Beautiful songs in the great American tradition that stretches back to Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter or Nat King Cole. A rich, assured voice that distills with equal poise the soothing of romance and the bittersweet anxiety of love lost or imperiled, or the yearning of a compassionate heart trying to make sense of the troubles of the world. In a time when male jazz vocalists have grown rare, it’s all the more impressive to watch the emergence of Sachal Vasandani, who in the course of three albums—the latest, Hi-Fly, came out June 21—has earned abundant praise for the way he mixes the classicism of a true scholar of the music with a singer-songwriter’s more contemporary edge. MTV Desi’s Siddhartha Mitter caught up with the Illinois-raised, Brooklyn-based Vasandani for a conversation about Desi roots, the appeal of jazz vocals, and the art of the song.
Now three albums deep, you’re building an identity as a classic vocalist in the jazz and American songbook tradition. The Sachal Vasandani sound has a very classic, throwback feel. Would you agree?
I understand that moniker. And It’s definitely easy for me to find stuff that I like in older material. What other people—and myself—find in indie music or pop music or underground music, I also find in jazz. That same freshness, that kernel of originality and optimism and darkness, I find that in songs that might have come from a generation ago. Those are the kind of feelings that I try to infuse in whatever material I sing. So I don’t think of myself as a throwback; on the contrary, I think of myself as resuscitating older songs and making them a part of the current lexicon, you know what I mean? That’s my goal.
How did you come to vocals in general, and to this tradition in particular? What was it that hooked you?
It’s always been evolving. For a long time I took the side of people who liked instrumental jazz music, and who liked jam bands, and stuff where lyrics don’t even matter. And that changed in high school where I really appreciated the joy of a well-crafted lyric and still do. You find snippets of lyrical glory in stuff from America and all over the world, from the current period, from the pop writers… In an effort to keep it real, keep it honest, I look at all that stuff for my inspiration. But then what has always drawn me to jazz is the freedom to be in the moment. You take a lyric that has a story that needs telling, and then as a jazz singer you try to improvise in the moment so that it’s uniquely part of the experience of you singing it at that time.
There’s a generational exchange on Hi-Fly: the song “One Mint Julep” with the great, 89-year-old singer Jon Hendricks. It’s a very lively, playful song, probably as playful as you’ve ever sounded.
I’ve admired Jon for a long time. I met him in 2008; he took me under his wing and was very generous and kind, and kept in touch. He reflects a certain joy. I just lightened up around him. We all get so involved in our projects and our big artistic contribution, and then I see Jon who can light up a room just by walking in. Just kind of watching him in the studio—yes, concentrating, but just having fun right away—that was not just inspirational, but instructional. I said to myself, man, you really need to lighten up, stop taking this shit too seriously, and get back to why you love to sing, which is just to sing.
You’ve also re-worked an Amy Winehouse song, “Love Is A Losing Game.”
Yeah, I did. I was drawn by the song itself, the melody but also the lyrics. I’m always drawn to lyrics that are bittersweet, whether I write them myself or they come from others. You find a song, and see if it fits your voice and you believe in the lyric, and away you go.
And then you have your own compositions. What are the big lessons you’ve learned about writing lyrics?
That’s a great question. My thing about writing lyrics, like writing music, is that I let all the inspiration sink in. I talk about music that inspires me all the time—whether it’s a Jon Hendricks or an Amy Winehouse. Lyrics is the same thing, jazz lyrics, like the wry wit of a Cole Porter. But then it’s also the random stuff, like the fiction I’m reading, some real current stuff in the New Yorker, but even some non-fiction stuff, like a BBC podcast—just listening to someone talk about the way they see the world can be inspiring. My challenge is never to be short of inspiration: I’m never going to be the guy who says there’s nothing good in this era; there’s tons of good stuff! My challenge is to sift it all out through my focus and try to present a focused lyric that ultimately reflects some personal truth.
Now all of this seems like a jump for an Indian kid. Even one with arts and music in his family background…
Some people do say that and pretty much have said that ever since I first got on the mountaintop and told people I was a singer. And that’s cool, because it keeps me in check. It keeps me analyzing my own decisions.
I’m not really a hater in general, but as a youngster I found myself not always loving a bunch of aunties and uncles who gave me a really weird line of questioning about my music career: When I was talking about the joy of music, they were talking about my household annual salary. But as I got older, moved away from one small town, I found other creative people, and it allowed me to bridge some of the distance I had made with what I had viewed as a homogenous Indian community, with the idea that having a practical bent, trying to make some money and not just be a martyr, is kind of awesome. But you have to keep your musical integrity. And integrity didn’t seem to be the way of the dragon with the Indian community—but now I’m finding that it is so much that. And people are so cool from that community, and so supportive. Even if they don’t know jazz they’re open to it. It’s less about “How are you going to provide for my daughter’s family?” and more about “Isn’t it great that our community is diverse and rich and forging things?” And I am proud to be Indian and to come from that set of circumstances.
Now it’s come full circle: I have a lot of great artist friends—my dear friend Ankush Bahl just got a position as a conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra; he just shook Obama’s hand, and that’s pretty awesome. There’s a community that we can fall back on and say, “Catch me, because I need you and I love you.”
Your grandfather was an Indian classical singer. Did you have a chance to experience his craft up close? Is there any connection between him and you as vocalists?
I never saw him live. He made some tapes, which only surfaced after his recent passing. But I think it was first of all a very strong sense of what it meant to be Indian, in terms of what he brought to each one of my visits home. When I would go to Delhi to visit my grandfather, I saw a man who was the most disciplined, the most cultured, the most hard-ass about his work ethic, the most open to creative influence of any of the people I had met in my lifetime. Maybe that doesn’t represent all of India, but for me it did, as a youngster. It wasn’t anything else but a true pursuit of ideals. So I fell into jazz maybe with nothing to do with India, but I pursued it with some of those values that my grandfather gave to me.
Do you listen regularly to Indian classical music?
I don’t as a regular thing, but I love it. I have a lot of respect for it. There will come a time when I sing those melodies, but I’ve always felt that my devotion to jazz would have to be replicated if I was going to have something to say in Hindustani classical music. I don’t even know if I have the talent for it. But I would have to dig in deep, because it’s not a walk in the park.
Or do you follow some of the new global South Asian sounds whether Bollywood or Bhangra or underground electronica or hip-hop?
It’s all piquing my curiosity. I’m not super-versed yet. I’ve only started to get wind of stuff, besides your M.I.A. and so on. It’s the same with the Bollywood scene, there’s a lot of fantastic music but I don’t know it all, in terms of what’s on now, what’s of this moment.
You’re one of a cluster of first-generation South Asians in America who have dedicated themselves into jazz: Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Sameer Gupta and more… Is there a secret Desi jazz cabal with your own references and inside jokes?
Yeah, it’s like the Black Panthers! We’re secretly, and eventually not-so-secretly, trying to take over the world. I love all those guys. I have all the respect in the world for what they’re saying creatively and musically and how they’re going about it. If you look at the people doing this kind of music that come from the diaspora there’s a wealth of diversity right there. And that’s just a great indication of what jazz is.
If I meet some South Asians on the road that are doing jazz, I want to welcome them into this little secret society, because our parties are amazing. I’m glad that however diverse the musical interests are, we can still build our bond on being in this time, now, trying to provide musical journeys that mean something to people. It’s a really good time to be in jazz as an Indian. I’m excited about the way forward.