This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Nelson follows the way of the horn

Published: April 8, 2004

Reporter Assistant Editor

Trumpeter Jon Nelson's technical prowess as a performer allows him to move between the lyrical wail underpinning a haunting melody to a series of bullet-style notes reminiscent of a jack-hammer pounding out New York City's pulsing cacophony of life.


Jon Nelson and the Meridian Arts Ensemble played for legendary rock icon Frank Zappa shortly before Zappa's death.

With many commissioned works under his belt for well-known composers like Milton Babbitt and Stephen Barber, Nelson, assistant professor of trumpet and ensembles, says he looks to his colleagues at UB and his musical heroes for inspiration. In the late 1990s, he was invited to play for one such hero—the legendary rock icon, composer and notorious social critic Frank Zappa. Nelson, as a founding member of the Meridian Arts Ensemble (MAE), recorded some of Zappa's compositions and performed twice for the composer, the last time just weeks before Zappa's death from cancer in 1993.

"We became interested in Zappa's music through a close friend who happens to be Leonard Bernstein's nephew, who had made a tape for us of some of Frank's music that he thought would be appropriate for the Meridians," Nelson recalls. "We made some rehearsal tapes and sent them to Frank. He called me a year later on New Year's Day in 1991 and invited us to his home and then we played for him the following March. He was still up and around. It was special to play for Frank and we found out later that he knew he was ill but still able to work at that time. It was kind of a heavy thing because he was really limiting the people he had contact with-everyone wanted to see him," Nelson says.

"I think he was probably one of the greatest composers of the century and definitely in the same league as Charles Ives as an American composer," he notes. "He really knew how to hold up a mirror to society and was an equal opportunity offender—he found humor in everything and everyone. He made a lot of people upset, but he was very astute, very well read and extremely aware of current events," says Nelson.

One critic hailed Nelson's trumpet solo in the MAE's rendition of "Little House" by Zappa as convincingly evoking the writhing guitar improvisation of the maestro himself, and another praised Nelson as composer and performer on his "Song for a Dead King" (a tribute to Elvis Presley), noting it was "in the spirit of Zappa—both in its derision and in its exuberant solo writing."

Dweezil Zappa, Frank's son, has gone on to record and perform arrangements by Nelson.

A tireless performer and composer, Nelson is a member of a variety of ensembles. He performed for several years with the multi-award winning Atlantic Brass Quintet, widely hailed as one of the finest brass ensembles in the world and responsible for the 2003 International Brass Quintet Seminar held in Buffalo last year. The ensemble Metalofonico, directed by Nelson and comprised of musicians from the MAE, the Atlantic Brass Quintet and the Los Angeles and Buffalo Philharmonic orchestras, is due to release its first CD this year.

The Metalofonico recording project, which features works by American composers, also involves UB students, something Nelson is keen to do whenever possible. The 18-piece ensemble features brass, percussion and electric guitar, and performs a diverse array of brass music from the 20th century from countries like Brazil, Mexico, New Orleans and Cuba, as well as such contemporary composers as Iannis Xenakis, Tom Pierson, David Felder and LaMonte Young.

"It's great to be able to collaborate within the department and work with students," says Nelson.

He points out that the MAE is preparing for a recording project next spring and already has released seven critically acclaimed CDs on the Channel Classics label. The group has performed in 45 states, as well as Asia, Europe and South America, and has appeared on PBS's "Live from Lincoln Center," on National Public Radio and German and Dutch radio stations.

Interestingly, the group performs unusual arrangements of pop and ethnic music, as well as new music, Nelson explains, with a repertoire that includes works by Jimi Hendrix, the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart and renaissance and baroque music, in addition to Afro-Cuban dance music. The group, featuring five brass players and a percussionist, has received praise from Billboard Magazine, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times.

Back in the academic world, Nelson is a devoted teacher, pointing out that UB's Department of Music focuses intensely on developing the fundamentals—history, theory and lots of practice time.

"The benefit for students coming to this school is that the student-teacher ratio is very good. Some students might see me five times in a week. They do get a lot of individual attention," he says. "We have a lot of opportunities to get close to the students, but we hold everybody to the same high standards. The expectation when they leave school is going to be very high—there's a very high burden on you as a player."

Nelson admits he is demanding with both his colleagues and students—a review of one of his CDs notes that "No one's technical skills are in doubt after a run-through of one of his arrangements."

"I'm tough, but no tougher on anyone than I am on myself," says Nelson, a Julliard graduate who has been playing the trumpet since the fourth grade. Critics and peers alike have praised Nelson for transcending the barrier of becoming a redundant and repetitive musician

"There are more good musicians walking around the earth every day and less money for the arts. So you have to really be serious about what you're doing and take a lot of care in your studies. That's what is going to make better performers and better teachers," he explains.

Nelson, who has premiered more than 100 new works by modern composers, says he doesn't value one style of music above another—although he says that as he gets older, he tries to stay more open-minded than when he was a student. But when it came time to release his first solo CD, he chose new music compositions as the framework upon which to showcase "mean, fast, small notes" and long fluttering bursts that stop the heart in its tracks.

Active as an arranger, he has transcribed and adapted works by JS Bach, GF Handel, Jimi Hendrix, Don van Vliet, Zappa, and the music of Central and South America. He is the managing director of Blue Bison Music, and his arrangements and compositions have been published by Munchkin Music / The Zappa Family Trust and Manduca Music.

As a performer, he has recorded for Channel Classics, Koch, BMG/RCA, Bridge, New World Records, Cuneiform, Vandenburg, Pro Organo, CRI and Barking Pumpkin Records. (To sample Nelson's work, visit the Department of Music's Web site at edu/).

As an adjunct faulty member, Nelson has taught at the Hartt School of Music, Middlebury College, and at Boston University. He also has performed in several Broadway productions, among them "The King and I," "Camelot" and "Crazy for You", and with the rock group Duran Duran.

"What else am I going to do? There's nothing good on TV, so I might as well work," jokes Nelson about staying motivated. "I have millions of things I want to do and I'm probably only going to get to about 5 percent of them. I'm always thinking about what the next project is going to be and how to make it better than the last one."

At the request of David Douglas, who has been named best new trumpet player by a variety of critics and magazines every year since 2000, Nelson will co-produce the Festival of New Trumpet, a week-long series of nightly concerts to be held in August in Greenwich Village. Nelson says the festival promises to offer an exciting collection of musicians playing jazz, classical and new and avant-garde music, with many composers hearing their music played publicly for the first time.