You may not know guitarist Sean Harkness, but you’ve probably heard his riffs and will have a rare chance to see him live next month at Birdland Jazz Club.
The Berklee College of Music-trained musician has been one of the most prolific and in-demand session players for the last decade.
He’s worked for such artists as Kathleen Turner, Nona Hendryx, Tom Wopat, Lucie Arnaz, Leslie Uggams and Christine Andreas.
With one album on Will Ackerman’s celebrated Windham Hill Records–now available through SONY Music/Legacy along with his 1999 CD Aloft and several label compilations–Harkness has performed at the most prestigious halls around the county.
With influences as diverse as guitarists John Scofield, Jeff Beck and Robby Krieger (The Doors), Harkness is gearing up for his own above-the-line success.
He’s touring with a revolving collective of the best players in his group Sean Harkness & the Unusual Suspects. Their next show is at NYC’s Birdland Jazz Club on March 20.
Harkness is quick to point out that the “Birdland show is a choice of songs from my childhood.”
“They’re not necessarily the proscribed ‘covers’ one would expect from a tribute or cover band as they range from The Carpenters to The Who.
These are the songs that came on the school bus AM radio. Songs that moved me to learn music. I’m just interpreting them through the lens of 40+ years’ experience as a pro guitarist,” he says.
We spoke with Harkness for an exclusive interview at a studio in New York City where he was putting the final touches on his EP set for release next month.
NY Independent: How would you best describe your talents.
Harkness: “One of the things that sets me apart from other guitarists in NYC is that I work with so many different people. Different styles/genres, skill/experience levels and demographics. From theater stars, to Blues artists, movie stars to folk singers, Broadway divas to jazz snobs and everything else on the spectrum.
If I have a ‘niche’, it’s the guy who can bring anything to life with heart and authenticity. And mostly with vocalists. Something about the way I interact with vocalists makes me a trusted name when they want to bring it to life … and that everyone I work with is every bit as much an Influence on my musical voice as George Benson, Duane Allman, or Eddie Van Halen.”
NYI: When did you get your first guitar?
Harkness: “My first guitar arrived on my eleventh birthday. Within six months, I had a weekly theater engagement in Bridgeport, CT. After high school bands and studies with Brian Keane and Sal Salvador [Stan Kenton Band], I studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.”
NYI: You also worked for a guitar builder. Tell us about that …
Harkness: “I worked with guitar builder Chip Wilson. I was his assistant, initially assigned to physical tasks that didn’t require his level of expertise [carving, sanding, polishing] and eventually did a lot of basic repairs, setup, and electronics work.
He had me do some of my own restoration work to gain experience and I still use those instruments. It is the only job outside of performing/recording that I thoroughly enjoyed. Learning about guitars from the inside out helped me to understand how to find the true voice of each instrument. It also made possible the conversations that led to my relationship with Walden Guitars.”
NYI: When did you go professional?
Harkness: “I started playing professionally in 1978 (when I was 11) in a trio with two others – the keyboardist was Mike Kach, who would go on to success with Dicky Betts’ Great Southern and The Outlaws. Every Saturday we’d play at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport.”
NYI: Tell us a bit about Windham Hill and your first solo album Aloft.
Harkness: “I worked with producer Brian Keane on my compositions (and my arrangements of classics) for all the various releases, including my solo album. The very first song we did for them had a silly working title. When it came release time they asked me to change the name, and it became the lead-off title track for the first Summer Solstice compilation.
So much happened in such a short time from there – releases, performance tours, meeting and working with other W.H. artists–Liz Story, Tuck & Patti, Will Ackerman, Barbara Higbie, Samite, Philip Aaberg, Alex De Grassi, Jim Brickman, Darol Anger. It was dizzying; so much music with so many wonderful people.”
NYI: You’ve played at many prestigious venues in New York City, what’s your favorite and why?
Harkness: “Every venue I play has some level of reverence, as I believe it is always an honor to be granted an audience. If I had to pick a favorite, though, it would be a toss-up between the gold standards of Birdland and the Cutting Room and for the same reasons. It’s all about people – management on down. Both owners, Gianni Valenti and Steve Walter respectively, show in their actions that they care about all three groups they host–the performers, the audiences and the staff. None are compromised for the other in those two venues.”
NYI: What’s the new EP going to be like? Is there a title?
Harkness: “It will be called Just What I Needed and will feature five long, jammin’ tracks:
1. A Hard Day’s Night
3. Smoke On The Water
4. People Are Strange
5. Cars Medley [Just What I Needed/Good Times Roll]
“All the arrangements in my ‘book’ are of songs from my childhood–songs that moved me to learn music. I’m just interpreting them through the lens of 40+ years’ experience as a pro guitarist. That and opening them all up for super fun musical conversation with my favorite musicians.”
NYI: What’s your ultimate goal right now?
Harkness: “Touring and recording, recording and touring. After so many years making it work here at home in New York City, I just want to be able to go to Cincinnati or Portland or San Diego and fill at least a medium sized club with people who know what I have to offer and who come with enthusiasm. That and I want to share the bill at festivals with other artists of like kind.”
Check out a video of his band below: