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An interview with Sean Nowell…

Part One

Part Two

Sean Nowell is another fine example of the high level of artistry to come out of the Posi-Tone stable of artists. I was fortunate enough to have Sean field some questions for us on his latest release and jazz in general.

Stockholm Swingin’ does just that…It swing hard! Can you tell us more about the record? 

S.N. – “Stockholm Swingin’ began when guitarist Fredrik Olsson decided to bring 15 year old pianist Leo Lindberg to New York for the first time. Fredrik reached out to drummer Joe Abba, an old college friend and longtime cohort of mine, to set up a jam session with some of his favorite musicians and much fun was had by all. This inspired Fredrik to apply for a travel grant from the Swedish Arts Council for Joe and I to fly to Sweden to make a 14 day tour. With the addition of acoustic bassist Lars Ekman, we piled into the van, braved the ice and moose, and were met with enthusiastic ovations across the Swedish countryside. Stockholm Swingin’ represents a snapshot of the group at the end of the tour performing at the world renowned Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm. Since then, the group has done another even more successful tour of Sweden and 2 tours of NYC to consistently delighted audiences. 
Stockholm Swingin’ was recorded over two nights at the Glenn Miller Cafe in Stockholm. It’s a great sounding, intimate room with lots of energy exchange with the audience. The people of Sweden are really psyched to hear killing swinging!”

The Seeker is another high octane foot to the floor type release. Your tone has a nice blues inflection that some cats work their entire career for and can never find. Being from Birmingham (I’m from Ky.), do you think your regional upbringing played a significant roll in your finding your voice?

S.N. – “I grew up singing in the Southern Baptist Church and even attended Samford, a Southern Baptist University for two years before learning about jazz at Berklee College of Music. It’s been extremely valuable to me to grow up  around people screaming the blues through their voice, guitars, horns, and drums…I learned how to swing from the old guys at the late night jam sessions in rough parts of Birmingham, Al. and have worked to keep that spirit as I’ve added more complexities that I’ve discovered here in NYC and through my world travels. I truly believe that keeping your eyes and ears open is the key to the real essence of jazz.”

You received your B.A. from what I call “Jazz U.” (Berklee) and your M.A. from Manhattan which are arguably the two finest schools to study jazz here in the United States. How tough is the competition and do you think some of the younger cats play with a little more academia than passion? 

S.N. – “Berklee was easily the best music school I’ve ever experienced. When I was there it was around 65% non-North American and most of those people were the best in their country and had been in jazz conservatory since they were 15. Suffice to say that I had quite a lot of ground to cover as I never had any proper schooling in jazz theory or jazz composition (which is why I majored in it). There were 3000 music students there at the time and around 350 of those were sax players. I started out way behind and ended up toward the up middle of the bunch. Many guys go there when they already sound great to just refine their craft and meet people. I was definitely there to learn. I graduated high school knowing 3 major scales and 2 blues scales and had the most uneven technique and pinched sound you’ve ever hear. When I was at Samford, I had to basically relearn how to play Alto Sax through studying classical music. I’ve not had as straight a path down this road as I would have liked to, but it’s given me the unique experiences to draw from that informs my musical taste and compositional style to this day. 

Brandford Marsalis said of Berklee and I’ll paraphrase – “yeah the school is o.k. but it’s close to New York where I can grab great gigs on the weekend otherwise its not really worth most peoples time. Is real swing taking a back seat to a more academic approach from some of the younger players that are starting to emerge on the scene? 

S.N. – “Swinging hard never goes out of style. As a matter of fact, doing anything on a high level with a warm inviting spirit never goes out of style. My favorite compliment to receive from audience members is “I have no idea what you guys are doing, but it makes me feel good!” The audience always knows what’s good. If it’s too self serving, they will be sort of quiet and indifferent. If it’s hitting, they go through the roof. Also if little kids are dancing all over the place and losing their minds, you know your delivering the goods.”

More passion, less academia? 

S.N. -“I like to ride the razors edge of both. To quote my own bio: “Sean Nowell is a tenor saxophonist and composer from Birmingham, Alabama steeped in the southern traditions of blues, gospel, jazz and funk fused with complex harmonic and world rhythm concepts that permeate the music of New York City.” I feel like it’s a necessity to have all of it up in your playing and composing. I like to write infectious (sometimes complex) grooves, strong singable melodies and colorful harmonies. I feel like a lot of guys try to be arbitrarily complicated in their playing and writing. I just simply write what I sing.”