a conversation happening between the parts. But then when it gets to the solo section, it’s kind of in the middle category of… like, half worked-out and half -improvised. I know some things that I wanna do. And, you know, one of the things that’s really fun to do with solo guitar—because you don’t have to worry about a bass player or a piano player following the changes—is you can really explore the harmony. So one thing that I like to do a lot on blues or rhythm changes is do cycle of fourth movements. So I really go through you know, the circle of fifths and that’s really fun to kind of superimpose over the rhythm changes.

I think this album was a great answer to his previous album. He swings throughout, his timing is impeccable, his tone is sparkling…recorded at during the month of August using an array of exquisite custom-built guitars, including a 2003 Virtuoso and 2012 Solstice built by Brad Nickerson; a 2018 True Blue built by Tad Brown, and an LHT Guitars Cadenza built by Tyler Wells. Of course, they’re all powered by his Henriksen jazz amps.

Harmonics open up his beautiful arrangement of “Moonlight In Vermont.” His rubato arrangement allows his single-note passage to flourish, both flashy and flowing. He only needs to play throughout the tune once, a perfect straight-ahead, no-nonsense approach—it’s simply beautiful.

SM: Yeah, that was the third category—I mentioned earlier—of just going the studio and improvise a hundred percent. And that’s nice because it keeps things fresh and it also takes the pressure off me having to memorize too much material. So that one starts off with a bunch of harmonic flourishes that I learned many years ago, and I really liked that effect on guitar. And then I basically just kind of improvised throughout the ‘head’.

“Joyspring” is a perfect answer to the rubato piece, with its medium-tempo bounce. I loved the fact that he took an entire chorus of bass/chord lines without a single note solo on top, then followed it with a blend of single-note/chord progression. For some reason this tune really captured my attention regarding the tonal depth and range of his instrument.

SM: That’s a song that definitely I started playing with just as a technical exercise for myself. And I knew I wanted to do the intro like the original Clifford Brown version and moving into the “head” because it’s really…it would be basically impossible and frankly kind of uninteresting to keep a walking bass line constantly behind the melody. That’s another thing where I sought to create some counterpoint and dialogue between the bass chords and melody, and it’s a lot of fun to solo. So I had the framework on the head for that one, and then the solos are a hundred percent improvised.

I just love the reharmonization of the standard, “All The Things You Are”—he takes a well-worn piece and breathes new love and passion into it. After the opening timeless statement, he eases into a relaxed tempo, dispensing solo licks as casually as you please, and thanking you very much as he strolls along. How many keys did he encounter along the way, and where did he end?

SM: That was one that I had a harmonic framework for the first melody that I do rubato. And you know, that’s one of those songs that, yes, it’s been recorded a million times, but I love it. And I know a lot of guitar players love that song as well. So we all like to put our own spin on things. So that one for me was a little bit of an exercise in reharmonization. So I never tamper with the melody, but I did expand the harmony quite a bit for the first melody. That’s all rubato. And then the middle section, I start blowing over the changes and that’s a hundred percent improvised, and then I kind of take it out with the head moving in time with a walking bass line underneath it. And again, truly really trying to create the illusion of a couple of different instruments having a conversation. And yes, Joe Pass is obviously an influence in that one.

“Stars Fell On Alabama” is one that had more exposure back in the day, which means that it’s even more refreshing to have such a chestnut revisited here. And what a wonderful arrangement it is delivered delicately with care and compassion. Here’s his commentary:

SM: That’s another one in “Category 3.” I just went into the studio and improvised it right off the top of my head. One take! Most of these songs are just in one take—a couple of tthe arranged ones I did in two takes so we could do some editing if needed be, if I missed a note or something. But yeah, ‘Stars Fell On Alabama” is one of my all-time favorite tunes. Just tried to go for a vibe, and I really wanted to keep it slow and simple, not too flashy, just really listenable. And of course, some nods to Johnny Smith in some of the things I play in the head.

His light, carefree offering of “Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams” was unique. That was one that I wasn’t that familiar with in terms of me playing it on a regular basis. But I did know it was an old chestnut. When I told him that he agreed.

SM: Yeah, it’s a really cool old tune written by Harry Barris, and I think the most well-known recording of it is by Bing Crosby. There’s actually a hilarious outtake recording of him where he gets lost in the form, or the arranger changed the form on him, and he…he starts swearing. There’s all this profanity, but he is improvising these lyrics with profanity through it. It’s pretty hilarious. But yeah, it’s a cool old tune and, you know, for the feel on it, I used to play this Earth Wind and Fire tune—their version of “Got To Get You Into My Life.” I used to play that on solo guitar a little bit and I kind of wanted to go for that type of feel on an old chestnut like this. I think it worked.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” has a beautiful introduction, which is an artform in itself (but that’s another subject for another time!) McGowan finesses the melody gracefully, lacing it with lyrical, intrical lattice work.

