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INTERVIEWS SACHAL VASANDANI
YOU WON'T FORGET METhere was a time in my life when the music of SACHAL VASANDANI was been considered my grandfather's music. SACHAL's debut CD EYES WIDE OPEN (MACK AVENUE RECORDS) pairs his own original compositions (the plucky STORYBOOK FICTION, and the swinging PLEASE, MR. OGILVY) with contributions by SADE ADU (IT'S ONLY LOVE THAT GETS YOU THROUGH) and interpretations of compostions by PERCY MAYFIELD and BILLY STRAYHORN. Maybe this says something about me, but the music that I once dismssed as my grandfathers music has become my music. In a strange way, this swinging, and soulful jazz sound speaks to me as it did a couple of generations before my own. "The songs come from an emotional arc that I was trying to convey." says VASANDANI. "I was trying to talk about a specifc theme of generally being a positive record that people could feel uplifted by but at the same time not shy away from confrontation. Sometimes, to ultimately uplift ourselves we have to recognize conflict and recognize loss and go through loss to get to a higher space. I kind of wanted to juxtapose in each one of the songs whether they were written yesterday or thirty years ago the idea of juxtaposing hope and loss." High minded? Definitely. But with EYES WIDE OPEN, hope and loss never sounded so beautiful.
SACHAL VASANDANI TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HIS CD 'EYES WIDE OPEN'
FALLING ASLEEP IN ECONOMICS CLASS
AND SEEING THE WORLD
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
SACHAL hails from Chicago and grew up in household with a fondness for music. "Everything from THE BEATLES to MICHAEL JACKSON to whatever was popular at that time to classical music and Indian classical music and of course jazz." says VASANDANI. The list of musicians and genres that he was exposed to and appreciated is endless, however it was that jazz sound that spoke to VASANDANI the loudest. It spoke so loudly that, VASANDANI studied music at the University of Michigan and from there earned recognition from DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE as the COLLEGIATE JAZZ VOCALIST OF 1999. Upon graduating with degrees in Classical music, Jazz music, and Economics (what the parents call "something to fall back on") SACHAL moved to New York and set out for a career as a recording artist. Through music, SACHAL has traveled the world and the seven seas; something that most economics major's never get a chance to do and with the release of EYES WIDE OPEN, it doesn't seem likely he'll be needing that Economics degree to fall back on.
SACHAL VASANDANI spoke with ROCKWIRED over the phone a couple of days following a performance at the LINCOLN CENTER. Here is how it went.
How was the show at the LINCOLN CENTER?
Actually it was fabulous.We had two sold out sets and I just had a ball because a lot of fans were there and a lot of people from the label had shown up and had brought their collaborators and business associates, but also a lot of good friends and fans had shown up so it was kind of real cru de'tas for me because we did one show in Boston that was really well attended by a lot of new fans
EYES WIDE OPEN is brand spanking new. How does it feel to have it ot out for everyone to hear?
It's super exciting and it's a little overwhelming at times, but I try to stay on top of everything.
You were born in Chicago. Were you raised there as well?
Yeah. Born and raised in Chicago and then kind of in the outlying areas.
In your bio, your family is described as being appreciative of music. Is anyone else in your family involved in music at all or is it just you?
Professionally, it's just me. My grandfather was an amateur singer so it kind of trickled down from there. We've got big music fans in the family but it's just me. My parents were involved in architecture and various off shoots of architecture so they had some kind of design and creative sides to them but in music, not so much.
And what kind of music were you exposed to growing up?
Everything from THE BEATLES to MICHAEL JACKSON to whatever was popular at that time to classical music and Indian classical music and of course jazz.
That is a pretty wide range.
It's pretty eclectic.
So what was it about jazz that spoke to you more than anything else?
Actually, that's the question that I've been waiting to be asked. The truth is in 2007 I thinks it's pretty safe to say that any practitioner of any music can say that they listen to a wide palette of music and I'm no different, it's just that there was something about the jazz idiom that allowed for a real individual self expression. Perhaps it was through the improvisation that I heard or just the unique phrasing singer to singer or instrumentalist to instrumentalist of a melody that was constructed fifty years ago and the idea that each performer could breathe new life into it. You'll have a situation where someone is singing MOZART or you have a BEATLES cover band where the audience in both situations more or less wants to hear a replication of the original. Does that make sense?
