Chicago’s Sean Haefeli is no newcomer to the music game. Having completed two albums and an EP over the course of a decade, the vocalist, pianist and composer has already drawn comparisons to the great Gil-Scott Heron and José James with his unique soulful flow and contemporary jazz style. His third full album, ‘Rise’, released in July last year, fuses elements of soul, jazz, hip hop and spoken word and has gained many plaudits from around the world, his rich and velvety tone bewitching many a listener along the way. Originally hailing from the USA but now a resident of Berlin, Germany, Sean has spent the last year or so developing his craft this side of the globe and after a show for those West London stalwarts Jazz re:freshed back in March, we are very pleased to welcome Sean back to London for a evening of live music under our ‘Jazz Meet Presents’ banner this Sunday 14th July. Joining him on the Floripa stage on the night will be London-based musicians Samer Sharawi on bass and Joe Evans on drums.
Before he visited us this weekend, we briefly caught up with Sean to conjure up an introductory tale of the man, his music and what makes him tick. Take a listen to Sean’s latest album below through the wonders of his Bandcamp page and then read on to find out what he had to tell us…
Sean, in past interviews you’ve spoken about your mother’s passion for music and your father’s life as a working musician. Did both these factors ultimately influence your decision to become a musician? What are some of your earliest musical memories?
My ﬁrst musical memory is Chuck Mangione’s ‘Feels So Good’, I was just a baby, but I remember hearing this melody. The ﬁrst cassettes I had were, LL Cool J’s ‘I’m Bad’, and a dubbed copy of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed to Ill’. I vividly recall riding with my cousin Jay, blasting ‘I’m Bad’, that bass line shaking the whole car, heads turning, made an impression on me.
Fortunately, I grew up in an environment where music was encouraged. My father, a trumpet player, worked with the Bill Chase Band, Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign, the Playboy Club house band, and as the press release said, “other gigs too jive to mention”, but was murdered in an unsolved homicide. So, I was not inﬂuenced in the typical way of having a parent who was a professional musician. However, even as a baby, he had suggested to my mother that I should play the piano. My mother played guitar, wrote songs, and had a lovely voice, but never pursued music as a career. And when I started formally studying music at the age of seven, my stepfather was the one hauling me around, from school to piano lessons, to athletic teams, a rock-solid man, old-school-honourable.
In the late 2000s, you left your native Chicago and relocated to Europe. Since then you’ve spent some time in Paris, and currently are living and performing in a resurgent Berlin. How are you ﬁnding Berlin compared to Paris and do you think the move away from the US has ultimately beneﬁted you as a musician? Do any artist serious about their craft should consider experiencing life in a different countries and cultures?
Creatively, I don’t recall the experience of being in Paris translating directly, but then again, it has to make some impression being in such a colorful, stylish, historically and culturally rich city. I’ve traveled so much, it has largely been a holistic effect, a sense of adventure, the feeling of freedom and knowing that there are unlimited ways to live, perceive, imagine, deﬁne, and invent. I have only been in Berlin since October, and deﬁnitely feel rejuvenated by the youthful, carefree, and vibrant energy. I don’t think it’s necessary to travel, but at the same time, I ﬁnd it important to take risks. And throwing yourself in a foreign culture presents challenges, but opens all sorts of new opportunities. For me, I was too comfortable in Chicago, and needed to put myself on edge, navigate new pathways. Routines can provide a foundation for development, but they can also lead to stasis and decay. It’s important to assess and reassess.
How do you approach the writing process? Are you the type of person that continuously sketches ideas if and when the inspiration hits or are you more akin to locking yourself in a room for a few months and writing a whole album?
