Donald Vega arrived in the U.S. from Nicaragua at the age of 14. He spoke no English (except two words: “Bud Powell”) but quickly won the attention of Henry Mancini and jazz critic Leonard Feather by winning the prestigious Los Angeles Spotlight Awards competition. He has since graduated from The Juilliard School where he studied with piano great Kenny Barron, and has collaborated with masters in jazz such as Billy Higgins, Francisco Aguabella, Justo Almario, Milt Jackson, Bennie Wallace, Diana Krall, Lewis Nash, Al McKibbon and Alex Acuña. His first album as a leader, Tomorrows, was released in 2008 to rave reviews. Recent awards include the Downbeat Jazz Soloist Award in 2008 and winner of the 2010 Great American Jazz Piano Competition. Vega currently resides in New York City where he is working on the release of his second album, “Spiritual Nature,” to be released on Resonance Records next August 14, 2012.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Donald Vega of the opportunity to record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. “Spiritually, this is my dream trio.”
Whether functioning as a straight-up trio or a rhythm section, they function like an equilateral triangle throughout the 12-tune, 72-minute recital, chock-a-block with beautiful melodies and intoxicating grooves, all illuminated by Vega’s fluid phrasing and elegant touch. Throughout the proceedings, the 37-year-old pianist who composed four of the pieces and arranged all but one refracts into his own argot the lexicons of such personal heroes as Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Monty Alexander, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, and Mulgrew Miller, and draws upon those influences, while developing his own sound. In the process, he establishes his pride of place in any informed conversation about the upper echelons of pianistic jazz expression.
Vega’s fluent discourse in their various dialects masks his origins in Sandinista-era Nicaragua, where he spent the first fourteen years of his journey. The scion of a musical family, he’s been playing since he learned to speak, nourished on an admixture of the European canon and various flavors of the Spanish diaspora. Following early formal lessons with his uncle and grandfather, he entered conservatory as a pre-teen. Rather than risk impressment in Nicaragua’s military, his mother brought him to Los Angeles at age 14. Vega spoke no English and didn’t have a piano, but put his solfegge training to use, keeping his fingers limber on a cardboard facsimile. Enrolled at Crenshaw High School, he also attended the Colburn School of Performing Arts, and soaked up knowledge from drum icon Billy Higgins at the World Stage. Two years later, he earned first prize in the jazz instrumental music portion of the Spotlight Competition. Doors opened: he subsequently earned a B.A. at the University of Southern California with John Clayton; had several surgeries to correct a congenital cleft palate, thereby preserving his hearing; was granted political asylum; and became one of the busier pianist-keyboardists on L.A.’s jazz and Latin scenes.
Higgins nurtured Vega’s will to swing, to play jazz without a “Latin accent.” “I played with him, but also he gave me tapes of Bud Powell or Charlie Parker without telling me who they were,” Vega says. “I didn’t know he was a star who had recorded with everyone, only that this nice man was taking me under his wing. He brought everybody to the World Stage I heard people like Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Lloyd. Latin music is inside me, but what attracted me most was the element of two-and-four, the language of Louis Armstrong, so I made a conscious decision to go deeper.”
At a World Stage benefit for Higgins during the latter ’90s, bassist Al McKibbon, known for his work with Dizzy Gillespie, heard the youngster play with Charles McPherson, and brought him into his trio, offering invaluable schooling in the idiomatic particulars of bebop expression, and also sage advice. He’d say, “You’ve got to go to New York; I’m going to call Ron Carter and Christian McBride right now.” Vega recalls, noting that he first encountered Lewis Nash on a McKibbon gig. “I felt I wasn’t ready. My surgeries pushed back my musical goals. But once that ended, I decided I’d move if I could attend school there.”
A scholarship to Manhattan School of Music in hand, Vega took the leap in 2005. During his two years at MSM, where he received a Masters and for a subsequent two years at Juilliard he studied with Kenny Barron, whose influence can be heard on Tomorrows, Vega’s inspired, self-released 2008 trio date with Nash. But on Spiritual Nature, Vega, a new father, and, as of February 2012, Mulgrew Miller’s successor in the Ron Carter Trio is entirely his own man, completely in command of his material.
Without boring the reader with a blow-by-blow, note Vega’s sense of proportion, his control of dynamics, of ebb-and-flow, his control of pulse at all tempi, his transitions from crisp to loose feels. Note, too, how his interactive, creative solos flow synchronously with his grandmaster partners, the deft setups he conjures for solo flights by Christian Howes on violin, Bob Sheppard on tenor sax, and Anthony Wilson an old friend and early employer on guitar. Each tune evokes a mood, tells a story: Vega makes his intentions absolutely clear while allowing everyone ample room for self-expression.