It makes a lot of sense.
But in jazz, it's like "This COLE PORTER song was written in the thirties and this IRVING BERLIN song was written in the twenties" but by the time it falls into my hands, people want to hear something fresh with it, otherwise, it doesn't grab them. Even before I knew the chronology of the music, just that gap captured me about the ability and the kind of acceptance and celebration of individual self expression. Y'know?
Where you much of a performer as a kid at all? Or did that not happen until your college years?
I was definitely a performer. I think more of my own solo stuff came later in high school and definitely in college. But as a youngster I was involved in a lot of ensembles like bands or choirs or musicals. I had a good public school upbringing so I was able to get to be involved in a lot of different arts organizations.
You attended the University of Michigan where you majored in economics but you went on to earn degrees in Jazz and Classical music. What did that entail? Was it Music Theory or Voice?
I should be clear. The economics was kind of the thing that I got on the wayside. I wanted to got to school for music and I figured that I wasn't at a conservatory but I was at great University so why not take advantage of the University resources and get an Economics degree, something that enjoy. But I was there for music and I was there to learn a little more about theory and history and what it meant to improvise and I was there also to build my voice by studying with some of the great operatic tenors and baritones. My main teacher was first the african american tenor to sing at the METROPOLITAN OPERA so he gave me a great vocal training and from there between Detroit and Ann Arbor, I got a chance to pick up some of the jazz and MOTOWN influence.
You were studying Jazz, Classical, and Economics. How hard was it to juggle all of that?
It was really hard. It was one of those things where I would just work, work, work - not to just get grades but to get a comprehension of what muisc was and then I would go to an Economics class and fall asleep. One time during an Economics class, I stayed awake for it and took notes and I had this splitting headache. It was essentially hard to complete three degrees in four years. It just took alot of my energy but one of the things that was relief was being able to focus on music whole-heartedly by 2001.
You were named the COLLEGIATE JAZZ VOCALIST by DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE in 1999. Was that the year you graduated?
I graduated in 2000. They did the awards in the fall and I graduated in the spring.
From there you moved to New York to pursue a career in singing. In what capacity? As a recording artist or a theater artist?
I guess all of the above. Theater, not so much in terms of musical theater. It was never my intention to go onto BROADWAY or anything. Again, whether it was going to be jazz or my own original compositions, the one thing I didn't want to be was part of a BROADWAY musical or part of someone elses show. That being said, if the opportunity came along, I wouldn't turn it down and sure enough one of my first gigs was a musical opera and I just wanted to sing. My intention was always to be a recording and performing artist doing a reportoire of music that I felt had some artistic integrity, whatever the genre.
What was it like living in New York and going after that often time elusive dream?
What it was can often times be what it is. It was a rollercoaster at times. It's great moments coupled with moments of severe confusion. There are moments where you feel like you have really made progress and taking your music to a level where it's ready to be heard and then, you have moments where it doesn't even matter if it's amazing. You're worried about if anyone is ever going to hear it, you know? Then there are those flip moments where everyone is hearing it and maybe they're patting you on the back but your worried if you have what it takes according to your own personal barometer of what it means to be a good musician. There are all of those moments and they're flipped together and jumbled up but hopefully you can make some sense of it all.
While in New York you established this four-member ensemble and toured with them.
Are you still working with them? Are they on the CD at all?
Yeah, those are the guys that are on the CD. They're old buddies of mine. I met them out here and they became everything from friends to writing partners to guys that I perform with so when it came to time to record a record I made a big point of saying 'I've been on their shoulders this whole time and I'm not going to record without them."
What are their names and what do you think each of them sort of brings to the table?
