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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

From L to R: Michael Mayo, Vuyo Sotashe, Sachal Vasandani, and J.D. Walter. Photos courtesy of the artists.

For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, vocalist Sachal Vasandani has assembled a true vocal super group. With Michael Mayo, Vuyo Sotashe, JD Walter, and Vasandani, the ensemble features vocalists with different perspectives and approaches to their shared craft.

Vasandani is a jazz singer and artist who, throughout the last decade, has released a series of critically-acclaimed albums through the Okeh label and Mack Avenue Records. This upcoming vocal showcase will also include pianist Taylor Eigsti and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who also played on Vasandani’s latest album, Shadow Train, to be released at the end of May. We spoke with Vasandani about his expectations and anticipation for the upcoming showcase.

The Jazz Gallery: Your theme for this collaborative show is “What A Time To Be Alive”—there’s no doubt about that. How does this put the music in context?

Sachal Vasandani: With this group, we have an opportunity to comment on the state of jazz through the voice. It’s rare, at least for me, to have the opportunity to play with other singers, especially male singers. With JD, Vuyo, and Michael, we’ll have a great chance to explore different directions. The thing about improvisation, and jazz in general, is that it always feels like it’s the right time for it. It’s a celebration of the present. That’s why with the title of the show, “What A Time To Be Alive,” we’re highlighting the opportunity to celebrate the present and comment on how we see the world at this moment through improvisation.

TJG: What do you mean when you say you can comment on the state of being a jazz vocalist today? What is that state, for you?

SV: While I think that the world considers me a jazz vocalist, I consider myself an artist with a statement to make. That statement is sometimes a reflection of the past, but more and more, I’m concerned with the present and the future. I’m thankful that these three other singers, as well as Taylor and Dayna, are all thinking along these same lines. You get us all together, and there’s going to be very individualist approaches. We’re not going to adhere to any particular tradition, it’ll be more a celebration of different viewpoints. That’s exciting to me.

TJG: You’ve assembled a wonderful trio in Michael, JD, and Vuyo. Tell me about your choices. How did those singers come to mind as you put this show together?

SV: In my opinion, they are some of the leading lights. They each represent different attitudes, traditions, even age groups. We might have some free improvisation, we might have something rooted in one tradition or the other, we might have some electronics. That’s part of the collective experience. Personally, I think I will be challenged by what they bring. That’s what I live for.

TJG: Are there things that differentiate each singer approach that you’re excited to explore?

SV: I think you hit it. There’s a mix of traditions, some overlap in the jazz language, some stylistic similarities, and then some domain that might fall more into the specialties of each of the men. I think there’s enough individuality and overlap for there to be some really nice common language.

TJG: Do you have a sense of what these guys have prepared?

SV: We’re working on it now. I’m excited to do some collaborative improvisation. That’s my primary interest right now. Everyone’s bringing their own music, and we’ll be able to prepare a little before the show too. I’m looking for opportunities and space to improvise and be in the moment. More and more, that’s what I want out of music, the music I hear, the music I present. I’ve tried to assemble people who are going to help me stretch, to think outside the confines of a song, a meter, a tonality.

TJG: Do you think you’ll be able to help these guys stretch as well?

SV: That’s a great question. I hope so. I have a spirit, and these guys are responsive people. They’ll pick up on it.

TJG: How will the evening be structured? Are you thinking solos, duets, trios, quartets?

SV: Exactly. We’ll pair off and celebrate a bit of individuality with solo pieces. Some folks are going to present their electronic pieces. We’ll have some duets and trios, then we’ll have a few brouhahas with everybody, which should be really fun.

TJG: There’s something about being a vocalist that makes this possible. Of course you have big bands and large ensembles, but you wouldn’t necessarily have an evening of four trumpets, say, backed up by piano and saxophone. What is it about being vocalists that opens this possibility for you?

SV: To use your analogy, one of us can cover the bass lines, someone can cover lead trumpet, and so on. With four male voices, there’s so much variety and texture, a large variety of roles, room for exploration. And we’re not out on our lonesome, because we’ve got Taylor, who can pretty much read minds [laughs]. Then Dayna brings a whole additional commentary, especially through his EWI playing. I’m a huge fan. He did that on my record too, with huge layers of production, and it added so much. I’m excited to see how he incorporates that into the fun stuff we’ll be having on this show.

TJG: Speaking of Taylor Eigsti and Dayna Stephens, they’re featured on your upcoming album Shadow Train. Is there musical chemistry between them that speaks to you?

SV: They function as a unit. In this setting, that’ll allow for a variety of perspectives, because they can become a collaborative backbone for whatever direction the singers might want to go. They can be as fixed and as constant as they need to be, but we’re talking about two of the most improvisatorily free people that I know, both between their fluency on their instruments and the openness of their minds. The fact that they play together so much strengthens that connection. They’ve got the whole thing, and I like to play with them in all situations. I’ve find a real common kinship with those two at all stages of my musical journey.

TJG: What would you say to someone coming to the Gallery who might be familiar with your singing and repertoire, but doesn’t quite know what to expect with this four-vocal drum-free configuration?

SV: It’s a worthy question. I’d say, “That’s the adventure.” We’re going to find some new ground together, and once we find it, we’re going to keep going.

The Jazz Gallery presents “What a Time To Be Alive” on Saturday, April 28, 2017. The concert features Michael Mayo, Vuyo Sotashe, Sachal Vasandani, and JD Walter on vocals; Taylor Eigsti on piano, and Dayna Stephens on saxophone and EWI. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.