Vermont saxophonist Brian McCarthy is a force to be reckoned with

Vermont saxophonist Brian McCarthy celebrates the release of his acclaimed new album, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” with his nine-piece group on Aug. 18 at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. PHOTO BY SETH CASHMAN

Brian McCarthy is on a serious roll. On Aug. 18, the Hardwick-born, Colchester-based saxophonist, 36, celebrates the release of a stellar new album, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” with his topnotch nine-piece group at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.

The album, released in June on Truth Revolution Records, has been garnering glowing reviews. Downbeat gave it four-and-a-half stars, calling it “a jazz album that makes a cavernous impression for its arresting beauty and conceptual brilliance,” and his band “a fierce and agile nonet.”

All About Jazz praised it as “a valuable collection on multiple levels,” while the Buffalo News called it a “sumptuous nonet recording” and “wholly unexpected and terrific.”

As if that wasn’t enough, McCarthy has a quartet album called “Codex” in the can — his third album as a leader — the release of which he’ll be celebrating Dec. 2 at Burlington’s FlynnSpace.

A hard-working musician who also plays with veteran Burlington-based trumpeter Ray Vega and the Grippo Funk Band, McCarthy has arranged for Mike Gordon of Phish and pop group Guster, among others, while also teaching music at the University of Vermont, Saint Michael’s College and Johnson State College.

Following are excerpts from a recent interview with the rising Vermont jazz artist.

Q: How does it feel to have your album release show at the Highland Center for the Arts, so close to where you grew up?

A: I never would have thought a project of this magnitude would be something I could bring to the area. The logistics of a New York City-based group this size really requires an arts center to make it happen. I don’t have words to describe how excited I am to play in such a beautiful new venue, let alone one that is literally 10 minutes from the house I grew up in.

Q: When did you start playing music, and what were your musical experiences like growing up in Hardwick?

A: I started in fourth grade, but it never really became serious for me until high school. At that point, I was all in. Pretty sure I was the only kid in the country listening to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on the bus to basketball and soccer games. Outside of school, I really didn’t have the chance to play, so you get creative. I tuned into and played along with jazz on VPR with (former host) Neal Charnoff most nights of the week, and took advantage of play-along CDs to get some level of experience.

Q: How would you describe your experience at William Paterson University?

A: When I first visited the university, I was told that students there practiced at least six hours a day. My head almost exploded, I was so excited. An entire program of some of the most talented young musicians in the world, all sharing the goal of becoming as good as they could possibly be — I was at home.

I fell in love with jazz at an early age in Vermont, but it was being 20 minutes from the Village Vanguard that really set me on the path I’m on today. Along that path, I have had incredible experiences with legendary people like Mulgrew Miller and Clark Terry, and met my brothers and sisters in musical arms, some of which are in this current project.

Q: Your first “Better Angels” performances at Burlington’s FlynnSpace in late 2015 were incredibly well received. What was that experience like for you?

A: There are points in a person’s career where there is the time before something, and the time after. One of those moments for me is the two-night run that November. I’ve sold out shows before and had positive reactions from crowds, but this was something more. People had a genuine and deeply felt experience. I had people come up to me after the shows with tears still in their eyes, and yet they had huge smiles on their faces.

I’ve always admired artists that tell a story with a wide range of emotions and experiences, and they connect with the audience the whole time. Those Flynn shows made me realize I was one of those artists.

Q: The “Better Angels” album is quite an accomplishment. What are your thoughts about the album?

A: I’m not the first to take on the issues surrounding the Civil War era, but I believe new and fresh perspectives are important reminders for generation after generation. It was a moment of immense and bloody change, but without this “watershed moment” (as historian Shelby Foote says in the Ken Burns series), I don’t know if this country could have produced such a unique and complex art form such as jazz.

Q: How would you describe the music on “Codex”?

A: The music is raw and emotional. I’ve written and arranged songs to provide a vehicle for us to explore and create using the language of jazz. Small groups, like this quartet, have their own vibe. It’s the same energy and creativity as a project like “Better Angels,” but a different approach. The large group has a script that the band stays more close to, where the small group has more agility to spontaneously change direction around that script.

Q: The description for your FlynnSpace album release show for “Codex” says it explores “(your) past to create new works based around musicians and events that have influenced [your] artistic life.” Who and what are some of the musicians and events that have influenced your artistic life?

A: In college, James Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Clark Terry created a perpetual motion of growth within me. Anyone who was mentored by or performed along with them has been fundamentally changed forever. We honor them every time we play a note, so I wanted to make sure people know. As for events, you can expect the impact of Columbine and the countless “Columbines” that followed to be on this album. Like in “Better Angels,” music and art — if done right — can bring about discussion, and that discussion hopefully leads to positive change.


— The Brian Mc- Carthy Nonet celebrates the release of its new album, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, at the Highland Center for the Arts, 2875 Hardwick St., Greensboro. Tickets are $25, $10 for students; call 802-533-9075, or go online to

— The Brian Mc- Carthy Quartet celebrates the release of its forthcoming album, “Codex” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at FlynnSpace in Burlington. Tickets are $25, $21 for students; call 802-863- 5966, or go online to

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