Student Nacho González Earns a Jazz Education Network Honor

Nacho González took a detour from a bright future in the nonprofit world to come to Berklee. This month, he won a spot in the JEN Young Composer Showcase.

February 2, 2016

As of 2012, Nacho González had helped establish two U.S. offices for his South American nonprofit Techo, raising $8 million for it, and had been named by PODER magazine as one of the “Top 20 Under 40,” a list of young, influential Latinos in the U.S. But despite his rising star in the nonprofit world, González wanted to shoot for something else: a career in music.

The problem was that he didn’t quite know how to do this. He’d grown up taking piano and guitar lessons, but now wanted to take a broader path that included composition. No school in his native Uruguay offered a comprehensive course of studies in popular music, and Berklee seemed an unreachable destination.

“I knew that if I wanted to make quick progress and to keep developing myself as a musician, the best place is Berklee. But I never thought I was capable of going to Berklee. It was like, ‘ok, I want to go to the moon,’” González said. But his friend and mentor Gustavo Casenave ‘97, who studied composition at Berklee, told him that not only was he good enough to come to Berklee, but that he must come to Berklee if he wanted to move forward with his music.

A Life Calling

Now, only three years later, not only has González made his personal lunar landing, with a scheduled graduation date of May 2016, he’s established a band comprising students and noted faculty and won a spot in this year’s Jazz Education Network’s Young Composer Showcase, held in January in Louisville, Kentucky.

Michael Kocour, a JEN adjudicator and the director of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University, wrote of González's submission to the competition: “As Benny Golson told me, writing for a three-horn or two-horn group is, in many ways, more challenging than writing for big band because you have to find ways to get the sound you want from a limited number of horns and you have to make better use of the rhythm section. In that regard, [González’s] work here is wonderful! This chart sounds HUGE!”

González, a jazz composition major, won the showcase spot with his song “Candombe Juno,” based on the Afro-Uruguayan style of music called candombe, fused with jazz. Bobby Sanabria '79, director of the Manhattan School of Music Latin Jazz Orchestra, was so impressed at the showcase that he asked González to prepare an arrangement of the tune for his band to play at the Coca-Cola Dizzy Gillespie’s Jazz Club in New York City on March 28.

Listen to González perform "Candombe Juno" at Berklee:


“I left the stage really motivated to keep writing,” González said of his JEN experience. “This is what I want to do for life.”

He’s got an impressive start. In Boston, he leads the Nasty Candombe Mafia, a seven- to 11-person ensemble of students and faculty, including Nando Michelin, assistant professor in the Piano Department; George Garzone, professor in the Woodwinds Department; and Oscar Stagnaro, a Bass Department professor.

“In the very beginning, I was a bit scared to invite them,” González says of the faculty. “But then I just did, and they heard the music, and read the music, and liked it.” The collaboration has been supportive but challenging. “You can’t bring a chart that is so-so. You have to bring something that is ready. You can’t BS them. They are heavy, heavy cats—multi-Grammy-Award winners.”

The respect is mutual. “Nacho is a very dedicated artist,” Michelin says. “He has shown incredible progress in the level of his compositions, and understanding his role as a band leader. Being in touch with different styles, and letting those influence his own Uruguayan background, has shown a very remarkable result in his music, and it surely will continue to grow.”

In other words, he’s ready for takeoff.