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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.”

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Brent Black reviews Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin’ “…

Great live albums in jazz you can count on one hand. Be sure and save room for Stockholm Swingin’ as Alabama native Sean Nowell and friends take old school and indeed make it new cool with a blistering romp through some straight ahead classics and a few surprises to add some flavor to a jazz foundation that swings like a beast. Nowell and drummer Joe Abba made a stop over in Stockholm Sweden and gigged with a trio of Swedish musicians whose groove is so tight they could strip paint.
Recorded live at the Glen Miller Cafe’ in Stockholm, Nowell edgy tenor cuts through the night air with the precision of a sonic surgeon as McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On The Corner” swings till it bleeds. Nowell’s original “NY Vibe” is another blues infused blistering romp with this quintet firing on all cylinders. Old school and straight ahead post bop done with a lyrical driven purpose, swing with an attitude. “Chelsea Bridge” is a ballad straight from the soul, actually find Nowell’s musical soul then take a hard left and you just may find the incredibly deep emotional waters this tune is pulled from. With the notable exceptions of “Blues On The Corner” and “Chelsea Bridge” this is not a set list made up of standards that lend themselves to the more hard charging post bop style that permeates this release. Pianist Leo Lindberg and drummer Joe Abba both contribute original compositions and of course it would certainly be remiss to forget the Duke Ellington tune “Amad.”
The quintet on this live showcase is on fire, musical chemistry is reinvented into musical synergy as this ensemble tackles each tune with a cohesive yet harmonious sense of musical direction and purpose. Playing the role of jazz critic is far more than being critical, done correctly it is about becoming a jazz advocate. Look under every rock and in every musical nook and cranny and finding fault on this amazing live set would be a daunting task indeed.
Jazz that will touch your soul and set your hair on fire all at the same time. Jazz gets no better than this.
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Another review for Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin’ “…..

From the opening notes of Blues On The Corner to the final audience applause following Walking The Path, Sean Nowell does not disappoint. Nowell possesses a big, beefy, traditional tenor sound reminiscent of early Sonny Rollins and other legendary tenor saxophonists of the 20th century. His hard-swinging lines on his opening choruses of Blues On The Corner pay homage to virtually every tenor man who came before this relatively young jazz ambassador.

The second cut Ack Varmeland, Du Skona; a traditional Swedish melody features Fredrik Olsson first on guitar. Abba, Ekman and Lindberg provide a lush and swinging background over which Olsson stretches. Nowell solos secondly with ferocity not previously heard. His angry tenor pushes forward, culminating in a flurry of alternate fingerings taking him high into the altissimo. The climax of his solo comes in the middle, gradually winding down on the final chorus and the final head.

Harlem Woman is an aptly titled, sassy and swinging tune. Olsson’s guitar and Nowell’s tenor play the melody and it’s predominant bluesy turns in perfect unison. As with the opening tune, Nowell’s group sound completely at home with the blues – as well as the subtly modulating bridge found here. Lindberg solos first on piano, showing his own familiarity with the traditional jazz language. Abba and Ekman swing on as Olsson tastefully allows the trio some space. Sean Nowell’s tenor playing shines brightly on his solo taken just before the final chorus. His lines are original, clever and technical little gems to behold.

Ellington’s Amad begins with Abba on the drums, then Ekman on bass, setting up this somewhat eerie sounding modal piece. In gradual succession, Lindberg joins them on piano, followed by the melodic statement by Olsson and Nowell. The sound at the onset of Nowell’s tenor solo is sparse and staccato. He and Olsson trade spirited ideas over a somewhat static vamp. Abba solos dominantly as well. The spirit and nature of this tune is reminiscent of some older ECM recordings and Nowell seems to approach this tune as a young Jan Garbarek may have. At any rate, it is quite a departure from the more tradition sound of the remaining cuts on Stockholm Swingin’.

NY Vibe is precisely what the name implies. A classic and yet contemporary sound of New York jazz. Despite the reference, Nowell at times reminds me in a small way of Ernie Watt’s current West Coast sound and style. Olsson also solos nicely on guitar.

Billy Strayhorn’s classic Chelsea Bridge features Sean Nowell’s husky lower register on the melody. Again, as on Harlem Woman, Nowell crafts a wonderfully creative improvisation. His bending, swooping tenor here showcases yet another stylistic side of this very competent tenor man.

