Now this is something really special and it marks not simply a second disc for an iconic label, Resonance Records, which under the inspired hand of engineer/producer George Klabin, has shepherded many some rare and priceless recordings. Donald Vega’s heartfelt tribute With Respect to Monty to the ‘Jamerican’ master, Monty Alexander, marks an exciting turn for the Nicaraguan-born, New York-bred pianist. And so, it would seem that both pianist and label have struck musical gold: Mr. Vega for the obviously thrilling journey that he has undertaken and Resonance for its return to the studio with one of its most prized stablemates and certainly one of the most exciting pianists and musicians in jazz today.
You know that you’re in remarkable musical company before the piano has sounded a note. Just to listen to the opening exposition of “Eleuthera”: highly responsive, lean and sinuous drums, pungent bass and guitar and the wonderfully characterful pianist all of who melt together with magical alchemy into a musical apothecary’s dream potion. Of course, this isn’t just down to the ‘other’ players: it’s Mr. Vega’s conception right from the start. Even if we can’t actually see him directing, we can sense his musical presence. Personable, wildly brilliant and idiosyncratic full of youthful zest and peerless pianism. He directs from the keyboard and this makes for exactly the kind of chamber-musical, hyperactive performances that you might expect.
The chamber dimensions of the ensemble mean that these are essentially less ‘public’ readings of timeless and more obviously recognisable renditions by lesser musicians. But that is not to suggest that the playing in any way lacks impact. The smaller forces mean that the guitar, bass and drums are naturally purer and more prominent in the mix. I found myself hearing more details in Monty Alexander music than ever before – an ebullient phrase from the guitar here, a piano response there. Consider exquisitely performed and quirkily entitled “3000 Miles Ago”, Mr. Alexander’s moving piece “You Can See” and the profound “Sweet Lady”, all meticulously thought out and yet performed with a sense of breathtaking spontaneity. And there are little touches here and there – reducing the guitar line to spare movements – that demonstrate the detail of the thinking behind these interpretations.
What’s also very striking is that these performances are not simply about élan and energy; they have a sense of gravitas too, of rightness that you find in the most authentic Alexander interpreters. This isn’t something that’s achieved by big, ballsy playing, but rather by a sense of balance, of musicality, of understanding not only the notes themselves but the wider context – where these pieces stand within Monty Alexander’s output and a broader perspective too. The sign of a really fine ensemble is adaptability and it’s fascinating to compare Hassan Shakur (for example) and his relationship with Donald Vega, with the one that the bassist has enjoyed with Monty Alexander since time immemorial in a manner of speaking.
In the aptly titled “Consider’ the group holds you rapt at a slow, but never stilted tempo; the players have to contend with a still more spacious approach from Monty Alexander, which they do superbly, while in “The Gathering” they’re immediately responsive (Donald Vega in particular) to Mr. Alexander’s swerves of tempo and phrasing. There’s no disputing the greatness of Monty Alexander as a pianist, but it’s Donald Vega’s selfless approach that I find more compelling. Mr. Vega is simultaneously the more human and the more deeply spiritual of the two and this is conveyed vividly in these performances. The pleasure is completed by the wonderfully warm and natural ambience of Rising Jazz Stars Studios in Beverly Hills, beautifully caught by George Klabin and Fran Gala. I, for one, can’t wait for the next instalment, if ever there is to be one.
Track List: Eleuthera; 3000 Miles Ago; Compassion; Slippery; Consider; Mango Rengue; Renewal; You Can See; Sweet Lady; The Gathering.
Personnel: Donald Vega, Piano, arranger; Anthony Wilson, Guitar; Hasaan Shakur, Bass; Lewis Nash, Drums.
About Donald Vega
Classically-trained in his native Nicaragua, Vega immigrated to the United States at age 14 and began learning the language of jazz from mentor Billy Higgins at The World Stage and later with bassist John Clayton at the University of Southern California. He went on to graduate from Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School where he studied with piano great, Kenny Barron. Vega currently performs internationally as the pianist for world renowned bassist Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio.
Vega’s debut album, Tomorrows, was released in 2008 to rave reviews. In his sophomore album, Spiritual Nature, he is joined by the rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash, where he explores the marriage of jazz, Latin and classical music. Spiritual Nature was released on the Resonance Records label August 2012. It stayed at the top of the jazz charts for several weeks, reaching all the way to #1.