I am always thinking about music and listening for inspiration. This might come from any element within the music, a beat, bass groove, harmonic voicing, a rhyme scheme, anything. There are so many inventive people out there, and the increasing democratization of music making has probably opened the gateway for a lot of people who might otherwise feel unable to enter this creative world, without having had formal training, so there’s no shortage of source material. I deﬁnitely work more from a standpoint of a continuous process. For me, the idea of shutting out everything and being only absorbed in writing would not be enjoyable. I continue to practice at least a few hours every day and have this constant appetite to discover new music anyway, so it already exists in a good balance. I have cultivated an approach and lifestyle over the course of many years, which allows me to continue developing, so I go with the working formula. Things get shaken up enough, by moving around, so I ﬁnd the continuity in certain routines allows freedom in the creative life. I don’t need hyper-indulgence to get inspired. I remember the time when I realized that I needed to get serious about music and started practicing piano around six hours a day. I felt like I had lost time, and had some resentment about not having my biological father around, who certainly could have showed me a lot musically. I set some challenge for myself, which might not have been fair, but drove me. I wanted to reach the level I would have, had I not experienced this loss. I refused to allow tragedy to deﬁne my life, and tried my best to make sure that this talent would not go unfulﬁlled.
Coupled with your music career, you’ve also consistently pursued training in martial arts. What forms are you ﬂuent in and as it’s quite a disciplined sport, has it had any effect in the way you approach your music?
I started training in Tae Kwon Do at seven years of age, same as music. I learned discipline and respect. My master was on a high level, tough and no nonsense, but cared about his students. Since, I’ve trained in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, freestyle and submission wrestling. There are many parallels that can be drawn between the training. And in the moment you are sparring, there can be nothing else in your mind. When someone is trying to punch you in the head, what else would you be thinking about? When performing, it should be the same urgency of awareness.
You’ve self-released all your work so far through avenues such as Bandcamp. There is a growing school of thought that technology is making it easier for musicians to market themselves without the need of a label perse. What have been your experiences so far? Would you recommend the route to other artists seeking to make a name for themselves independently?
I chose this route, not because it was the one I initially set out to pursue. I would have liked to have been on a label at some point. However, it was not to be the case. I always fell between the cracks. I understand that from their perspective, everything has to be the perfect timing, and they can’t afford to take so many risks. They are also inundated with demos. My music is often not processed on the ﬁrst listen. What would they listen for on this ﬁrst pass, maybe one minute, if lucky? The lyrics, in themselves, must be considered. I have invested a lot of time, attempting to craft words which have signiﬁcance, independent from the music. And then there are all of the musical elements to process. It can be difficult to pin down where it’s coming from musically, so I don’t see how it could have been successful, given these considerations. This is not just A&R, of course. We all have so much going on. To listen to an entire album is a massive commitment, it seems. To do so without checking email, sending texts, looking up any number of miscellaneous things which might pop into your head, a monumental request. These are challenges we all face. Multitasking does not come without compromise. Maybe we shouldn’t have to work so hard to extract meaning. Life is meaningful, and we have to make sure that we are allowing ourselves to experience this fundamental beauty. Music is clearly one of the most profound expressions of this meaning, I try to tap into this. My advice to other artists is to respect the music, honor your craft, meditate, reﬂect, listen, and try to create work which you would ﬁnd inspiring, because we are already overwhelmed with media. I have no brilliant advice about the business because any success I have achieved comes through this dedication. Every day, I am thrilled and motivated by the thought that I only grasp but a tiny fraction of the knowledge and wisdom contained within.
I often think the last twenty or so years have been so fruitful in terms of the ‘soulful’ music that has been produced across genres, meaning there’s a whole new era of music to draw inspiration from if you dig hard enough. Your sound now melds elements of hip-hop, soul, spoken world and jazz which over the past ﬁve to six years have seen a bit of a resurgence of fortunes on the underground. Is it currently an exciting time to be an artist? Do you identify with any of your current peers?
Yes, when Robert Glasper wins a Grammy for best R&B album, I have no idea if I am making underground music anymore. And of course, there are the successes of male jazz/soul voices, Jose James and Gregory Porter, which is great for someone like me. I identify with these artists, because I think we came up listening to a lot of the same music. Run this through personal ﬁlters, and then you never know where it goes. Hearing Mikah 9 on Freestyle Fellowship’s ‘Parkbench People’ around ’95, had a huge impact, so James’ recording made sense. I also listened to this music and imagined how I might integrate these elements, from a stylistic perspective and within my identity as a vocalist, pianist, and lyricist.
Thanks for the insight Sean, as a little sign off, can you leave us with a song you’ve recently been bumping on your headphones?