Sweet Night displays the traditional, straight-ahead jazz sound this group handles so well. Olsson solos first over the swing, then Latin groove. Sitting back and listening, this writer can’t help but want to pick the horn and join in. A short melodic statement divides the solos between guitar and tenor solo. Nowell then solos over a quasi-New Orleans style Second Street groove. Nowell weaves in and out of tonality, as does the rhythm section behind him. It is clear the ensemble is having a blast.

The final track Walking The Path seems a curious choice from a programming standpoint. Its slow, understated manner is not what we ordinarily expect from the closing number. It does, however pick up during the solos by Nowell and Olsson.  In the end the group fades to an end rather than going out with a bang.

Stockholm Swingin’” is a delightful example of traditional, straight-ahead jazz, beautiful produced by Marc Free and Posi-Tone Records. The new and relatively unknown talent Posi-Tone chooses to showcase continually impresses me.

You can find out more about Sean Nowell and other innovative recordings at

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Bruce Lindsay reviews Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin’ “…

Sean Nowell has lent his talents to a diverse array of bands including Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra and his own Kung-Fu Masters, working across numerous musical styles. OnStockholm Swingin’, the tenor saxophonist’s third Posi-Tone release, he stays in recognizably straight-ahead territory, bringing his impressively wide-ranging and imaginative tenor sound to a live quintet recording from the Swedish capital’s Glenn Miller Café in November, 2010.

Nowell and drummer Joe Abba, a longtime musical collaborator, are joined by a trio of Swedish performers: guitarist Frederik Olsson; bassist Lars Ekman; and the exciting teenage pianist, Leo Lindberg. The quintet sounds cool, confident and swinging on a mix of standards and originals.

The set opens with the relaxed shuffle of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On The Corner,” an easygoing number characterized by warm and melodic solos from Nowell and Lindberg. Duke Ellington’s “Amad” starts with a slinky groove from Ekman and Abba, with Lindberg adding to the feel with some well-placed chords as Nowell and Olsson contribute a deftly-played melody line. The third classic tune is a smoky, early hours version of Billy Strayhorn’s balladic “Chelsea Bridge,” showcasing Nowell’s evocative tenor sound. “Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna” has an immediate familiarity to it—but then it’s better known as “Dear Old Stockholm,” recorded by a host of jazz stars from Stan Getz and Miles Davis to Paul Chambers. Nowell is again in fine form, building a dynamic solo.

The originals sit neatly alongside the more established tunes. Nowell’s “NY Vibe” has, as its title suggests, a more up-tempo, urgent, feel than most of the album, although Olsson’s fluid solo does bring a touch of calm after Nowell’s more frenetic tenor. Lindberg and Olsson’s “Sweet Night” is another up-tempo number, gaining its drive from Abba’s sparky percussion and featuring Ollsson with another bright, melodic guitar solo. Abba’s “Walking The Path” is an impressive tune, filled with melodic and rhythmic ideas that give the number a more spiritual vibe than the rest of the collection.

This is a beautifully-crafted album, with fine contributions from each of the quintet’s members. The quality of the live recording is also superb—congratulations to producer Marc Free and engineer Nick O’Toole for achieving such a great sound, capturing the mood of a live gig with the acoustic clarity of a studio recording.

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Richard Kamins reviews Stockholm Swingin’

For his 3rd Posi-Tone release, tenor saxophonist/composerSean Nowell headed over to Sweden to record “Stockholm Swingin’” live at the Glenn Miller Cafe.  Accompanying him on the journey was his New York City bandmate, drummerJoe Abba; despite the last name, he’s not Swedish, but the rest of the quintet is.  Leo Lindberg (piano), Fredrik Olsson (guitar) and Lars Ekman (bass) join the American duo to create a pleasant program consisting of several standards, 2 originals by the team of Lindberg and Olsson (they co-lead a band), one each by Nowell and Abba plus a bluesy take on a traditional Swedish tune.

The disk opens with the easy loping rhythms of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On The Corner“, a piece that showcases the smoky tones of Nowell’s tenor, a sound that brings to mind Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. That tone is also evident on the lovely take of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”  Nowell lets loose on “Ack Värmeland du Sköna“, the traditional tune that a number of jazz musicians have recorded as “Dear Old Stockholm.”  Abba and Ekman do a fine anchoring the rhythm section throughout the CD but especially on “Harlem Woman” (one of the Lindberg/Olsson tunes) and the drummer’s funky “Walking the Path.” For these ears, the highlight of the program is the fine take on Duke Ellington’s “Amad” (from “The Far East Suite.”)  The rhythm has the feel of a Randy Weston tune over which the tenor and guitar dance around each with abandon.  Gritty sounds but oh-so-fine!

