2015 has been a big year for vocalist Sachal Vasandani—he released his fourth album as a leader featuring all original compositions, Slow Motion Miracles, on Sony’s Okeh imprint and followed that release with extensive touring around the world. Back home in New York this month, Sachal has been focusing on a different project, celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Earlier this month, Sachal performed this material at the Jazz Standard with a big band. But this Tuesday, December 22nd, he returns to The Jazz Gallery to perform more intimate versions of Sinatra’s classic repertoire, featuring an ace young trio of James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums.
We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Sachal by phone to hear about how he made his deftly-orchestrated new album, and how performing his own material live informs his approach to singing old standards.
The Jazz Gallery: Your latest album, Slow Motion Miracles (Okeh), is an amalgam of musical styles, including indie-hip-hop, pop, electronica, Afro-beat, and jazz. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to move into this new musical sound, a bit of a departure from a typical jazz record?
Sachal Vasandani: Sure, the inspiration just kind of came from allowing myself to lead with my pen. If I lead with my songwriting, then some different styles flow out, and they are a reflection of the styles that you mentioned, and more, you know? They are held together by melodies and lyrics that have a certain resonance at this time for me, so making a record that is led by that process is going to be a little bit different than one that is led by only my singing or only my interpreting other people’s music.
TJG: Do you want to share about your composition process? Do you have a specific way you go about writing your music? What does that look like for you?
SV: When I compose, I try to respond to inspiration from a few different sources. One is melodies that stick in my head, and come from nowhere, really, they just stay with me. Another is chords—chord progressions that I play that move in a certain way that just happen when I play the piano. Another is rhythm—they speak, they come into my head, that I want to respond to; and then another is lyric, different lyrical themes or ideas, often times just phrases or little words that stick in my head, or I repeat to myself, and I have a hard time getting away from them, although sometimes I want to, and so they come out in song. So I try to be ready for all those by kind of having the sheet music and a voice memo, and my logic on my computer and my piano handy, some combination of those handy so that I can flesh out ideas, and then the song is hatched you could say. Then I start a long editing process, and I take the best of all those songs, which is a lot, and then I cut stuff out, and maybe add a few little things here there everywhere, and those end up being the songs that end up on the record.
TJG: You’ve been touring internationally a lot lately. What has the experience of touring been like for you? What’s something that you may have learned from touring?
SV: It’s just been a lot of fun, and it’s been diverse in terms of not just the places you’ve mentioned, but the opportunities, you know? I experienced a lot of those places for the first time this year. I had never been to, for example, Brazil, Finland, or Korea before, so that was new and fun. I think what’s really nice is just sharing music with people and seeing people respond, especially when I sing my new songs, or seeing people listen, and I have to say it’s a pretty great feeling, it’s pretty simple.
TJG: Do you have a fun/funny story from the tour you could share?
SV: Well just a recent experience is I did a gig at Mezzrow in New York, with Taylor Eigsti the pianist, and he’s played my music for a really, really long time, and he always finds new tempos and new harmonic elements to introduce to my songs, so I was really happy, I was almost laughing—I mean I didn’t because I had to sing, I mean it’s not so much funny like ha-ha, it’s funny like, this man is amazing and he’s been in my group now for a few years and he’s always finding new ways to attack music that I’ve written. So there’s a song that I wrote from my first album, and Taylor plays it as a solo piece, and I said to the audience after, you know you got a guy building a mansion out of a composition that was basically built like a tin shack. So that’s how he played the song. It’s pretty awesome.
TJG: What kind of improvisational element is happening on your latest album? Because I feel like the song structures seem a lot more through-composed, or that it has that kind of pop- feel makes it seem like there wouldn’t be as much opportunity for stretching out.
SV: That’s insightful of you. And surely, when I was thinking in terms of the process of recording this record, I was thinking in terms of structure, and the process of writing it would be to let people play as they play, but then certainly edit, and make a process that is more orchestrated, associated with pop, and that is also associated with classical music. But certainly also that was the process. I’ll give you an example, one day in the studio when we came in for some overdubs, Mark Guiliana came in with some electronic drums, and we said, ok let’s try these electronic drums, let’s do it over these 8 bars, we have this kind of double time type feel in mind over this piece that has a nice footfall ready, so you’re gonna have to play fast, and here’s the dynamic range. So we gave him a lot to do, but then within that, he could do whatever the heck he wanted, and he played 5 or 6 brilliant takes off of the ideas that we shared. So in that respect, there was a lot of his creativity within these confines, but it was confined. And then from there in the editing process, we would take snip-its of what suited the moments in the grander musical picture and make those part of the song, right? So that’s different than maybe an acoustic record of mine where we all played in real time and would feel the structure in the moment and that was kept. A lot of that is kept in the mixing process, a lot of it that you and I are discussing is from the mixing process.
Now you asked about the live thing, and when I was setting up how my live shows have all been just this past year when I was first sharing music from the record, it was important to me to share some of that structure. I sure enough did have the band try to orchestrate a little bit more in order to convey the difference, not just the difference, but what we were trying to get across on the record, it was really important to me. Now, with my current group, I am able to infuse a lot more improvisation, so we take our song structures, and we blow them up a little bit, or improvise over them or, it’s kind of commensurate with how I’m phrasing, the longer I stay with these songs, the more I can just interpret them, the way I might interpret a standard that I’ve sung my whole life. And so I want the band to do the same, and it also works well when we mix up the set with other types of materials, over covers of other songs, or covers of other jazz songs.
TJG: That’s really interesting how you talk about how staying with your own music over a long period of time gives you the opportunity to play with the songs the same way you would interpret a jazz standard. And speaking of jazz standards, you recently sang at the Jazz Standard, honoring Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. What was that like? Is Sinatra a musical influence of yours?
SV: Haha, great transition. Well Sinatra is a musical influence. It was through his music as a jazz singer that I began to appreciate how I could sing this kind of record that I just made. And to build on what we were just talking about, how I could present new material whether it’s stuff that I wrote or very old material like Sinatra’s stuff, and be able to give it a sufficient respect, that you can understand the melody, you can understand the lyric, you can understand the message it’s trying to convey, but also in that freshness, that it is ultimately part of the moment, whether that moment is a Frank Sinatra jazz standard big band gig, or if that moment is my songs in another venue, so this is just how I serve music, you know?
TJG: On that point, I know that you have said before how important it is to support live music, and how there is something kind of significant and different between just listening to that person’s record and going out there and seeing that live performance, which is also an important mission within the Jazz Gallery,and I wasn’t sure if you wanted to add any thoughts about that?
SV: I think you said it best. It’s a different beast, there are things that going to a live show brings to life that a record could never do. And yet, I think that making a record is a beautiful process. It is a wonderful document, and I appreciate the two in different ways, now more than ever. But, I really support not only the Gallery and its mission to bring live music, but just all places that value that. For our time as musicians and people who love music, it’s a no-brainer.
Vocalist Sachal Vasandani celebrates Frank Sinatra at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015. Mr. Vasandani is joined by James Francies on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $30 general admission ($20 for members), $40 for reserved cabaret seating ($30 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.