Review: Sachal Vasandani at Pizza Express Dean Street

Taylor Eigsti, Sachal Vasandani
Pizza Express Dean Street, Feb 2014
Photo Credit Cat Monro. All Rights Reserved

Sachal Vasandani
(Pizza Express Dean Street, February 17th 2014. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Nat King Cole, Kurt Elling. A male jazz singer from "My Kinda Town," Chicago inherits quite some legacy. There were times in Sachal Vasandani's gig at Pizza Express last night when it was evident that he could carry that mantle any time he wants, with strength, conviction, style, musical knowledge, and presence. As he has said, rather succinctly: "jazz is our love, jazz is our tether, and we feel free to explore."  This is 2014, and he is doing a lot more.

Last night was more or less the ideal context to hear the form which Vasandani's explorations are taking him. With a group of top New York musicians, he was on the very last gig of a tour. The band was really played-in, hardly needing to consult each other, always with a sixth sense of where they were going, or might want to go. The gig had also suddenly sold out during the day, so there was an anticipatory buzz about it.

The first thing I noticed was not a musical thing but stylistic. Vasandani moves away from clean-cut friendly songs and gives hints of menace and danger lurking in the background. Nina Simone's That's All I want From You was delivered as an admonishment and as a warning; Please Mr Ogilvy from an early album carried an increasing threat level.

The musical approach is oblique, suggesting rather than uttering. It is not always easy to hear the words, and whereas Vasandani can clearly sing impeccably in tune, he also toys with the half-lights of intermediate pitches. Just as harmony creates tension and release, the explorations away from the conventional scale add to the contrasts and colours. It leads to an unsettledness - which then adds to the sense of arrival when it's resolved.

What the whole group was doing, and with phenomenal expertise, was taking the temptation to stretch a song out, to  settle it deep in a groove, to get the idees fixes and the small transitions in the tunes exchanged back and forth till they become hypnotic. A typical example of this was the encore: Amy Winehouse's Love is a Losing Game. Short vocal phrases hovered over extraordinarily subtle and shifting textures. All four of these fine musicians have serious jazz chops: someone alludes to Blue Monk, and they've all pounced on it like a pack of wolves. I was impressed not just with their concept of building intensity together as one, but also their way of stripping and slowing a groove down.

A new name to me was drummer Jeremy Dutton, originally from Houston (like Robert Glasper), he graduated from the New School in Manhattan in 2012. In fact this was Dutton's first ever, very brief visit to London. From the moment he walked on stage he was laying down an insistent groove, every backbeat full of life and vigour.

Pianist Taylor Eigsti became known over here from tours with Gretchen Parlato, and is growing into a really powerful voice on piano, some of the insistent "out" and cluster-chord playing will stay in the ear for a long time. Bassist Buster Hemphill, on acoustic and electric is also a permanently provoking enlivening force to have in a band.

There was a guest appearance from Ian Shaw, who described the group as being “the most exciting music you'll hear here for a very long time.” He joined them for two tunes. With only one mic, Shaw and Vasandani passed it back and forth. Shaw managed to extend the invitation - metaphorically -  to another guest: quite how “my dog Rover” found his way into “The Masquerade is Over” was far from obvious at the time, but, on an evening when a band was showing what a little touring can do, that curious incident of a dog in the night-time brought a different perspective which felt - surreally - right.

Linked content :
Ian Shaw and Sachal Vasandani write about each other 
Previewof this gig by Sachal Vasandani

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