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The Enemy of the Good

Sachal Slouches

Sachal Vasandani at the Hemingway Room, December 28, 2011

The great is the enemy of the good everywhere, but with its relentlessly picked-over archives and hagiographic impulse, jazz seems to suffer from invidious comparisons more than most art forms. Self-doubt, nostalgia and questioning are structures as timelessly improvised upon as the 12-bar blues and the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm.”

Still, some old saws still cut wood–like this one: Where have all the male jazz singers gone? To be sure, there was never more than a handful, even during whichever Golden Age one wishes to lionize, and always fewer notable men than women.

That today seems no different is less anomalous than you might think (sure there are loads of women who seem to want to be identified as “jazz singers”–whatever that may be–but how many of them really sing, you know . . .).

But the men are out there.

Or should we say here? In the 16 months between December, 2010 and this coming May, Erie will have had four visits by two of the three most eminent men singing jazz in the U.S. Kurt Elling played a tantalizing short set at Mercyhurst last spring, a preview of his season-ending D’Angelo bash in May, and last night Sachal Vasandani returned (he was in Edinboro last December, though if you don’t drive a plow, you might not have heard him) and gave us a supple, confident display of his bona fides. It was satisfying a jazz show as I’ve heard all year.

Vasandani is young, and with his slender build, angular features and boyish stage demeanor, he inevitably recalled a young Sinatra. It’s a tough comparison to make (though in my book, Sinatra was not a jazz singer–whatever that may be), but it goes beyond looks.

Vasandani’s voice is high-ish for a jazz singer, a very high baritone or a low tenor. He uses a lot of head voice and falsetto. The old guys tended not to do that, but years of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye have softened our ears. When he softly scatted off-mic to begin “There Are Such Things” (one of several Sinatra songs he covered), the effect was dreamy.

Vasandani does starry-eyed exceedingly well. There’s an appealingly yearning quality to his voice, and his material was shrewdly chosen to show this off–“I See Your Face Before Me,” “Don’t Worry About Me” and an arresting a capella fantasy on “The Very Thought of You” that opened the show in arresting fashion.

But Vasandani is from Chicago, and he swings, too, though not too hard. He namechecked his hometown for Percy Mayfield’s “Strange Things Happening,” as classic a four-on-the-floor blues as you can find. A musician friend of mind nudged me during this number and remarked, “It’s good, but that’s not the way [Basie drummer] Sonny Payne would play it.” He was right, but the great—always in the Golden Age—is the enemy of the good, and Vasandani, like all good jazz artists, is interested in reinvention, not recreation. He’s not Joe Williams.

If he sounded like anyone here, it was another Chicagoan with a high voice and impeccable time: Mel Tormé, though Vasandani’s voice is lean and clear, no fog in sight.

Lean was also the word for his terrific rhythm section. Jeb Patton, Vasandani’s longtime pianist, was an attentive accompanist and made the most of his solo spots, but what was happening stage left was the show. Kendrick Scott, from Houston, is everywhere these days. He kept things moving; strong enough to power the band but light in the way drummers must be when working behind a singer. His command of rhythms from a modified Brazilian partido alto (Vasandani likes this one) to backbeat funk was complete, and–hooray!–he’s a rare young drummer who can play brushes.

The surprise was bassist Joe Sanders who has impressed me on records with Gerald Clayton among others. A substitute for the excellent David Wong, Sanders brought a beautiful deep tone and great ideas to the bandstand, chief among them a probing musical curiosity. On “Such Things,” he jumped in behind Vasandani’s scatting in a sort of dialogue. It didn’t seem rehearsed (how much rehearsal could they have had?), and it was lovely. He walked four effectively and had some nice solos, most of which he doubled with his voice, a dreadlocked Slam Stewart.

After an overlong set-break a bit of the rhythmic tension that was a through-line in the first half dissipated. The second-set looseness was more fun, but less interesting, but this was a matter of fine degree, the great was the enemy of the good in this case, too. And the band was clearly having fun.

And this was a band. Vasandani is essentially a horn in this quartet. That his song interpretations aren’t yet the last word in depth is perhaps to be expected. He’s young, after all, and not too many years ago he was working on Wall Street in investment banking. He was the 1% then and he is still, an elite jazz singer whose progress will be fun to watch.

A word about the Hemingway room at the Ambassador: it’s maybe a bit large, but last night with soft lighting and a faux-coffered ceiling, it made a very credible jazz club, especially with great sound from the tireless guys at Raven. Would it be too much to ask for a canny promoter to complete the male jazz singer trifecta and book the astonishing singer Theo Bleckmann into this space, and soon?

That would be great . . . and good.