During my 8 ½ year stint hosting “Saturday Night Jazz” on KMHD, I learned a lot of things. For example, I learned that someone with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) shouldn’t eat dinner shortly before beginning a three hour live radio program. Especially when getting to the nearest restroom requires that you go upstairs on a slow, poorly-maintained elevator with a penchant for getting stuck between floors.
(On a Saturday night, there are no maintenance people on campus. You could be in for a very long wait. The results could be tragic. Not to mention messy.)
One of the things I learned that actually relates to jazz and this column is, you should never prejudge anyone. Especially artists you’ve never heard of. Just because you haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean they are not any good.
Allow me the conceit to point out a few examples from this blog:
“Papa” John DeFrancesco. He is Joey’s father and, in my opinion, a much better organist. I had never heard of him until I ran across one of his CD’s at the station.
I had never heard of Reggie Houston either. Now I’d have to say he’s among my top five favorite sax players. On top of that, he has moved to Portland! (Unlike some other New Orleans transplants that now call Portland home, Reggie came by choice before Hurricane Katrina devastated that unfortunate city. Which, I hasten to add, is not meant as a put-down to those who came after.)
Pianist Beverly Ritz likewise was completely unknown to me. Now she is not only someone whose music I love, she is a good friend as well.
The final example I’ll mention, of those I’ve written about, is Willis Jackson. Another late, great saxophone player whom I’d never heard of. And an underrated saxophone player at that, if you ask me.
There were many others I had not head of whom I haven’t written about yet, such as Bob Thiele, Dr. Billy Taylor, Cornell Dupree and Mark Elf.
After all that it’s a bit embarrassing to have to admit that when I found a thick envelope from Resonance Records in my mailbox last Saturday, and opened it and saw the name on the CD, I was a bit disappointed.
“Donald Vega? Who is this guy?” I thought.
I then spent the following week listening to his CD at every opportunity. I now know who he is. He is one hell of a jazz pianist and composer, that’s who he is.
His album is called “Spiritual Nature”, and it’s due to be released by the aforementioned Resonance Records on August 14.
The personnel are:
Donald Vega, piano, Rhodes
Christian McBride, bass
Lewis Nash, drums
Anthony Wilson, guitar
Christian Howes, violin
Bob Sheppard, sax
Gilbert Castellanos, trumpet
Bob McChesney, trombone
Donald Vega was born July 23, 1975 in Nicaragua. He began playing piano at age 3, taught by his father and grandfather, both of whom were noted musicians. When he was 14, his mother brought him to the United States to keep him from being forced to become a child warrior.
[For background on the reality of this type of event in 1980’s Nicaragua, I have embedded the 1984 documentary video, “Ballad of the Little Soldier”, at the end of this article.]
Vega had already been studying music for several years, and once in Los Angeles he enrolled in the Colburn School of Performing Arts. He also studied with Billy Higgins at The World Stage. Eventually he earned a B.A. at the University of Southern California with John Clayton and a Masters at the Manhattan School of Music.
“Spiritual Nature” consists of twelve songs, four of which were written by Vega and two by Monty Alexander. Track one, “Scorpion”, is one of the Vega originals. This song gets the album off to an animated start, with McBride and Nash setting a pace that you can’t exactly call blistering, but it isn’t book-reading music either.
One thing “Scorpion” does is disabuse you of your possible expectation that this is an album of ethereal music suitable for listening to you while you look for shapes in cloudy but warm summer skies. Nor is it an album of Latin jazz. Everyone gets their shot at soloing on this straight ahead number, but Nash’s, toward the end, is especially vigorous.
Up next is a Ron Carter composition, “First Trip”. I do believe this is the first time I’ve heard this particular song, and I love it. This jaunty song has a warm, friendly vibe that does not let up.
Monty Alexander’s “The River” has a marked change of pace from the first two tracks. Notwithstanding my earlier comments, Howes’ violin at the beginning of “The River” does give this one an ethereal touch, while Nash and McBride provide the impetus to move forward, however gently. This is a nice, quiet song, yes, but it is one that won’t lull you to sleep.
The title track, “Spiritual Nature”, is next. Like me, you might expect it to be another ethereal piece, similar to “The River”. Like me, you’d be right and wrong. While it certainly is less vigorous than the first two songs, this one has plenty of energy. It also has a slight Conga sound for a bit, but mostly it’s Vega’s piano with Sheppard’s sax and the rest of the crew giving you a wonderfully spirited piece of music, no pun intended.
Here is “Spiritual Nature” the song.
Another Monty Alexander piece, “Accompong”, is lively and delightfully funky. Listening with my eyes closed, I can picture the whole group having a great time with this fast-paced extravaganza.
This is Donald Vega and the guys performing “Accompong”.
The guys really cook on Makoto Ozone’s “You Never Tell Me Anything”, another delightful song that really showcases Vega’s talent.
I should have had this posted over an hour ago, and here I am barely halfway through. I’m going to have to wrap this up by talking about one final song, Vega’s composition “Child’s Play”.
This is the shortest song on the album, running just over three and a half minutes. It’s deceptively quiet beginning belies what’s really going on here. Vega, Nash, Howes and McBride take this simple song and soar with it. It has a quiet, playful nature, like the playing children it is intended to imitate, especially when Howes and Vega musically chase each other. This is delightful stuff.
Last but not least, here is “Child’s Play”.
I think it’s safe to say that you will find Donald Vega’s brand new CD, “Spiritual Nature” to be a wonderful addition to your personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other night!
To learn more about Donald Vega and his music, visit his web site. “Spiritual Nature” will be available August 14, 2012 for purchase (and possibly for legal download, although I don’t know that for a fact) at all the usual places.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
The video documentary, “Ballad Of The Little Soldier”:
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