Stockholm Swingin’” satisfies on a number of level, especially in the way the quintet of musicians work together.  They sound like they’re having great fun and, no matter the language, that translates into a fine listening experience.  For more information, go

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Burning Ambulance reviews Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin’ “….

This album features Alabama-born, New York-based tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell and his regular drummer, Joe Abba (whose last name is humorous in this context), joined by three Swedish musicians—guitarist Fredrik Olsson, pianistLeo Lindberg, and bassist Lars Ekman—for a date at the Glenn Miller Café in Stockholm. I’ve heard lots of other live recordings from the Miller, on Ayler Records, but they’ve been of a much freer nature than this album, which offers eight exercises in blues and groove, including compositions by Billy StrayhornMcCoy Tyner andDuke Ellington, as well as one each by Nowell and Abba and two by the team of Lindberg and Olsson, plus a Swedish standard, “Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna,” the title of which translates to “Warm Land, You’re Comfortable” or something like that (Google was not as helpful as I’d hoped) but is probably better known as “Dear Old Stockholm.”

The album kicks off with a slow, intense version of Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner,” which originally appeared on the pianist’s The Real McCoy. This version sounds little like that one, because Nowell has none of the restrained introspection of Joe Henderson, the saxophonist on that album. Indeed, while here and on every other track, the feel of a mid-’60s Blue Note session is definitely present and strong, it’sHank Mobley who’s most likely to come to mind when listening to Nowell—and guitarist Olsson is very much pulling his tricks from Grant Green‘s old bag. Neither of those are bad things, by the way. I’ve long believed Mobley doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves, and I could listen to Green all day long.

When the band dips into its own bag of compositions, things get a little more modern, but not much. The nine-minute “Amad,” the longest track on the album by almost 90 seconds, lets Nowell stretch out into some trancelike zones, but never gets weirder than, say, David S. Ware got on Surrendered, his most mainstream-friendly album by far. His playing on Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” is thick and buzzy, recalling Coleman Hawkins, and the band’s backing is sparse, yet powerful, holding strength in reserve to allow the leader to blow lengthy variations on the blues.

Pianist Lindberg is an able accompanist, but his playing seems to be more about re-creation than creation. Many European jazz players have twisted the idiom to suit their own temperament; ECM’s roster is full of such artists. Lindberg doesn’t seem to want to inject too much of himself into the music—he plays as though he’s got a mix tape of Blue Note sidemen going in headphones. Ekman and Abba are well attuned to him, and each other, but neither man makes much of an effort to draw attention to himself. Even when swinging hard, as on the opening two cuts and “Sweet Night,” the next-to-last number, they don’t do anything to create individual identities on their instruments. They’re timekeepers, and very good ones, but little more. Also, it’s worth noting that the record has a slight problem with its sequencing—four mid- to uptempo blues grooves in a row to start, a ballad, then the set’s one true burner. That’s all good, but then we get another ballad (“Walking the Path”) to close things out. And it’s a nice ballad, with some very thoughtful, almost Wayne Shorter-esque (the Wayne Shorter of 1964) playing from Nowell, but it ends the album on a somewhat down note, rather than taking the listener out with a bang.

Ultimately, Stockholm Swingin’ is a good, solid live document of a band that knows how to work together and has good taste in material. It doesn’t bring much to the table that’s new, but if that’s not a problem for you (and it certainly isn’t always a problem for me), you’ll probably like it a lot. It definitely makes me want to hear more by Sean Nowell, if for no other reason than to find out whether he stretches his imagination more in the studio.

UPDATE: Sean Nowell responded to this review via email, and gave me permission to reprint his comments.

Hey Phil,

Thanks for the insightfulness. In the last line you mentioned that you were interested if I stretched my imagination more in the studio. I’d love for you to check out my 2nd Posi-Tone release, The Seeker.  There’s some really nice original writing and arranging there. Also my 1st installment FireWerks is mainly originals and is still cool after all these years.

Anyhow, thanks so much for taking the time to listen…

Nowell’s quintet will be performing at Smalls on August 17.

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Dan Bilawsky reviews Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin’ “…

Tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell’s third CD is an engaging set of music that was recorded live at the Glen Miller Café in Stockholm at the end of a fourteen-day tour through Sweden. Nowell’s band mate in Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra, drummer Joe Abba, and a solid crew of Swedish musicians help to flesh out this riveting set of music which, as the title implies, is built on, but not limited to, swinging selections.

