Alison Shearer discovered her love of music at an early age, when she was introduced to the recorder in third grade. From there, she pivoted to the flute, then to her middle school jazz band. She “immediately fell in love with music,” she said.
“I was lucky—I feel like it chose me,” Shearer said. “I was very passionate from a young age.”
Shearer will travel to Moab with her jazz quartet during the Moab Music Festival’s Winterlude, which runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 4. The week includes a number of adult and student workshops led by Shearer and a few different performances—during performances, Shearer will play both jazz classics and a few songs from her album, “View From Above,” released last year.
The Moab Sun News chatted with Shearer about Winterlude and her career as a musician.
MSN: How did you get started as a jazz musician, and how did you end up choosing the saxophone as your instrument?
Shearer: I started music at an early age. In third grade, I started on the recorder, and then I pivoted to the flute in elementary school and pretty much immediately fell in love with music.
Come middle school, around age 13, I auditioned for the jazz band. My father played a lot of jazz at home, so I grew up listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I picked up the saxophone in addition to the flute—the instruments use the same fingering.
From then on, I got really into jazz. I became really passionate and was fortunate enough to have access to music lessons and extracurricular musical activities. I just went all in, and I was really serious about it from there on out.
MSN: That’s amazing that you found it when you were so young and stuck with it.
Shearer: Definitely. I think a lot of kids have their first introduction to music through school, which is so important. It’s sad that I feel like our country has made that less of a priority—I don’t know that I’d be a musician if I hadn’t been exposed to music in school. I definitely found it on my own as well, and my passion was nurtured by my home, but I 100% started in school. It’s great that Winterlude has this emphasis on music education in schools.
MSN: Last year, you released your first album. Can you tell me about how you developed your sound?
Shearer: Yeah, so I released an album in February last year, and it’s done really well. Developing my sound has been a lifelong journey: I’m a saxophone player, and I felt really strongly about having my album be mostly instrumental music—but there are some vocal tracks as well.
For this first record, I wanted an album with a lot of variety. There are certain albums out there that have a very distinctive sound, or one sound for the whole album, and I really respect that. But for mine, I wanted to really have highs and lows, peaks and valleys, and have a real arc to it. I’m really inspired by Keyon Harold’s record, “Wayfaring Traveler,” and I’m a huge fan of Nate Smith, the drummer. I looked to artists who I really love.
I also like music that has an element of nostalgia to it that’s very groove-centered—I don’t play straight-ahead swing, you won’t find any of that in my music. It’s much more of the grooves that people know—I like recognizable harmonies and really strong melodies. Then using that, I created an arc to it: the album very much takes you on a journey.
MSN: Your career has taken you all over the world and through a variety of bands, including Red Baraat and the PitchBlak Brass Band. What made you want to form your current quartet, and what’s it like playing with them?
Shearer: I’ve always felt this calling to have my own voice as a composer—I love composing. I love playing and touring too, but I just really love writing.
My father was a really prolific, important photographer and really identified as an artist, so I’ve always wanted to be seen as an artist with my own voice. I was raised that way, with a lot of pride in that. I love being a sideman [A “sideman” refers to a professional musician who is hired to perform live with an artist or group. -ed.], but it’s like, in my soul, I needed to have a group.
It’s hard, and it’s a lot of work. I make a living touring as a sideman and teaching, but I put my resources into my group. I can’t imagine life without it. And I’m so excited that now we have this record out, and it’s done really well, I’m excited to see what’s ahead for us. I think things are just beginning.
MSN: When you’re in Moab, you’re going to be leading some student and adult workshops. As a jazz musician and music teacher, what differences do you find in teaching kids versus adults?
Shearer: There are ways that jazz has become academic and structured, but at its core, it’s an improvised art form. That makes it both easy and hard to teach, because we’ve created these structures, but also, you can do whatever you want. It’s jazz.
I think it comes down to who’s in the room with you: when I teach, I try to understand the energy of that group of people in that space. I’ve been teaching for about 15 years, and each time, I try to get a feel for who I’m working with and what they would benefit from hearing, so we can have a session that’s inspiring. Sometimes that’s talking about theory and scale-chord relationships, and other times that’s just having a class where we’re singing or doing call and response.
Especially with jazz, you can’t go in with a rigid game plan and think it’s going to work—you have to be malleable.
MSN: Do you have anything else you want to add?
Shearer: We’re really excited to bring jazz to this community during the Winterlude Festival. I don’t want people to be intimidated by the jazz workshops: the idea of a workshop can sound daunting, but it’s just a chance to be creative. There are no rules, and there are no wrong notes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See www.moabmusicfest.org/calendar/winterlude for a list of events with Alison Shearer.