Thundercat’s ‘Apocalypse’, a wonderful album. Check out the track ‘Lotus and the Jondy’…
–Rob Coley, Jazz Meet
“It won’t take many spins of On Deck 3 to realize that most of these cuts will have a hard time finding a place on most hot R&B and hip-hop stations, or even most UAC stations. The irony is that the cuts on On Deck 3 would have received airplay at a time in the not too distant past. The easy fusion of a lyrical MC such as Sean Haefeli with hard bop jazz on the track “Essential” brings to mind artists such as The Digable Planets or The Native Tongues collective and most notably the late Guru whose Jazzmatazz records still draw a loyal following.” –Howard Dukes
Roger Riddle’s Earshot
This is one talented cat. Go ahead and look at all that style. If you had to guess as to what kind of music he made, what would you think?
Yep. Jazz. And he is something we don’t too often hear from the world of Jazz any more.
This Berlin based Jazz phenom is a vocalist as well as a pianist, a lyricist, and a composer. He has self released three albums, and to top it all off … he’s a model. If you were that smooth wouldn’t you be a model too? You’d wake up, look in the mirror and say, “I think I am going to be a model today,” and walk out your house on the way to a photo shoot.
Ok. Let’s get back to the music this man creates. He has a deep voice and his style of singing seems to stand on the point where rapping, scatting, and singing all cross. My very first though was that his style was in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron.
His band is tight. They remind me of The Roots circa Do You Want More?!!!??!. At times on Rise, Haefeli’s newest album, he opts for the warm tones of the Fender Rhodes instead of a piano, giving the album a feel more like a mid 70s Jazz album. However, on “Essential” when he does play piano, you get a glimpse of how talented a pianist this young man really is.
There’s not much more I need to say here. Now it’s up to you to give it a listen.
Hella excited about this July Next Step winner of ours! Berlin based pianist, vocalist, lyricist, and composer Sean Haefeli mesmerized us with his vocal jazz that’s sprinkled with welcome notes of Jose James and Gil Scott-Heron.
Others have referenced Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Michael Franti, Bobby McFerrin, and Gregory Porter when speaking about his music. Looks like dude has a pretty fail proof thing going on as far as many are concerned.
Sean’s sound blends jazz, soul, hip hop, and spoken word to birth warm, honest, and intimate music perfect for cozying up to as winter approaches. RISE marks his third album, which similar to his previous two is self-produced and released.
Released earlier this month, vocalist/keyboardist, lyricist/composerSean Haefeli has returned with a tremendous jazz/soul fusion album, Rise. With solid production driven by Sean’s unique blend of rhymes and singing, this album places him firmly in line with Jose James and Gregory Porter as a contemporary jazzman to watch.
If you’re not familiar with the name Sean Haefeli yet, then it’s high time you change that. Hailing from Chi-town, it’s hard to believe that the singer/producer/pianist has been floating below the radar for a little over a decade, since the release of his 2002 debut, Natural Hunger. He’s looking to expand his reach in the jazz world with the release of his third album, RISE, available for digital download via BandCamp. A tight blend of jazz with a dash of hip-hop sensibilities thrown in for good measure, RISE feels like a cool glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. Showcasing his smooth vocals, he blurs the lines between singing and it’s more melodic cousin spoken word, often fluctuating between both deliveries within the same song. Proving himself quite the adept lyricist as well, Haefeli’s sound is traditional enough to appeal to jazz purists, yet contemporary enough to appeal to all others. -Ivory
Radio 6 Holland
Wauw, can’t believe I never heard of Sean Haefeli before but he kinda reminds me of Jose James. Good jazzy, soulful, hiphop mixture. Liking the vibes. –Angelique Hootveen
Poet-reviewer, kalamu ya salaam
We say we’d like to hear something different from the same-old, same-old; why does all the music on the radio have to sound so much alike? Yet, when we encounter something truly different, what do we do? In general we ignore the different because in order to appreciate the newness we would have to move outside of our status-quo comfort zones.
I was intrigued when I first heard Sean Haefeli’s music but also a bit irritated that I couldn’t immediately identify what all was going on. Then I saw a photo of Sean and that significantly upped my confusion index. And that last name, was it Middle Eastern? But he was from Chicago—as if there were no Muslims of color in Chi, whose Southside back in the day was one of the headquarters and concentrations of the Nation of Islam.
Bit by bit I learned a little more about Mr. Haefeli. His father Carl Haefeli was a trumpet player with the funk ensemble the Ebony Rhythm Band.
About his childhood, Sean candidly acknowledges “the two things I’ve done the longest and am strongest at are martial arts and music, both of which I started when I was seven years old.”
Sean mother, a music enthusiast enrolled him in classical piano lessons. By high school he was singing and during his first year of college studied opera for a year before completing a bachelor’s in literature from Depaul. After a six month stint in France the musician decided to return to school. He’s studying jazz piano at Indiana University Bloomington.
When I searched for photos on the internet I saw the chiseled physique of a male model—but at times he also exudes the charm of the boy next door who went away to college and molded himself into someone who was obviously going places in life. Who was this cat?
And his music; the lyrics sound like modern poetry, sort of a cross between Ezra Pound in the metro and some alternative spoken word down by the Green Mill in Chicago. Jazz is the major influence but there are strong pop elements as well. Like I said, something different. Moreover, the music is adventurous. He takes unexpected twists and turns, puts lyrics you have to listen to at least thrice in order to decipher the deeptitudes being discussed. Some times it swings, some times it grooves but there is always something emotionally moving going on.
Sean has one 4-track EP, Sound Strategy (2007), and one full length album, Hunger (2002). I’ve heard snippets of selections from his forthcoming release. The man is definitely doing something different and if you give his sounds half a chance, you just might find yourself embracing some wonderfully idiosyncratic, other kinds of contemporary music. Don’t be reluctant to dig the different. –kalamu ya salaam
New City Music
With hands classically trained on the keys, a throwback voice that croons and a head/heart for jazz, soul and hip-hop, modern renaissance man Sean Haefeli exudes the sort of classic cool that manages to sound polished and expressive, without sounding like the latest CD for sale on the counter of your local Starbucks. –Duke Shin
Black Girls Rule! Magazine
Sean Haefeli a native of Chicago is an artist that is focused, structured and uncompromising. His style inflicts personality, charisma, emotion, character and most of all originality. By no means a traditional artist, Haefeli risks his soul if only to keep the soul and passion in his music. Think Seal and Last poets mixed in with Sly and the Family Stone and you have one hell of an artist that simply brings it, while never compromising his integrity. This CD is not for the traditional music head, but more for the escape artist, who wants to lavish themselves in pure unadulterated blues and soul.
Natural Hunger says it all in its title. With its ear tingling verses Sean simply draws you in and bares his soul never once leaving you astray. What a beautiful inside view into a man who wants only to take you where he’s been and how he’s living. This is a rare find and definitely a keeper in my eyes. Sean Haefeli is an artist for all seasons.
Nu Soul Magazine
Sean Haefeli’s independently released four-song EP, Sound Strategy, portrays a skilled and passionate musician who strives to put his best foot forward using nothing more or less than he’s always known to be true to his core being. His sound is founded in the jazz he spent his childhood years exposed to, and rounded out by hints of hip-hop, soul, groove, and electronic that defined the culture of his generation. His belief in open sincerity comes across in his music, lyrics, and the personal character drawn from each song.
Mellow pianos, horns, and bass maintain an easy feel throughout the CD. Yet as a testament to the urbanism of Haefeli’s generation, the vocals are extremely rhythmic (a distraction from his lack of pure singing ability) and decidedly hip-hop, laced with an underlying degree of forwardness and aggression.
Although Haefeli describes his album as a “fusion of jazz, soul, hip-hop, and modern groove” the sound is mainly grounded in jazz, the likes of which his father played professionally and Sean himself was educated formerly. It’s as if Haefeli purposely avoids venturing into anything too modern or commercial, instead sticking to the roots he knows for sure make him content. The drums and bass parlay into deeper grooves and hip-hop style rhythms on occasion, but mostly remain true to his musical background.
The final track, Balance, is the greatest exception, best described as a mish-mash of styles on every level. Every instrument as it is played in the song, from the drums to the horns to the vocals would fit into a jazz or soul piece as easily it would a rap song.
