Divine intervention may not have been directly at play when rising young San Diego bassist Sean Hicke made his transition to jazz from the in-your-face rock of such bands as Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. But enrolling at a Catholic high school was certainly a key factor for the native San Diegan, who this year released “Sunflower Sutra,” his very promising debut album.
“When I got to St. Augustine in 2010, I saw their big band — The 32nd Street Jazz Band — and thought it was the coolest thing ever!” recalls Hicke, now 23, who took up electric bass in fifth grade and played tenor sax in his junior high school wind ensemble.
The St. Augustine band was playing a groove-heavy big band arrangement of a funk tune when Hicke first heard them. His destiny was close at hand.
“I wanted to play with them and I auditioned,” he says. “The first year, I played bass, but I wasn’t very good. The next year, I switched to sax and played that the rest of my time there. We did a couple of (Count) Basie pieces. I thought improvising was so much fun that I really wanted to get into it; I dove into straight-ahead jazz pretty quickly.”
An ace student, Hicke earned a San Diego State University Merit Scholarship that covered all four years of his tuition. He also received several smaller music scholarships from the school.
For the first few months of his freshman year, Hicke played bass and tenor sax. When he began his sophomore year, he focused exclusively on upright bass. His teacher at SDSU was bass great Bob Magnusson, whose credits range from a slew of jazz legends to the San Diego Symphony and albums by Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Madonna.
Hicke graduated from SDSU last year. His decision to favor upright bass instead of tenor sax is already paying dividends, as his accomplished “Sunflower Sutra” album attests.
He wrote and arranged all eight compositions on the album, which he also produced. Hicke will feature music from “Sunflower Sutra” when he performs a free, all-ages concert with his quartet next Sunday at the Handlery Hotel’s 950 Lounge in Mission Valley.
“Sean is a super talent,” Magnusson says. “I am really proud of him.”
That enthusiasm is shared by Chuck Perrin, the founder of the all-ages San Diego jazz venue Dizzy’s, where Hicke next performs with his band on July 26.
“Sean exudes such joy in his playing. He really stands out,” says Perrin, who hosted Hicke’s album release concert at Dizzy’s on Jan. 6.
One of the factors that makes “Sunflower Sutra” notable is the skill and musical empathy displayed by Hicke and his fresh-faced band mates. They include guitarist Louis Valenzuela, vibraphonist Matt DiBiase and drummer Julien Cantelm. The album-closing selection, “Youth,” features classical bassist and fellow recent SDSU grad Camellia Aftahi, who is Hicke’s girlfriend and now a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Diversity Fellow.
Another factor is that, by design, the album doesn’t include either a pianist or any brass or wind players, even though these instruments are staples of many jazz bands. Their absence helps the music to sound more open and spacious, with more room for the melodies and harmonies to resonate.
But perhaps the most important factor that makes “Sunflower Sutra” a notable debut is what Hicke himself doesn’t do on the recording.
Many young musicians in their early 20s would approach making their debut albums as a chance to show off and play as many notes as possible. Not Hicke, who turns 24 in November and displays a level of artistic maturity beyond his years.
Instead, he performs his parts with taste, concision and understatement. Even on numbers on which his acoustic bass work is at the fore, such as the solo bass piece “Woven” — which Hicke improvised live in the studio — he resists the urge to engage in flashy displays of empty virtuosity.
The result is an engaging album on which he and his band mates concentrate on the creating a cohesive group sound, not showboating.
“One of the reasons I chose the musicians I did for the album is because they are very sensitive and they won’t overplay or step on anybody’s toes,” Hicke says. “A lot of it was (driven by) the mood the music creates and the effect it has on the listeners, rather than showing off anybody’s virtuosity.”
Hicke readily acknowledges his prime musical inspirations, most notably fellow bassist Linda May Han Oh and saxophonist Ben Wendell. Their influence can be heard in the way Hicke’s compositions are steeped in straight-ahead jazz traditions but not bound by them.
“I want my music to be contemplative sometimes,” he says. “With a lot of it, I’m trying to evoke a complex mood. At the same time, I do like tracks that have a really nice groove to them. I like making songs sound bouncy and fun, despite any attempt I might make at evoking deep emotions in the compositional process.”
In April, Hicke will join his girlfriend, Aftahi, in Cincinnati. He’ll return to San Diego every few months to perform and visit his parents. His two main artistic goals could soon intertwine.
“Playing original music is where I have the most fun and feel most at home, whether it my music or someone else’s,” Hicke says. “And I haven’t gone on the road with any bands yet. That’s something to look forward to!”
The Sunday Sessions Jazz Series in the 950 Lounge presents The Sean Hicke Quartet
When: 4:30 p.m. next Sunday
Where: 950 Lounge at the Handlery Hotel, 950 Hotel Circle North, Mission Valley
Phone: (619) 298-0511