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Curtis Nowosad: A Whole Different Animal

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After a year away, drummer Curtis Nowosad is becoming a familiar face here in Winnipeg again. Fresh off a headliner show with Jimmy Greene at the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival in June, and a rash of events across Canada as the leader of his first tour, Curtis will be reconnecting with friends here in Winnipeg until August when he’s the featured guest artist at the University of Manitoba Jazz Camp.

Tell us about your first year in New York City!

There’s no city in the world like it. As much as we’re all connected globally now, it’s a really great place for jazz musicians to live, at least for awhile, just to see what’s happening, to soak up the energy…

Living in New York is a whole different animal from visiting. I had been to New York at least ten times before moving there, so I knew my way around. I had also met a lot of musicians from the Banff and Betty Carter Jazz Ahead workshops, so I had a network of people to hook up with. Still, when I was visiting, I could hang out all night seeing different shows and meeting musicians. Now I can’t be out every night—I have to handle homework and get some rest for school the next day!

There’s so much happening in that city! I make a point to get to as many shows as possible and to meet people outside of school. I’ve also been playing a lot of gigs, including Small’s and Smoke and other clubs with trumpeter Philip Harper, as well as lots of gigs through the student scene. Sometimes it feels frantic—like you’re so busy that you don’t have time to really work on things. But being in New York fast tracks you. You’re soaking up the music all the time, and that makes it possible to get better, get clearer.

What’s interesting is that the whole city is full of people who aren’t actually from there. I guess it’s like any other major urban centre—you find pockets of people from a particular place, so you really encounter different perspectives. I’ve got good friends from Europe now, and from various parts of the US. It’s just cool to be around so many like-minded individuals who are all bringing such different perspectives. Very inspiring—I’m learning a lot.

You’re at the Manhattan School of Music. Tell us about that.

It’s been eye-opening. Working with the teachers at MSM, especially my teacher John Riley, has been pretty amazing. Ultimately, though, it’s still school. I work hard. I’m going to classes, writing a lot of music, and pushing myself to be a better musician.

The professors rave about Canadian students. They say we work harder and are better prepared than our American counterparts. One of my teachers was astounded that I played piano. When I was in the Jazz Studies program at U of M, I was expected to play piano, even though I’m a drummer. My training has been excellent—I actually phoned Steve and Larry to thank them!

One highlight this year was a trip to Amsterdam for the Keep an Eye on Jazz competition. We were up against a group of students from Temple University in Philadelphia, two groups from the Amsterdam Conservatory (including one of Spanish students), a group from Austria, and a group from Finland, and we actually won! We figure it’s because we played with that “New York edge” (otherwise known as the sound of desperation because we all needed to pay our rent). We all hung out and shared perspectives on music and life. I was the only Canadian—that was cool.

You were also back for a second year to the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in Washington.

That was great. I was in a different space this year. Last year I was coming from auditions and didn’t know where I was going to land. This year I was looking forward to getting out of NYC for a couple of weeks so it was exciting for different reasons.

Six of us were there for a second time, so we had a better idea of what happens there. I found we could get to that creative space faster because those us who had done it before could take the reins. The big thing is letting go of preconceived notions of how something is supposed to happen. Then you’re not developing something for the particular group you’re playing with. Once you can let go and see everything as fair game, then you can really get creative and get stuff done.

A lot of the faculty returned too—including Jason Moran, who leads the institute now. They came with specific ideas about ways to direct those of us who were returning. Some of their advice had more impact on me this time out. I came away with a stronger determination to always give it 100% and be open to what might happen.

And this spring the Curtis Nowosad Quartet did a Canadian tour.

Yeah. Steve Kirby, Derrick Gardner, and Will Bonness joined me on the road, and we had really good time—Edmonton, Salmon Arm, Kelowna, Vernon, then Banff and Calgary. A couple of days after we got back to Winnipeg, we did a round trip to the jazz festival in Regina, then we hit the jazz festivals in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Montreal.

Getting to travel and play with Steve, Derrick, and Will was great—like coming home. I guess it was literally coming home! I was so pleased to add Jimmy Greene in Winnipeg, and to have Niall Bakkestad-Legare head east with us. I was the booking agent, tour manager, and van driver for this tour. It’s a steep learning curve, but I’ve got the bug and wanna do it a lot more!

Sitting onstage in front of a huge home crowd audience for our TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival gig was an experience that will stay with me for a long time. It was such a treat to have Jimmy playing with us, and for all of us to feel the love.

What’s next?

Well, we hit the recording studio in Winnipeg in the midst of that spring tour. We did all the heavy lifting on the road, so the band is really tight. I’m really eager to hear the results.

I’ll be playing Jazz on Wheels in the inner city with Steve this summer, and I’m excited to be the featured guest artist for the U of M Jazz Camp in August. Plus I’ll be making music with a lot of my friends here in the city over the course of the summer.

I’m also taking some time to integrate what I’m learning before I head back for my second year at the Manhattan School of Music. I’m seeing that many musicians in New York really specialize—they carve out a niche and that’s what they do. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of different things, and I want to meditate on that. I want to practice and find my way to the next level.

When I was here, I was a guy who was Really Good. In New York, being Really Good isn’t good enough. I’m thankful to have this time to think about what I want to do, and what I want to present to the world.

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