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.
TJG: And is there any relation with this theme and how you came up with the name of your group, nu Sangha?
JP: Yeah definitely, well sangha is a Tibetan word for community, and it’s usually the word to describe the group or a place like a Monastery community, so I use that word to basically suggest that we as musicians are a community too, and we have certain goals and aspirations. In this case, my goal is to make music that can touch people, and like lift them up, you know, on various levels so it’s definitely coming from that same vibe. I put the word “nu” because it’s not a Sangha in the traditional Tibetan sense, so that’s why we have the slang “nu” because we’re delineating from that but we’re also from the same path, the same search. Growing out of but still paying respect, so it’s the duality of that.
TJG: And how long has nu Sangha been playing together? How did the group form?
JP: I think the first time we did a gig officially under the name nu Sangha was probably 2007, 2008—The Tea Lounge was the first gig. We really haven’t done that much stuff to be honest, it’s so hectic and crazy living and playing in New York as a freelance musician. We recorded out first album in 2008, and that album was very electronic, very produced, and had a lot of post-production effects and stuff which I was very into at the time, like electronic sound, having listened to a lot of Square Pusher, and stuff like that. We did some gigs at the Blue Note, but it’s really hard to lead a band in New York, and I kind of had to rethink about what I wanted to do with the band because what I was doing then was very ambitious sonically and hard to get together for like a gig here and there. What we are doing now is a bit of a better formula, not too simple, but it’s working better.
TJG: To help fund Beacons of Light, you decided to use Kickstarter. What was your experience using a crowd-sourcing campaign to fund your album, and would you recommend it to others?
JP: Definitely. It is something that is still continuing until the album comes out. I found it a very good way to create momentum for the project, so people already know something’s coming. They know something about the idea behind it, and it’s great because it creates a buzz about the album, in addition to funding or partially funding a project. It’s a lot of work, as far as getting together videos and stuff, which can be challenging, but it’s a good experience.
TJG: Based on how you’re talking about it, it seems like it also helps you strengthen the identity of the band because you need to have a strong image on the campaign.
JP: Definitely, I mean there’s way more material on the internet now about the band and the concept of the band because of the Kickstarter. It forced me to get more material out there, and it’s great. I self-released my last album, and it didn’t really get out there at all. This way I know that it’s already gotten out there–we’ve had over two hundred backers which means that at least two hundred people are gonna hear the album straight off the bat as soon as it’s released which is, for the jazz world, pretty good. It’s nothing compared to pop music or anything but I think it’s great. And people that backed it can feel proud of something that they backed. If you think about it, this is the way a lot of art came about in previous eras. You had philanthropists or people who had money supporting the artists, so I don’t think it’s really anything new. It’s just new in the fact that it’s organized through the internet.
TJG: Anything else you’d like to share about your upcoming show at the Jazz Gallery?
JP: It’s gonna be music from the album, but it’s also going to be slightly different. We’re going have Marshall Gilkes on trombone for the first time. He’s basically going to play the bass clarinet book, so that should be really interesting. He’s a phenomenal trombone player—he can play whatever you put in front of him, so I’m really excited about that. Also we have a few other guests. Andrew Atkinson is an amazing drummer, and he’s gonna be filling in, and Ricky Rodriguez will be there on bass filling in for our regular bass player. It’s always exciting to bring some fresh people into the mix and see what happens. Other than that, we’re just going to try and play some fire.
Jonathan Powell and nu Sangha play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 23rd, 2015. The group features Mr. Powell on trumpet, Jeremy Powell on saxophone, Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Marko Churnchetz on piano & keyboard, Ricky Rodriguez on bass, and Andrew Atkinson on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission for the first set ($10 for members), $10 general admission for the second ($8 for members). Purchase Tickets Here.