The program starts off with a triple shot of swing, but each number differs in slight ways. The loping, swaggering swing of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On The Corner” opens the set and, as good as it is, it almost seems like a warmup when compared to “Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna,” which follows it. Bassist Lars Ekman launches this song with a hip riff, and Nowell’s soloing is energetic and ecstatic. The third number in this triptych, “Harlem Woman,” is driven by Abba’s firm swing and Ekman’s sturdy bass lines, but the soloists really own this one. Duke Ellington’s “Amad,” from his Far East Suite (RCA, 1967), finally takes the band in a different rhythmic direction, with its Middle Eastern flavor and exotic sound, and a second helping of Ellingtonia, in the form of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” features some of Nowell’s most sublime work of the set.

While the combination of old world swing stylings, modern jazz, and reworked classics is a formula that’s used time and again on jazz recordings, this set stands out because of the musical chemistry of this group and the way they shape a song. Abba does a fantastic job crafting dynamic/dramatic rhythmic arcs within a piece (“Walking The Path”), and Nowell, whether attached at the hip to guitarist Fredrik Olsson or setting a song ablaze with his saxophone, leads with class and authority. Pianist Leo Lindberg is often the “Yang” to Nowell’s “Yin,” providing chordal responses to the saxophonist’s statements (“Amad”) and countering his modern-leaning solos with a bluesy approach, and Ekman rounds out the group, providing solid, yet flexible bass work that bolsters the band from below.

While Nowell’s first two albums were first-class musical outings, Stockholm Swingin’ is simply his best thus far. The third time really is a charm.

Track Listing: Blues On The Corner; Ack Värmeland, Du Sköna; Harlem Woman; Amad; NY Vibe; Chelsea Bridge; Sweet Night; Walking The Path.

Personnel: Sean Nowell: tenor saxophone; Fredrik Olsson: guitar; Leo Lindberg: piano; Lars Ekman: bass; Joe Abba: drums.

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The Jazz Word on Sean Nowell “Stockholm Swingin”….

Sean Nowell – Stockholm Swingin’

Sean Nowell (tenor saxophone), Fredrik Olsson (guitar), Leo Lindberg (piano), Lars Ekman (bass), Joe Abba (drums)

2011 Posi-Tone

Stockholm Swingin’ is the result of a tour through Sweden by New York-based saxophonist Sean Nowell with fellow American, drummer Joe Abba. The pair performed a series of concerts with a trio of Swedish musicians, guitarist Fredrik Olsson, pianist Leo Lindberg and bassist Lars Ekman, resulting in this exciting live release recorded at the Glen Miller Café in Stockholm.

Nowell’s biting tenor leads this charged-up quintet. The Alabama native devours the blues on McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” and the up-tempo flavor of his own composition “NY Vibe.” Not the least bit bashful of his willingness to swing, Nowell rides gracefully through Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.”

Abba and Ekman build up unrelenting grooves, especially on Abba’s Latin-type tune “Walking the Path.” Lindberg and Olsson contribute searing solo turns to this all around high-energy, swingin’ affair.

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SomethingElse! reviews the new Sean Nowell CD “Stockholm Swingin”….

A blossoming career that started in Birmingham, Alabama recently had a stop all the way over in Stockholm, Sweden. For tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell’s third album (all of which are on Posi-Tone Records, by the way),Nowell and drummer Joe Abba flew over to Sweden, joined Frederik Olsson (guitar), Leo Lindberg (piano), and Lars Ekman (bass), toured the country for two weeks, and ended the jaunt at the legendary Glenn Miller Cafe in the capital city. Stockholm Swingin’ is a souvenir from that gig. There’s no boundaries being pushed on Stockholm Swingin’, but everything is done rather well. Old-school straight ahead post-bop jazz with standards like “Blues On The Corner,” “Chelsea Bridge” and the local traditional “Ack Värmeland du Sköna” are blended in with originals that sound almost like standards themselves, like the bluesy groove of Lingberg and Olsson’s “Harlem Woman” (Youtube below). Nowell, who has worked with jazz and jazz notables of every stripe, plays sweet but strong sax on this set, not too unlike another American tenor guy who spent a little time in Scandinavia, Dexter Gordon. Lingberg, who is still in his teens, is a talent to keep watch for; his relaxed and in the pocket manner on “Woman” evokes Sonny Clark. Abba shows just what a tasteful rhythmist he is on Duke Ellington’s “Amad.”

Sean Nowell’s alliance of American and European jazzmen is yet another in a long line of successful such coalitions. Stockholm Swingin’ released just yesterday, on August 2nd.