Nelson Brill Previews Newport Jazz Festival 2015

Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound.

In this article, Nelson sets the stage for the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival.



In the fall of 1972, the visionary founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein, (he now 90 years young!), had the idea of trying to convince the great pianist Dave Brubeck to re-unite his legendary quartet (Paul Desmond on alto sax; Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax; Jack Six on bass and Boston’s own Alan Dawson on drums) to take their act on the road one more time.

It had been five years since Brubeck had performed with his quartet. During that absence, the always inventive Brubeck (along with his wife and musical companion, Iola) had composed and performed a number of original and daring compositions. (One of these was a “classical” cantata which was scored for piano, a rock band, a classical chorus and symphony orchestra- an amazing new sound for that time). Wein had the notion that the world was ready to hear Brubeck in his jazz element once again, and approached him with the idea of taking his quartet on an international tour under the flag of the Newport Jazz Festival.  Brubeck agreed, and as a result we now have the audiophile gem of a live recording from this whirlwind 1972 tour: We’re All Together Again For The First Time [Atlantic Records].


Here is a masterful live recording, especially when heard on its original vinyl pressing. The recording captures the incredible energy and excitement of these live performances that took place in spacious halls from Berlin, Paris and Rotterdam. The recording has a “you are there” presence, allowing the listener to peer into the hall spaces and hear the dynamic envelopes of air and space surrounding the musicians on these stages.  (When dialed-in carefully, a quality subwoofer [from subwoofer manufacturers such as Fathom or REL] is a key component in a home audio system that allows the listener to capture the very last decibels of energy and acoustic space and air on such great live recordings as this one. With a subwoofer properly configured, We’re All Together Again comes alive with its deep recesses of acoustic space and layered soundstage).

The opening cut to this delectable recording, Brubeck’s “Truth,” is an intense improvisational workout between Mulligan on baritone sax and Desmond on alto, each coiled and stealthy in their solos. Desmond is exuberant and light in his unfolding lines while Mulligan is muscular in his twisting flights and growls on his bleating baritone. Brubeck adds his own punchy piano solo which is filled with keyboard stomps and quick breaks (with bluesy chords thrown hither and yonder in his signature ambitious reach).

“Unfinished Woman” finds Mulligan moving breezy and free on his own composition, his baritone sounding fleshy and big- yet also light as a feather. Dawson, (whose passing at a young age was a blow to the entire jazz world-he was caught regularly lighting up the now-defunct Willow Jazz Club in Somerville, MA.), is a marvel throughout this outing.


On “Unfinished Woman” Dawson propels all of the action with his heady snare and cymbals (with the backbone of Six’s bass) and then, towards the end on Side Two’s extended and frolicking version of “Take Five”, he unleashes a dazzling drum solo that is a clinic in pure locomotion: powerful and fierce in every rapid drum roll and monumental spray of his cymbals. Dawson shows his tender side as well, on Brubeck’s meditative “Koto Song,” where he employs the lightest touch on his cymbals so that Desmond can take flight in his meditative alto solo (upon this cushion of rhythmic serenity). We’re All Together is a great portrait of these four consummate musicians working together as one great vehicle of musical invention and joy. We have Newport Jazz’s George Wein to thank for bringing this group together once again (“for the first time”).

willoughby photo

In the footsteps of the Brubeck Quartet’s Paul Desmond (and in light of our recent tribute to the passing of another monumental alto saxophonist and composer, Ornette Coleman), its a nice segue from We’re All Together to report on a recent live performance by another dynamic alto player, Miguel Zenon (who has also graced the stages of the Newport Jazz Festival).  On June 22nd, Zenon took to the stage at Jordan Hall at The New England Conservatory of Music (“NEC”) to perform as part of NEC’s Jazz Lab Week. [Jazz Lab, (, is a program that brings high school students to NEC for a week of intensive trainings, seminars and improvisation sessions with faculty and guest artists].  At this concert, Zenon was joined by bassist Rick McLaughlin and drummer extraordinaire Joe Hunt. Besides being a drummer for the likes of Stan Getz and Bill Evans, Hunt also worked with Ornette Coleman – another nice historic link to the recently passed alto giant. The crowd on this evening at Jordan Hall was packed in with high school students and it made for a raucous and energetic atmosphere.

