You never know where you’re going to find trumpeter Jonathan Powell on a given night in New York. He could be playing high-energy Latin music with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, or backing up big-name Hip-Hop artists like Slick Rick or Snoop Dogg. Or you might find him holding sway at the Blue Note late at night with nu Sangha, a group that distills Powell’s varied musical influences into a potent whole.
This Thursday, April 23rd, Powell and nu Sangha will perform two sets at The Jazz Gallery. Last year, the group recorded a new album backed by 200 supporters via Kickstarter. The result, Beacons of Light, will be coming out later this year. We caught up with Powell to talk about his concept for the album and the joys and challenges of leading a band in New York.
The Jazz Gallery: You were named the Best Latin Jazz Trumpeter by the blog Latin Jazz Corner in 2009. What first inspired you to explore Latin music?
Jonathan Powell: Growing up in Florida, there’s a large Hispanic community there, so we had quite a bit of Latin music on the radio, what they call ‘Tropical,’ for the broad term of music from the Caribbean. I used to hear a lot of salsa, and various other forms of Latin music, so that was my first exposure to it. I always enjoyed listening to those stations with my brother. When I finally moved to New York in 2001, I knew a few of my friends from Florida who had also moved, the Garcia-Herreros Brothers, Juan and Victor on drums and bass respectively. They were heavily into Latin music, coming from a Colombian background. They had acquired a gig with a salsa band in New Jersey that worked quite a bit at the time called ‘La Creacion,’ so right when I moved to New York I started playing with them. It just kind of happened out of being at the right place at the right time, but also having respect for the music and having listened to it a lot as a younger man. From there it kind of took a long time to develop, as far as the high notes and everything, and physically be able to play the stuff that’s required in that music.
TJG: And your brother Jeremy also plays with you in the city a lot right?
JP: Yeah he’s in my band too playing sax. He’s a phenomenal musician and composer in whatever style he decides to do.
TJG: You describe your upcoming album Beacons of Light as having compositions that are meditations on or tributes to great spiritual or revolutionary minds of our age. Who are some of these people who have inspired these compositions?
JP: So each tune has it’s subject or person of interest, and just going down the line, it’s Aung San Suu Kyi. She was a democracy advocate in Burma, her father was the prince or king I think, and there was a military overthrow, and her father was killed. She was placed under house arrest for 20 years. So she’s the first subject. Then there’s a Christian Mystic from Cyprus named Stylianos Atteshlis, and then the original Siddhartha Buddah. Then there’s Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet. There’s a doctor named Robert Lanza who’s done a lot of work on stem cell research, but he’s also come up with a theory called biocentrism, a theory on why life exists. After him, (I’m just going down the track list in my head), there’s Mahatma Ghandi, then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and then the last one is Tenzin Gyatsou, the 14th (current) Dalai Lama.
TJG: How did you decide on this particular theme for the album?
JP: I’ve already been really interested in this kind of subject matter—people that seek to better themselves and their environment in positive ways, and do it in peaceful manner. I’ve always been reading about these kinds of people and trying to find my own place in that. I want to do something good with my life with whatever talent I have, and with the music that I produce, so it was just logical. When I came up with this idea, it was amazing because as soon as I started writing these tunes, it was so easy. These are people that inspire me so much, and in my mind there was a sound behind each person, and kind of the vibe of what they did and what they accomplished.