Excellent! I'm really glad to talk about that. The piano player's name is JEB PATTON and jazz enthusiasts will know him because he's played with all the jazz masters that really exemplify traditional jazz. JEB plays with JIMMY HEATH AND THE HEATH BROTHERS and these guys date back to the CHARLIE PARKER and MILES DAVIS days. JEB brings to that music such a freshness that reflects his immense classical facility on the piano but far more importantly, his truly opened mind. He can just hear anything and go in a different direction. He plays just about any style of music with just a true aplomb and an amazing sense creativity. Moving on, you've got DAVID WONG who plays the bass. He's a young guy from New York who went to JULLIARD and I think he really represents someone who is carrying on the tradition of the bass and he's gonna be one of the great, great bass players. He's just so into getting it right. There are soo many talented bass players out there and he just has the love of the music to just get it right every time. QUINCY DAVIS is a friend of mine from the Midwest. He's a drummer but he comes from an extremely musical family. His father is a choir director over at Western Michigan, so he's got singing in his blood. QUINCY is the kind of guy from his drum set, could tell you what notes to sing and tell the piano what notes and chords to play and sing a bass line for the bass player to play. He's got that much music in him. During the last few years he's been instrumental in shaping the direction of the band. Ussually we all collaborate. Ussually, I'll come in with a tune or an arrangement and they'll rip it up and rearrange it and add things and subtract things. Everyone plays a part.
What brought you guys together?
The city of New York brought us together.
What was it like touring for the first time? Had you ever toured before?
I've done some stuff on my own. I'll go meet up with different ensembles from other parts of the world. I've been with my guys all along the eastern seaboard and a little bit to the midwest. I've been to places like Moscow, Nepal, and Belgium and Holland and a bunch of other places in Europe.
I doubt that economics would've taken you all over the world.
What do your parents think?
That is the million dollar question. No pun intended. My Dad decided to fly out last minute from Chicago to New York and see me on Tuesday. Having your father see you through all of the ups and downs and to see you do a show where people are appreciative, I think it was good moment for him and because of that it was a great moment for me. He and my mom have always been wildly supportive of what I do. Certainly there is a lot more assurance in certain other fields that we have a choice of going into. Every parent wants to see their child put food on the table and be secure and hopefully lead a better life than they're living.
On EYES WIDE SHUT, half the songs are original compositions and the other half are standards. What went into choosing the standards?
I wanted to show that I came from a certain background and I also wanted to have people see where I'm going. That was really important to say that this record happens to catch me at a certain trajectory and hopefully I will get more and more into that trajectory and it will be a good thing. But how do I put the songs out that represent this particular record? The songs come from an emotional arc that I was trying to convey. Iwas trying to talk about a specifc theme of generally being a positive record that people could feel uplifted but at the same time not shy away from confrontation. Sometimes to ultimately uplift ourselves we have to recognize conflict and recognize loss and go through loss to get to a higher space. I kind of wanted to juxtapose in each one of the songs whether they were written yesterday or thirty years ago the idea of juxtaposing hope and loss.
Is songwriting something that you've always done or did that come out of working on this CD?
It's something I've always done. I've been writing my own songs since high school.
As far as a sort of songwritng inspiration, who were yours?
Great question! There are a myriad of influences and they are changing daily. One of the first songwriters that influenced me was the great COLE PORTER because I loved the way he could be so catchy with his melodies and so sly with his lyrics. A song of his could sound happy but if you really listened the songs had some sinister undertones. These days, I'm listening to a lot of indie rock bands and one in particular is called BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE from outside of Toronto and what they're teaching me is a mix of space and electronics with acoustic sounds.
JOHN CLAYTON produced this CD and he's worked with DIANA KRALL and MICHAEL BUBLE. What was it like working with him?
It was nothing but a treat. JOHN is the closest thing to a genius that I've ever met. He's got this balance of being able to run a session like mine with broad broad strokes and then be able to get right down to the nitty gritty and give you specific instructions on how to make the particular note on the piano or to sing a slightly different note. He knows how to deal with big scenarios and little things. Overall, he inspired us to do our best. He brings in this kind no politics, no sass. Just an uplifting spirit that keeps you from feeling anything but great.
Where his credentials intimidating to you at all?
I've known JOHN for a while. The only thing I would've found intimidating was his sheer knowledge, not his resume.
How long did it take to record it.
We did a couple days of rehearsals and I think three days of recording, a few days of mixing and a few days of mastering. It was spread out over a period of five months.
Is there a tour in the works?
We just got back from Boston. We'll be in Pittsburgh next week, then Chicago, Seattle and then Oakland. In May and June we'll be doing some stuff in the South. It's exciting.
I saw a video for one of your songs on YOUTUBE. Nice work! You think you'll do more?
Thank you. Yeah, I hope so. They did a good job with it.