Young vocalist stresses respect and restraint

Boston Globe, March 30, 2007

NEW YORK—These days, neither music schools nor underground club circuits seem to produce male jazz vocalists at the rate they do female singers or instrumentalists of either sex. Boys with voices head for Broadway or R&B; in jazz, perhaps the concatenation of traditional gender roles with the competitive geekery inherent in the genre pushes males toward instrumental abstraction and away from something as direct and tender as a song. At any rate, it’s not often that a male singer makes a noteworthy recorded debut, so when it happens, it’s worth checking in.

This week offers just that opportunity with the release of “Eyes Wide Open,” the poised first album by Sachal Vasandani, a 28-year-old singer with a cool baritone, eclectic inspirations, and hints of the proverbial old soul. To mark the occasion, Vasandani launches a coast-to-coast mini-tour on Wednesday with a visit to Scullers.

On first listen, “Eyes Wide Open” impresses with restraint; Vasandani favors control over ornamentation, and many of the songs own the refined nocturnal hush that comes from unhurried exposition and impeccable piano-trio arrangements. Vasandani’s keen intimacy with his core group – pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong, and drummer Quincy Davis – shows throughout, and the guest contributions, particularly from vibraphone master Stefon Harris, are just as fluid and easy.

Further spins allow the record’s diversity to unfold. The material is eclectic; along with three of Vasandani’s own compositions, there’s a Percy Mayfield blues, a Brazilian piece from Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” on which Vasandani allows himself a dash of crooner bravura. Other sources include Sade and Iron & Wine, whose “Naked as We Came,” with its theme of love and death, opens the album with an almost morbidly contemplative, if beautiful, mood that never completely dissipates.

In a recent conversation, Vasandani comes across as a thoughtful man with the respect for craft of a committed apprentice. Tall and handsome, he speaks with a mild Midwestern drawl that reflects his upbringing in a Chicago exurb.

He grew up around a record collection that balanced Indian classical music and jazz. Vasandani started out on an instrument – French horn – but in his teenage years discovered in himself a singer.

“Notes coming out of my mouth? Sixth grade,” he says. “But really knowing that this was going to be the way to realize my artistic ambitions, junior year of high school. I said, all this other stuff is great, but I’d better get good at singing because this is what I want to do.”

At first, Vasandani says, he yearned for the freedom of instrumental playing with the “cool kids down the hall” at his high school. His initial efforts were at wordless singing, but he says the results were far from attractive. It was the inspiration of Ella Fitzgerald, he says, that helped him settle into the art of the song and realize its possibilities.

“We could do this entire interview about my idol worship of Ella Fitzgerald,” he says. “When I heard her, I said, OK, I want to choose this particular path of singing, and then try to reconcile all my other interests.”

Vasandani studied music at the University of Michigan and gigged in Ann Arbor and Detroit, accumulating precious experience: “It was being around musicians that were older, more experienced, and not afraid to give it to you straight and tell you when you really [stunk] – and what they played was just so organic and so honest,” he says. His Michigan connection endures, as “Eyes Wide Open” is on Mack Avenue, a Detroit-area jazz label.

Logically enough, he moved to New York upon graduation. But he built up a cushion before fully diving into the scene, spending a year working for an investment bank while staying up late at jam sessions. It was a conflicted time: “I was able to save some money, but the bad news is that I wasn’t really singing,” he says. “But I lived with musicians, so I somehow started to make inroads into the scene.”

Once Vasandani left the corporate world, he was able to take those inroads much further. He was a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk competition for new talent in 2004 and got a chance to sing with Wynton Marsalis and other luminaries in a Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performance. An ongoing early-evening residency at Zinc Bar, a well-regarded Greenwich Village spot, has given him a regular showcase and helped build a following.

With his first album coming out, Vasandani is in the happy space of enjoying the ride. He bridles, understandably, at the limitations implicit in the “crooner” label with which he is getting tagged, but he says there is plenty of time ahead for him to work in a more abstract or edgy vein.

For now, Vasandani says, his chief concern is to properly serve the song form – to “respect the lyric,” as he puts it several times. Whether it’s his own composition or someone else’s, from the Great American Songbook or a more remote source, matters less to him than the discipline and honesty of delivery.

“You just have to find great songs,” he says. “If they happen to come from your body, great. If they happen to come from keeping your ears open on the street, or listening to records, that’s great, too. … As long as I can put them over with honesty, and make first and foremost myself, but ultimately an audience, believe in what I’m saying, then it’ll be relevant, it’ll be poignant, and it’ll be believable. And it’s almost irrelevant whether it came from my pen or somebody else’s.”