Joseph Sheehan is a composer, pianist, and educator immersed in classical, jazz, and African music. In his work, he aims to connect with musicians and audiences from diverse musical communities and backgrounds.
Sheehan's compositions explore the space between classical, jazz, and African music. Each of these traditions has approaches to beauty, sophistication, and wisdom that are different but sympathetic. Sheehan's music investigates and integrates these differences, yielding an aesthetic that is holistic, global, and respectful of tradition. Uniting these influences is an expression of song, or melodic clarity; and dance, or rhythmic vitality, in his work.
Initially Sheehan's musical studies followed a straightforward path. He attained advanced degrees in music composition, wrote concert pieces in the classical idiom, and studied jazz piano in lessons and performances. A decisive change of course occurred when Sheehan first encountered West African music, which inspired a journey to Ghana to experience its music at the source. During an initial six-month stay, Sheehan studied traditional music, dance, and culture with accomplished Ghanaian musicians, enriched through subsequent return trips. Ghanaian music has proved profoundly influential on Sheehan's subsequent work and philosophy.
Recent compositions include notated scores for classically trained musicians, such as Little Dance (2009) and Dances from Afar (2012). Both explore melodic phrases and dance rhythms from Ghana but are firmly rooted in a Western context. Other works are written for jazz musicians and include improvisation, including nine songs composed for the ensemble Kinetic. Sheehan's most recent project is centered on ten Ghanaian folk songs. Titled Songs of Lake Volta, it is a multi-movement piece for written for both jazz and classical musicians blending these idioms with the Ghanaian folk melodies.
Sheehan's music has received performances throughout the United States, and at the Clazz International Music Festival (Arcidosso, Italy), Monadnock Emerging Music Series (NH), Aspen Music Festival (CO), and Brevard Music Festival (NC). Performers include percussionist Lisa Pegher, trumpeter Timothy Altman, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, and the Alea III Ensemble. Sheehan's music has won top composition prizes from BMI, NFMC, and Indiana University, and he was a composition fellow at the 2008 Aspen Summer Music Festival. His orchestra piece Sail Away to Soft, Sweet Bells was read by the American Composers Orchestra on its 2005 Under New Music readings.
In 2014, the ensemble Kinetic, a sextet founded by Sheehan, released a debut album of nine original songs titled World of Wonder. The album received a positive review (3½ out of 4 stars) from the website AllAboutJazz.com, as well as radioplay from several Pittsburgh stations. Kinetic has performed in Pittsburgh at the Three Rivers Arts Festival (2016, 2014), the 2016 Highland Park Reservoir of Jazz Series, and the 2012 African Arts Festival in the Park. In 2015 the group toured to NYC and Philadelphia, and opened for world renowned saxophonist Troy Roberts.
As a pianist Sheehan performs jazz and other genres with many outstanding musicians throughout Pittsburgh. This includes performances for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's jazz series, including the 2012 Pittsburgh International JazzLive Festival and the 2013 First Night New Years Eve Festival. At the 2016 Clazz International Music Festival in Arcidosso, Italy, he performed in five jazz concerts with fellow faculty members from around the world. In Pittsburgh, Sheehan regularly performs with Trio+, a group that imaginatively blends hip-hop, pop, and R&B with jazz in collaboration with rappers and vocalists. He is also the music director of Groove Aesthetic, an artist collective creating innovative genre-bending concerts in Pittsburgh. In 2011, Sheehan was a Jazzspace resident artist, receiving funding and performing at a showcase concert.
Dr. Sheehan is a part of Duquesne University's innovative Musicianship department. He has taught classes on music theory, composition, songwriting, and an African music class in Ghana. He is also a faculty member of the Clazz International Music Festival, and in 2015-16 served as a mentor composer for the Pittsburgh Symphony's Audience of the Future program.