Interview | Sachal Vasandani: Hard work, drive and an open mind

Singer Sachal Vasandani is a silken-voiced modern singer who blends genres, crediting both Seu Jorge and Ella Fitzgerald as major influences. Courtesy ptcentrum

by Giovanni Russonello
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Updated 9.17.12: Sachal Vasandani returns to D.C. this weekend for a weekend run at Bohemian Caverns. (More info on that is available here.) We are reposting this interview, which he did with CapitalBop last year when he was preparing for a performance at the University of Maryland. He will be working with a different band at the Caverns than the one identified below; this time, it’s Nir Felder and Camila Meza on guitars, Keita Ogawa on percussion and Buster Hemphill on electric bass.

This Sunday, the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center presents something that’s never been very easy to find in jazz: a talented male vocalist. On the bill is Sachal Vasandani, a master of the shades between dark and light whose hazy presentation is coated in what might as well be a trumpet mute. Vasandani uses swing like honey in his tea – a tested and comfortable way of adding some pep, but by no means a necessity. And so it’s no surprise that he professes to being a committed eclectic, arguing that musicians ought to “look everywhere” for inspiration.

For backing, Vasandani is as fond of a plucked acoustic guitar as he is a classic piano trio. Even when using the latter, the singer might wade in a modern, propulsive groove rather than a classic 4/4 swing feel. I caught up with Vasandani, who’s based in New York City, for a phone conversation yesterday; he talked about people who have influenced him – from his grandfather to Ella Fitzgerald to the contemporary Brazilian vocalist Seu Jorge – and gave a preview of the band he’ll bring to College Park this weekend. 

CapitalBop: What are some of your three, four, five top influences musically throughout your life that you’ve aspired to live up to?

Sachal Vasandani: There’s been a lot over the years. If I had to boil it down to five people, first iw ould probably say Ella Fitzgerald and then as a young man I would probably say Charlie Parker. In college, I might say Miles [Davis] – I mean it’s pretty generic. But more recently, I might say someone like Keith Jarrett, and then I might throw a wild card in there like Seu Jorge from Brazil. Ella always figures pretty high on the list brcuase she’s the person that got me into singing jazz.

CB: What was it that was so special to you about Ella?

SV: You know, prior to hearing her for the first time I had been really interested in instrumental jazz, and I hadn’t maybe taken a lot of note of singers, and when I did it just didn’t seem like they got at what instrumental jazz music was able to do. I was just so enamored with improvising and that kind of freedom. And when I heard Ella, she could tell a lyric, she could improvise, she could swing at any tempo – it was like, “Oh, this can be done by a voice.”

It was really eye opening, and a pretty spiritually amazing experience, to hear her sing. And then I learned to appreciate slow tempos, and I learned to appreciate lyrics, and I learned to appreciate all the joys of being a singer, which I didn’t quite get at that time.

CB: So let’s go 80 years fast-forward. Now you mention a name, Seu Jorge, who’s that incredible Brazilian singer. Is there any commonality between those influences, the way they treat a tune?

SV: That’s a great question. You know, I’m always searching for good music, and I’m a big believer that it could come from today, it could come from any part of the world, it could come from yesterday. I’m not hung up on it being from yesterday, but frankly I’m also not hung up on it being from today. There’s a lot of garbage out there today, and there was a lot of garbage back then too. So I think it’s just important for each of us, on our individual journeys, to find what we like, and don’t be opposed to going outside one genre or the other. So for me, Ella, I really, really loved her voice and I loved what she taught me about what the voice can do. With Seu Jorge, it’s actually a similar thing: I love his voice, and he puts his voice into a number of different settings and his music has a strong pulse to it. All these people influenced me, and I try to share that with people by being a sum or a synthesis of all those influences.

CB: You’re one of a huge amount of jazz musicians nowadays who aren’t just jazz musicians. You talk about Esperanza Spalding, who just won the Best New Artist Grammy; she’s a jazz musician, if you had to use one genre, but she’s just a musician, really, who does a lot of different things: sings, plays the bass, is influenced by a lot of chamber music and pop. The pop cover is now a huge part of jazz, and you are one of a number of jazz musicians who does the pop cover really well, and also draws on the influences of rock and R&B. Did you ever have a moment when you realized – you said, “Huh, there is a reason why we go outside these boundaries,” or something like that?

SV: You know, I think it’s just part of the search for ingenuity, if I can be so bold, I mean, I think there’s a lot of posers on all sides of the spectrum. And the truth is, there shouldn’t have ever been a time – and I don’t think there’s ever been a time – when people haven’t been looking for expression from outside of one thing: jazz. I love being called a jazz musician. It’s an honor, I feel like it’s a blessing. Esperanza’s a great example, but if you look even just at the jazz category of the people that were nominated, the amount of diversity within the jazz category really gets you questioning, “Well what is this label?” …

I mean, look at the Best New Artist. You had Drake, you had Esperanza, you had Justin Bieber, you had Florence and the Machine. They represented so many different styles, so many different perspectives…. So on the one hand, for me to not look outside of jazz for  sourcing  material or for inspiration would be disingenuous. I believe that we have to look everywhere…. On the other hand, we also have to be picky, so just because I listen to something and maybe even enjoy it doesn’t mean that it’s going to find its way into my music. I have to know what I do, and I have to see how that prism evolves.

