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Take Five With Sean Nowell

AAJ Staff BY

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Meet Sean Nowell:

Sean Nowell is a tenor saxophonist and composer from Birmingham, Alabama steeped in the southern traditions of blues, gospel, jazz, and funk fused with the complex harmonic and world rhythmic concepts that permeate the music of New York City.

While in Alabama, he sang in cathedrals with a national touring a cappella choir and was exposed to vocal music from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He received a BA in Composition from Berklee College of Music in Boston in Jazz Composition and a MA from Manhattan School of Music in New York in Performance.

He has composed and improvised film scores, music for ballet and theatre, 20th century classical music, big band, and small jazz ensembles and has pushed the timbral boundaries of the saxophone, flute, bass clarinet, and Udu (Nigerian clay pot drum) by integrating electronic effects pedals with those acoustic instruments.

He has traveled and collaborated with dancers, actors, painters, stilt walkers, and acrobats on multiple tours of China, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania, France, Germany, Hungary, Holland, Belgium, Colombia, Venezuela, Singapore and the United States as Musical Director for Bond Street Theatre over the past decade. He's participated in uniting clashing religious and ethnic groups in Kosovo through music and has been proud to serve as an unofficial artistic ambassador for the United States by exchanging social and artistic ideas and holding master classes in these countries on American Jazz, learning the folk music of the regions, and then incorporating it into his compositional and improvisational style.

He has had performances with Guitarist Reeves Gabrels (David Bowie Tin Machine), bassist Tim Lefebvre (Rudder, Saturday Night Live, trumpeter Chris Botti), saxophonist Donny McCaslin (Dave Douglas), drummer Anton Fig (David Letterman, everyone else from the past 25 years!).

He also recorded with Stanley Clarke and George Duke for the movie Soul Men starring Bernie Mac and Samuel Jackson, and co-wrote the score for the Nick Nolte movie Off the Black.

Sean Nowell has been a motivating force in the New York City jazz community for the past 12 years by hosting weekly jazz composers forums in Manhattan and Brooklyn clubs that consistently showcase the freshest and most cutting edge jazz in the city, as well as collaborating and recording with the next generation of jazz, funk, and avant-garde masters.

His first release, Firewerks, was born from these weekly sessions and has garnered critical acclaim for the band's highly interactive and rhythmically adventuresome approach that got him immediately signed as a Posi-Tone Records Recording Artist.

Every track on his second release for Posi-Tone Records, The Seeker, is an expression of the fantastic and dangerous experiences collected over the past decade of exploring the less traveled corners of the planet as well as his journey toward self realization and features cellist Dave Eggar (Evanescence, Michael Brecker, saxophonist Chris Potter) and guitarist Nir Felder (Greg Osby).

His critically acclaimed electric project, The Kung-Fu Masters, is taking New York audiences by storm with its FX-driven jazz/funk that has featured drummer Cliff Almond (Michel Camilo, Jeff Golub, bassist Anthony Jackson, guitarist Wayne Krantz), bassist Janek Gwizdala (Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Jojo Mayer), guitarist Nir Felder and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (Cedar Walton, Ravi Coltrane, Jimmy Heath).

Sean is also part of some of the most creative, forward thinking ensembles in the city including Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra (all Bjork jazz-tronica big band), The Delphian Jazz Orchestra, the Yutaka Uchida Quartet and performs regularly in the top jazz clubs in New York City including the Blue Note, Smalls, The 55 Bar, The Jazz Standard, BB Kings, Birdland, Cleopatra's Needle, the Knitting Factory, and Zebulon as well as international jazz clubs such as Club JZ (Shanghai), CD Jazz (Beijing), Café Plato (Belgrade) and has played the JVC Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival and for 30,000 people at the Montreal Jazz Festival.


Tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet.

Teachers and/or influences?

Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Ed Tomassi, Neil McLean.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I improvised for the first time in high school jazz band at 15 years old. I think my head actually caught on fire.

Your sound and approach to music:

John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Krantz, Herbie Hancock, Bulgarian Mysteries.

Also the press tells me that:

"Tenor saxophonist/composer Sean Nowell fuses introspective melodies, darkly hued harmonies and angular rhythmic structures to create a sound that has succeeded at melding, morphing and mixing the best of Blue Note-era small group nirvana with the Headhunters' pocket and vibe, evolving it to Right Now."

Your teaching approach:

Fun. Interactive. Personalized. Classical duets. Learning scales by improvising and composing. Playing solo transcriptions slowly and listening to the recordings closely.

Your dream band:

I only work with people that I would want to be in a van for 8 hours with.

They've gotta be fun to hang with and enthusiastic about the music.

I love playing with my friends that I play with now.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

Worst: Got punched in the mouth in Bulgaria by a mobster for playing in a forest 60 yards away from the hotel at the Black Sea during quiet hours (2-4pm).

Best: Playing for 30,000 people on the main stage of the Montreal Jazz Festival 2008 with the Bjorkestra.

Favorite venue:

The 55 Bar is my home.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

The Seeker..

The first Jazz album I bought was:

I was at jazz camp at Loyola, New Orleans and they told me to immediately get Kind of Blue and Giant Steps, still two of the freshest albums I own. Truly the gift that keeps on giving.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

A good, fun attitude toward all this. If we are having a good time, everyone else will as well.

Did you know...

I almost became a Southern Baptist music Minister.

CDs you are listening to now:

John Coltrane, "Liberia" (just the one song, over and over).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

Inclusive. Forward thinking. Open minded. Supercharged. At least that's the circles I run in....

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

Being inclusive, forward thinking, open minded, and supercharged!

What is in the near future?

I'm loving playing music here in NYC and hanging with my fantastic Broadway Musical Theater actress wife and our friends and teaching my enthusiastic and talented students. Also I'm working on finally getting some dates in Europe with various bands.

Life is good!

By Day:

I teach one-on-one, in-home private students three days a week and am loving it.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

A psychologist or a ninja.

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