Zenon continued his spirited journey into his Puerto Rican musical heritage by focusing at this concert on a celebration of Puerto Rican composers. Two famous compositions written by Juan Tizol, (trombonist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra), were performed: Caravan (1936) and Perdido (1941). On Caravan,Zenon started fastidiously-slow and steady- drifting and building his elongated sax lines into a whirl of notes and trills. McLaughlin and Hunt rode alongside Zenon, offering their own redoubtable grooves. McLaughlin loved taking fragments of the melody and carved them up into big slides and holds on his bass. Hunt pounced on the essence of Caravan’s toe-tapping rhythm and used big hits on his bass drum for added bravado. With a grin on his face, Hunt always anticipated the next danceable moment with his swinging punctuations.


At his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival last year, Zenon took his musical explorations of Puerto Rican vibrancy to another dimension. At Newport, he performed with his large “Identities Band” and delivered an eclectic and buoyant performance rooted in his 2014 recording,  Identities Are Changeable [Miel Music;].


Like Brubeck in his own ambitious works, Identities Are Changeable is a recording that stretches musical borders. It  delivers a challenging multi-media project that combines voice-overs (in which individual Puerto Ricans discuss their own stories of immigration and what it means to call a place “home”), with Zenon’s imaginative and enveloping music. For instance, on the title cut of the recording, individual young Puerto Ricans in New York City discuss how what they feel about their living in dual cultural heritages with one foot in Puerto Rico and another here. These poignant observations are spoken over simple rolling bass and drum lines until the music gradually takes over into a grand sweep of big band sounds and colors. The music surges and leaps captured beautifully in the wide dynamics and muscular feel of this recording. The individual soloing throughout Identities is superb with bristling sax and brass sparkle, surging collective blasts and a feeling of optimism in its message of youthful exuberance in the face of big social and political questions raised by its narrators.


You can pick out Zenon’s alto from the surrounding groove, with his style of building intricate strings of sweet and pungent sounds on his alto sax. Zenon’s alto style brings to mind the process of making rock candy: taking an empty string and then passing it through a sugary base and watching how, over time, crystals of rock candy are formed in long intricate and sweet lines. His alto lines start on a blank slate and build similar long, languid lines and phrases (entwining in unpredictable ways with short bursts). The beauty of his playing is not only this combination of sweet and languid, but how Zenon never losing sight of the established rhythmic groove of his rich Puerto Rican heritage (like those rock candy crystals remaining tethered to their string).

Saxophonist Rudesh Mahanthappa and company at Newport, 2014

And, speaking of sweet sounds, this year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, ( is coming to Newport, Rhode Island on Friday-Sunday, July 31st-August 2nd.  The Friday session is always a great opportunity to hear new and exciting talent, like when Miguel Zenon performed last year with his Identities Big Band. This year, a big band under the direction of drummer John Hollenbeck is performing, with many young upstart musicians in its ranks. On Friday, there are also intriguing small ensembles put together by bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and – one of my favorite young drummers – Johnathan Blake. Friday will also offer a chance to hear the legendary drummer Herlin Riley and his Quintet. The rest of the Newport weekend promises many more sonic feasts, including appearances by the Maria Schneider Orchestra (who performed one of the great performances of recent memory at Tanglewood last summer and has a new album just out, The Thompson Fields [on ArtistShare;]) and Cecile McLorin Salvant, the singer who brought down the house last year at Newport. (Salvant’s wondrous album, Woman Child [Mack Avenue] remains in heavy rotation here at bostonconcertreviews).



Several other artists (whose concerts we have reviewed in the past year): Arturo Sandoval; Aaron Diehl; Frank Kimbrough- will also all make appearances at Newport this year. Cassandra Wilson will also be bringing her “Tribute to Billie Holliday” to Newport and from all reports, her recent concert at The Berklee Performance Center with this same lineup was astonishing.

From Brubeck to Jon Batiste, Newport Jazz’s founder George Wein continues to weave his magic in bringing folks together under Newport’s big tent for the love and joy of the music.

For the full Newport Jazz Festival lineup, see

Jon Batiste and Stay Human at Newport, 2014

Jon Batiste and Stay Human at Newport, 2014

If you would like to read more reviews like this one, visit Nelson’s blog at

One thought on “Nelson Brill Previews Newport Jazz Festival 2015

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