Much like Sean portrays himself, the album makes the best of what jazz and its adjacent genres have to offer. The result should be equally familiar to yesteryear’s jazz enthusiasts and today’s hip-hop, spoken word, soul, and new groove fans. – Nokware Knight
A long-overdue return by this up-and-coming Chicago talent, and a really amazing batch of tracks! It’s been a number of years since we last heard from singer Sean Haefeli, but he’s really been using that time to develop his groove tremendously! The sound here is much jazzier than on Haefeli’s debut, but it’s also not strictly a jazz album, because Sean uses jazz vocal roots, and fuses them to a hipper 21st Century sense of rhythm, one that’s really amazing, and which brings fresh surprises with each new track on the EP! There’s only 4 tracks here, but they’re all pretty darn great, provided with live instrumental backings by a small combo, but coming off with a deftly creative flair that reminds us of some of the best contemporary work coming from the London scene. Titles include “Off Speed”, “Speaking Of Race”, “Stimulus”, and “Balance”.
Mercedes-Benz Mixed Tape
Whether obscure, warm, aggressive or soulful, Sean Haefeli’s music is a testament to the breadth and depth of his creative background. Fusing jazz, soul, hip-hop and other modern groove traditions, the results are a fresh, intense and challenging mix of all the different, stimulating directions life has thrown him.
Born in Indianapolis and raised in Chicago (USA), Haefeli’s mother was a singer/songwriter, while his father played the trumpet for Bill Chase, Frank Sinatra Jr., the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign and ‘other gigs too jive to mention at the local Playboy club. Trained as a classical pianist, Sean’s first tape might have been L.L. Cool J., yet later on he entered university as an opera major, graduated with a degree in English literature and finally decided to immerse himself in jazz and improvisation.
2002 saw the release of his album debut ‘Natural Hunger’, triggering references to the Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Michael Franti, ‘soft jazz crooners and even old school rhythm and blues masters.’
Three years ago, he decided to channel his energies into the Sean Haefeli Project to integrate electronic elements with bass, drums, keys, vocals and horns. Adapting a visionary blend of jazz, soul and electronic that departs from established structural and lyrical conventions, the metrically shape-shifting ‘Off-Speed’ is just one example of this latest project.
For more unpredictable delights, check out ‘Sound Strategy’ (2006) or visit his website for more recent sound experiments.
With a deep voice, jazz sound and thought-provoking lyrics, which can be heard in spoken word, rap or singing styles, the Sean Haefeli Project, is solo artist, Sean Haefeli’s most recent recording, entitled ‘Sound Strategy’. His musical influences vary from L.L Cool J’s cassette tapes, to the sophisticated sounds of The Last Poets, Robert Flack, Michael Franti, and other soft soul/jazz artists of that period. This latest album makes audiences aware that he is no old school music folk, giving him a new name, The Sean Haefeli Project, already providing us with evidence of his new creative direction. The EP ‘Sound Strategy’, has four songs, refreshing to the ears, with a talented live band. Sean Haefeli himself, delivers tongue twister style lyrics in different vocal capabilities, Sean Haefeli is obviously a man who has a great appreciation for music, the EP has head nodding jazz grooves, to soul surrendering fender Rhodes keyboards. –Matthew Daniel
An equal meeting of humming, thunking, classy jazz courting a sly, slippery, fluid package of urban soul. This man can conjure stored music memories of Michael Franti, Seal, and the Last Poets, soft jazz crooners and even old school rhythm and blues masters. Supporting the bridge between the genres which have never seemed so compatible and complementary are his substantial, centered vocals, aimed from the gut. There’s not a doubt that his music is committed, intent on solidifying its vibe. “Natural Hunger” speaks to a human longing and goes out of its way to satisfy it.
A pretty interesting CD from Chicago vocalist Sean Haefeli, a blend of jazz and soul with a wickedly contemplative finish! The work’s very subtle, kind of sneaking up on you in a mix of small combo instrumentation that features some really nice piano by Sean, vocals adrift a bit, sometimes spoken, almost in a beat jazz approach, at other times bubbling up with the mellow warmth of an early album by Roberta Flack. Haefeli’s got a big vision here, and although the CD’s got a few rough edges, it’s clear that he’s heading into rich territory, and will be a singer to keep our eyes on in coming years!