STONINGTON — In the summer of 2016, drummer Joseph Boulet of Blue Hill just wanted to make sure he didn’t “sound like trash” in front of Dafnis Prieto — the Cuban-American bandleader, MacArthur Genius Fellow and Grammy nominee whose group headlined the Deer Isle Jazz Festival that year.
Boulet and a few of his fellow jazz students at George Stevens Academy (GSA) were opening for Prieto’s quartet. That headlining group included Peter Apfelbaum, a New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist who was happy to offer tips backstage and share his contact information with the young drummer.
Two years and several trips to New York later, Boulet will be performing in a duo with Apfelbaum playing piano as Saturday night’s Jazz Festival opening act on Aug. 4. Pianist Myra Melford and her quintet, Snowy Egret, will follow, while Cuban-American musicians David Virelles and Román Díaz will top the Aug. 3 show.
Both concerts are presented by Opera House Arts and take place at the Stonington Opera House. The Deer Isle Jazz festival is now in its 18th year.
Apfelbaum and Boulet’s collaboration is exactly the kind of result that longtime Jazz Festival curator Larry Blumenfeld hoped for when he began recruiting musicians to Stonington for the festival nearly two decades ago.
“It really excited me when I heard that Peter and Joseph were going to do this opening set,” said Blumenfeld, a writer and music critic who covers jazz and culture for the Wall Street Journal. “Really, Jazz Fest has always been about connecting these great musicians with the island community in general. Because it’s a really unusual, really creative community.”
Apfelbaum noticed Deer Isle’s artistic spirit when he came to perform, saying it was nice to perform in a town where jazz was “not just background music.” He was also impressed by the GSA student combo — impressed enough that he agreed to mentor Boulet for the high schooler’s independent study the following spring. The young drummer flew to New York, and called the two weeks he spent there “the most eye-opening experience I’ve had.”
The pair has worked together in New York a few times since then, so when former Opera House Arts Artistic Director Meg Taintor approached Boulet about putting together an opening act for this year’s Jazz Festival, the Blue Hill musician knew exactly with whom he wanted to work.
“The first thing I did was call Peter,” Boulet said.
Apfelbaum was eager to work with Boulet again, too, citing the young drummer’s “great range of sound” and his ability to fuse more traditional jazz with R&B and avant-garde influences.
The pair plans for a unique performance in Stonington. They will likely draw on African and Latin influences, showcase some of Apfelbaum’s original compositions and include some improvisation.
“There will be music that’s never been played before and never will be played the same way again,” Apfelbaum said.
Boulet noted that playing with Apfelbaum has allowed him to branch out from the traditional jazz repertoire that he learned in school. While the duo has performed together in New York — this winter, in a live concert for the radio station WKCR — the Jazz Festival will be the first time they do so in Maine.
For the Blue Hill native, who recently completed his first year at McGill University in Montreal, performing in Stonington brings the added benefit of having his family and friends in attendance.
“To be able to bring all of that back here is a great way to show people what I’ve been learning,” Boulet said.
Keeping up with tradition, another GSA student band will open for Virelles and Díaz on Friday night. The group, titled Quinn and the Tuplettes, features musicians Erika Hipsky, Sophia Steinbarger, Elana Williamson, Nellie Haldane, Isla Brownlow and Quinn Staber. They are directed by Steve Orlofsky, who has been teaching music at GSA since 1987.
“It’s such a great opportunity for the students to open for such acclaimed jazz artists from away,” Orlofsky said.
In addition to the Jazz Festival, Boulet and Apfelbaum will be performing in a quartet with local musicians Ross Gallagher and Danny Fisher-Lochhead on Sunday, Aug. 5, at the gWatson Gallery in Stonington. That concert will “get back to our roots,” Apfelbaum said, highlighting music from jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman.
The Deer Isle Jazz Festival takes place on Aug. 3 and 4. Both nights begin at 7 p.m. Tickets cost between $25 and $40 and can be purchased at operahousearts.org or by calling 367-2788.