SM: Man. This is one of my all-time favorite songs. It is so beautiful, amazing. Tommy Wolf composed this—this song is like a hallmark for jazz singers, you know, especially female vocalists actually. Not just jazz, but a lot of pop singers have recorded this. And the more I listened to versions of this song by singers, the more I fell in love with it. And for this one, I really strived to create a lyrical melancholy sense to the song, even though for solo guitar there’s no lyrics, but I really tried to make it as expressive as possible. And again my guiding light for that is Earl Klugh and the way he makes his melodies so expressive, whether he is playing just the melody or a full solo guitar arrangement.

We then got into specific areas that one needs to read in its uncut context to get the full effect, so here we go:

JGL: I read the liner notes and I found out about the three guitars that you used on the album and which songs used which ones, so that’s really cool!

SM: Yeah, yeah. I thought it would be fun  for people who are real guitar enthusiasts and the guitar nerds out there, it’s kind of fun because you have the same player, same studios, same amp set up, but different guitars, so you can hear the subtle differences between them.

JGL: Now, which, which one of the Hendrickson amps were you using? Were you using the Bud 10?

SM: Yeah, I actually had a pretty complicated setup. So that, along with an old early sixties Fender, Princeton tube amp, and then the third amp was a bass amp, just a solid state bass amp that they had laying around in the studio, but it had a 15 inch speaker. And I knew that I wanted that to capture some of that real big low end. Some of my favorite guitar players over the years—Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland—they all, at one time or another, used a amp with a 15 inch speaker. And having that 15 inch speaker just gives you a sound that you can’t get without it. So we basically re-miked those three amps. And then we also had a direct source through a Grace design preamp, and then a fifth source was a room mic. So there was a lot going on for a solo guitar record, but really that gave us a lot of freedom and choice to create the sound that we wanted. And I like a big, a real big low end.

JGL: So you had all of those going on at the same time?

SM: Yep, yep. My chain went like this: Into a Grace Design preamp, and then I went into two delay pedals, even though I didn’t use delay, but they had stereo outs, so that enabled me to give a direct signal to the board and then play through three amps simultaneously.

JGL: Wow. That is elaborate!

SM: <Laugh>. It’s a lot, but it gives you a lot of flexibility when you’re mixing. You can really get the best of each signal and dial it in.

JGL: Wow, that’s amazing. I would’ve never known. I just know the album sounds great, but most listeners wouldn’t know that it was that setup. They just know it sounds wonderful—really wide and deep and round and meaty.

SM: Well thanks, I appreciate that. You know, my influence for that is actually acoustic finger-style players, which of course, I love that style. All the Windham Hill players, like Michael Hedges, was well known for using four to five signals to record. He had the Frap system in his guitar, he had the Sunrise pickup, he had acoustic mics as well as ambient mics. So and that resulted in this huge, larger than life sound. So that’s kind of what I was going for.

JGL: Okay, so you took a page out of his book.

SM: Exactly.

JGL: Yeah, well that’s about it, man. We got it. We got the full interview and under 20 minutes, so congratulations!

SM: <Laugh>. Well, I appreciate you. I love how you went track by track. that was a cool idea. And man, I just really appreciate you listening to it and your time and energy in writing something. It’s really great man. I appreciate you and your time and we’ll be in touch soon.

JGL: Thanks a lot brother. Thanks for taking the time to do this with me.

SM: Thank YOU—I so appreciate it.

JGL: Talk to you later.

SM: Take care.

It’s been a year and a half since his last album, Union Station was offered in 2020 but for now, nine tunes is more than enough to satisfy our needs and hold us over ‘til the next outing. I have such a great appreciation that he uses a “hit it and quit it” approach to each of these tunes, never lingering too long, while never neglecting the important aspects of balancing the four corners of bass line, chord progression, melody and solo. The entire album can be enjoyed in under forty minutes, and that’s less time than you will have wasted watching on an hour-long rerun of whatever episode of whatever show you’ve already seen on YouTube TV. Trust me, the time is much better spent doing what I just did—kicking back, relaxing and getting lost in the mélange of melodies McGowan is cookin’ up on this album.

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