David Leon's New Thing at Newport

By Etan Rosenbloom, ASCAP Director & Deputy Editor  •  August 3, 2017

When ASCAP composer/saxophonist David Leon steps on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival this Saturday, August 5, he'll be taking part in a tradition that stretches back over 60 years. Since 1954, the Festival has presented up-and-coming jazz stars alongside the titans of the genre. It's a mission that's furthered by The ASCAP Foundation's ongoing partnership with the Newport Jazz Festival. As part of the partnership, Leon was selected by judges for The 2017 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards to play a highly prized slot at Newport. In the midst of moving from Miami to Brooklyn, Leon told us about his music, his upbringing, and what it means to play on this hallowed stage. 

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The Newport Jazz Festival has such a long, renowned history. What does it mean to you to be playing at Newport this year?

When I think of the Newport Jazz Festival, I think of the legendary Ellington at Newport record. That album was among the first jazz recordings I heard - it’s unbelievable to think that I’ll be presenting my original music only feet from where that seminal recording and so many others were made. I actually saw the film Jazz on a Summer's Day [a concert film shot at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival] early on and that was influential. 

In addition to all the stories I’ve read about this place, I visited the festival for one day in 2011. I travelled for six hours each way by train and public bus (and eventually ferry) and saw some of my favorite saxophonists at the time: Miguel Zenon, Charles Lloyd, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Joshua Redman. I had an amazing time. It's humbling to know that I’ll be joining that roster and be playing at the same festival as this year’s stellar lineup which includes legends Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Benny Golson, Marilyn Crispell and so many of my favorite musicians.

You're debuting a new quartet at Newport this year. What's special about this particular combo? Are you trying out new things you haven't done with Sound Underground, #bicmnrosfulmfrenh or your other ensembles?

Yes! Im thrilled to be presenting all new music with drummer Francisco Mela, pianist Leo Genovese and bassist Josh Allen. This music is really written for them and their musical personalities. Leo and Mela have worked together lots over the years in multiple bands - together they're explosive and free, floating over much of the music while also going along for the ride we're all creating together. In the end, It’s all chamber music. Some of it is highly composed but even so, these guys make the music their own and infuse themselves into the piece.

In addition, neither Sound Underground (saxophone, trumpet and guitar trio) or #bicmnrosfulmfrenh (saxophone, bass and drums) had a pianist in them. I thought it might be interesting to move toward a “classic” quartet format for the Newport Festival and write new music that still sounded like me.

Any jazz musician growing up in Miami has to grapple with the grand tradition of Afro-Cuban jazz. Has that tradition impacted your own music? 

Certainly, I grew up hearing Cuban music and eating Cuban food more than anything else. Dancing to the music was inescapable at big parties and weddings. I love the rhythms of that music - it's something that feels steady and grounded, but it stretches. It’s this beautiful duality where time can feel fluid and at once snap into place and become rigid. Its one of my favorite feelings and I try to capture that sometimes when I play (I think Mela does, too).

Jazz is built on the interplay between composition and improv. How does improvising influence the music you write, and vice-versa?

My compositions are very influenced by the improvisations I've been a part of. I like to treat the melodies I write as if they were improvisations - they're usually played pretty close to what I wrote, but they're really skeletons themselves for the players to perform with their own nuance. In the same way, I like for some improvisation sections to have specific arcs and guidelines to keep them related to the piece. Sometimes it's blowing over material you've heard before, sometimes it's improvising with particular rhythms or using particular groups of notes, sometimes it's wide open.

What's one important lesson you've learned about the business of being a jazz musician that you wish you knew earlier? 

Not sure yet - still trying to figure it all out! But recently, I've been thinking about momentum with social media and publicity. How can I keep momentum up so that it all builds on top of itself instead of restarting every time a new video or new music comes out? Just gotta keep the ball rolling, I guess. Also, how much music released is too much? Is supply and demand applicable for jazz musicians and our products?

You were handpicked to play Newport by The ASCAP Foundation. How would you say ASCAP and the Foundation have impacted your career so far? 

Since receiving the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award, I’ve already been contacted by radio and news outlets to report about this incredible opportunity. In addition, I’ve met lots of new people and musicians and The ASCAP Foundation has been very supportive with their resources. However, I think some of the biggest benefits are still to come. At the Newport Festival, I’ll have the opportunity to play for a new audience and meet some of my favorite musicians. Touting my name alongside The ASCAP Foundation and the Newport Jazz Festival is a big plus too!

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Catch David Leon on the Storyville Stage at Newport Jazz Festival on August 5 at 4:40pm. Visit NewportJazz.com for the full lineup.

David Leon is a Cuban-American saxophonist, woodwinds player and composer/improviser living in New York. An active leader and sideman, he has toured internationally as a core member of the chamber trio Sound Underground, releasing two albums to critical acclaim. His own trio #bicmnrosfulmfrenh was recognized as the Best Small Ensemble by Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards. He released an EP with experimental improv duo Yeah No Thanks in April of 2017. Born and raised in Miami, FL, David discovered a love for music in his uncle's collection of global percussion instruments. After starting formal instruction on piano he found the saxophone by chance, and was accepted into the prestigious New World School of the Arts high school to study jazz. He quickly garnered national recognition from the National YoungArts Foundation, the GRAMMY Foundation, the ASCAP Foundation, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Jazz Band of America. David graduated with a Bachelor of Music from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, as a member of the cross-genre Henry Mancini Institute. In addition, David is a two-time alumni of the Kennedy Center's Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program and the Banff Centre in Canada. He has had lasting mentorships with jazz artists Terence Blanchard, Jason Moran and Ira Sullivan. Find out more and hear his music at www.davidleonjazz.com.