For the third year in a row, Berklee has been invited to present a top student band at the Newport Jazz Festival.  The Mario Castro Quintet was chosen to represent the college on a 2011 festival lineup filled with alumni like Esperanza Spalding, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Hiromi, Avishai and Anat Cohen, to name just a few.

Mario and his band—David Neves, trumpet, KyuMin Shim, piano, Tamir Shmerling, bass, and Jonathan Pinson, drums—took their marks in the Harbor Stage tent in the midst of the hardest rain that any of us could remember.   The effect was to elevate the experience for the 500-some music lovers sheltering there.  Everyone was there, on a day they could easily have stayed home, for the right reasons, and Mario and band did not disappoint.

The following weekend, where the band was representing Berklee at the Martha’s Vineyard Jazz Festival, the weather was glorious, and Mario made an enthusiastic new fan, a direct connection to jazz aristocracy.

Let’s hear from Mario:

Newport Jazz Festival:

We had made a pledge to not perform like a student band or amateurs, we wanted to be considered professionals. Even though it is a fact that we are students we prepared for these gigs as if it where a boxing match; hours of (possibly excessive) individual practice, multiple rehearsals each week, and our weekly gig at Wally’s Jazz Cafe.

As we woke up early to head out to Newport, Rhode Island to perform in the one of most important jazz festivals in the world, I tried my best not to demonstrate fear. After all the hard work and dedication, to start thinking in a nervous or negative way seemed almost like it would be a disgrace to myself, not to mention the band. It was a decision I made to keep my mind clear and focused. After we arrived, we got on stage to do a line check, and there was already an audience. When I got on stage with the guys all possibility of nervous thought disappeared. This was a very relevant feeling for me, I felt unquestionably like a leader. After we got the sound right, we got off the stage and waited backstage for our call.  The moment we hit the stage everything seemed so comfortable, even the heavy rain seemed to compliment the music.

After we finished our show we got to meet a lot of the guys we currently listen to on records. People like Miguel Zenon, Seamus Blake, Henry Cole, Jonathan Blake, Tony Malaby, Ambrose Akinmusire, among others. It was very inspiring to see them talking to each other and how kindly they treated us. I couldn’t believe how open they were to the band. I thought the scene backstage was going to be a bit rough. After all, when you go to a local jam session it can often feel like being in the ring at a… boxing match. The environment at Newport was truly inspiring, everything was about art and growth.

Martha’s Vineyard Festival

What a perfect way to end the two weeks of gigs, recording sessions and traveling! First of all, we got off of the boat and our lodging was right across the beach. Everyone on the island seemed so nice and warm, it reminded me of back home in Puerto Rico.

Hours before our gig while we were warming up and getting ready, we met a sweet lady who seemed to know a bit too much about jazz. She was wishing us a great show, and telling us she will see us later. While we walked to the gig, which was a block away from our lodging, I learned that the lady we just met was Dexter Gordon’s widow! Personally, this took my desire to perform a great show to the next level.

From left, Domingo Guerra, Maxine Gordon, and Mario Castro.

Dexter Gordon was the first saxophonist to inspire me to listen to jazz, and I would say one of my biggest influences in general.  He is such an inspiration that one of our songs, “Poindexter” I wrote when I was in a Dexter Gordon period. When it came time to play “Poindexter” we all looked at each other and we knew what we had to do. We played that tune to make that woman feel like she was chilling in the golden years. I think it worked. It was an unforgettable experience to play my tune front of her and see her dance to it.

Overall we had a great set, the venue was beautiful, the people were listening carefully, and the food was amazing. I have never been treated better at a gig. What can I say? I can’t complain, at midnight after the gig the quintet went to hang at the beach.

I have to say that working these two past weeks with the quintet has made us even closer friends than we where before, therefore our music is stronger. The desire and inspiration that we have absorbed from these experiences have made it very clear that we should keep reaching out for our dreams. I am so glad to see so much support at Berklee for young musicians and for the progress of music in general.