CB: You’ve said that your grandparents were your role models when they were alive. Tell me about what you learned from them and how that affects what you do.

SV: I’m glad you asked that. You know, there’s a couple different things about my grandparents and just family in general. One thing, my grandfather was a singer; he was a singer of Indian classical music and really knew nothing about jazz. But he did know something about Western classical music and kind of more importantly, he instilled in the whole family a love of the arts, a love of music. And it was a passion for him; he was an amateur singer who had another profession, but he had studied enough singing to know how serious you had to be to do it correctly. It’s also the way that he conducted his general life, and that’s the second thing: The idea of discipline he kind of carried with me.

I feel like he didn’t have a lot of fun while pursuing his discipline, and I’m a little bit different that him in that way…. I’m having a lot of fun. But what he instilled in me is, if I’m going to bite off this thing called jazz, anything that takes this much craft just to get to a level of artistic statement or freedom, there’s going to have to be a lot of hard work; a lot of blood, sweat and tears; and a lot of discipline. So he did that in his whole life, but I think he had enough respect for the music that he sang for me to unerstand that if I was going to sing this music I would have to kind of work.

CB: That notion of, it is hard work. You’re on the road a lot, and that can be a grind. My next question is, do you like being on the road? Because I know that you’ve said that you wrote most of your compositions that are on “We Move” while you were on tour. Is that setting something you enjoy, and is it something you feed off, and is it a motivation to you?

SV: Yeah. This is just a disposition thing, and I talk to other musicians, and maybe stages of their lives [affect this] too, but because I love to perform I think I just naturally at a young age took that to understand that you travel to perform. And so I haven’t really questioned it at all. I know that a lot of folks don’t like to travel. Maybe that changes; I know some guys who are just a bit older … than me that used to like to travel and now they’re like, “Hey, I’m done with this and I want to be at home more.” So who knows, maybe that will come, but I sort of have this appetite for it. I love it so much that it doesn’t really wear on me. And in fact, if I sit around New York for a while I get a bit restless. So I want to be out there performing.

It’s not so much the travel and the one-nighters, it’s just the joy of performing. A little bit of psychology here, but I think that if you gave me a six-week run or something like I used to do in the old days … and you said, “Stay put, but you perform every night,” that would be the same for me. It’s just the reality of where we are right now where that kind of stuff doesn’t happen. You have maybe four or five nights if you’re lucky, but it’s a lot of one-nighters. And it’s just fine with me. That’s just the way it works, and until that game changes I’m cool, because I just want to be performing all the time.

CB: Tell me about the band you’ll be performing with.

SV: David Wong is the bass player in my group, and he’s recorded all my records, and he is also, I think, the best young bassist that jazz has to offer right now. And that’s highly biased, but you know, take it from Jimmy Heath or take it from Roy Haynes, who’s used him in the band regularly at the Village Vanguard Orchestra, or Russell Malone, or Ron Carter or Peter Washington…. He’s the man. Young folks don’t really play the bass like he does. We talked about my grandfather; that kind of discipline around the instrument, but then hopefully youthful flexibility to go anywhere – on any journey that someone takes him on, including myself.

The guy playing piano is Jeb Patton, who you may know. He’s been out of that area for a while, but originally he’s from the D.C. area; he’s from Maryland, actually…. He’s a motherfucker. He’s also in Jimmy Heath’s band, he’s got his own trio, he’s got his own record out on Max Jazz. He’s one of my best friends because he gets who I am, where I come from and where I’m trying to go. And he’s sympathetic on the instrument like that. He’s patient when I need to express and idea but don’t know how; when I have ideas that I do know what I want he picks it up fast. He’s just a wonderful collaborator. His transcription skills are only outmatched by his playing skills. Young pianists that can play Art Tatum, I don’t know anyone better. Young pianists that know transcriptions of a Roland Hanna, I don’t know anyone better….

The final cat is Pete van Nostrand, who is the drummer. Pete’s been a friend and a great drummer since I’ve moved to New York…. Pete’s just one of those guys that learns the music so fast, and he’s so knowledgeable about the history of the drums and the history of the music. So that’s gotten him gigs with Kenny Barron, and I think he’s playing with Natalie Cole tomorrow, so he’s just a cat. And very, very astute, because my music and my shows tend to go in a few different directions…. Pete gets that and we can swing out with fun and integrity, and then we can do our other stuff and let it be fun and enjoyable.

Sachal Vasandani performs with his quartet at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this Sunday. Tickets and further information are available here.



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    Hey hard work can get you far in life.

    landmark transcription /

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