Nick Vayenas: First Steps
“ There is no limit to what you can do. It is only a matter of how much thought you are willing to put in and inspiration you can get out of it. That is my life’s goal: just to see where my mind will take me. ”
Candid about his stature as a young composer and player still just starting out, Vayenas discusses the genesis of his musical approach; what he learned putting together his debut album Synesthesia (World Culture Music, 2008), which he shaped from composition to final production and mixing; and what he sees as the next step in his experiments to combine traditional jazz, electronics, pop, and electronica.
All About Jazz: You started playing trombone when you were around twelve, right?
Nich Vayenas: Yes, that's right.
AAJ: Was that the first instrument you played?
NV: Right. At school they came and gave a little presentation on joining band, in fifth grade, so I did that.
AAJ: Did you pick the trombone, or was it thrust upon you, which I hear often happens?
NV: [Laughs]. Kinda. Well, it was encouraged. They had a shortage of brass players. "Say, why don't you play this one? It's the coolest instrument.""Um, O.K"
AAJ: You've also told the story that when you started your arms were kinda short.
NV: Yeah, it was never the best instrument for me, looking back. [Laughs]. I was really too short to reach the low positions.
AAJ: A lot of kids with the wrong instrument that wasn't easy at the beginning probably would have quit or moved on to something else. Why didn't you?
NV: I don't know. I guess I was just stupid. [Laughs]. I really don't know. That's a great question!
AAJ: What was it that finally got you really into playing, that turned it into something more than just a school activity?
NV: I got into jazz in eighth grade and that is what really got me into being serious about it.
AAJ: Did someone introduce you to jazz, or did you stumble upon it?
NV: My parents had some recordings and people at the school gave me stuff to check out. For whatever reason, I really liked it. I had some Miles Davis, [Dizzy] Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and instantly I started relating to it and that's when I got serious.
AAJ: You grew up in New Hampshire. It's such a natural environment, a gorgeous environment. Do you still enjoy getting outside? Is that something you grew up doing?
NV: Yeah, I don't do it too much anymore. I miss that. We went to the beach a lot. Up in Maine. I used to like going up skiing in the mountains in NH, hiking, riding my bike around.
Now I'm in NY soI mean you can still do that stuffbut I don't have a car, it makes it a little harder.
AAJ: Central Park doesn't quite compare.
NV: Not quite.
AAJ: Is that something you miss from childhood?
NV: Yeah. Growing up in a small town environment, in some ways, as far as being around music it was kind of hard, because there wasn't that much going on in that area, but it's still great. Everyone knows each other and its peaceful. You get to experience the outdoors. Actually growing up in the city would be interesting too, but it wouldn't be as nurturing. It would be chaotic. [Laughs] I can't imagine that.
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AAJ: So after you started taking music more seriously, there was a rapid period of growth and you ended up earning a place at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? What you gained from it, how you're music developed?
NV: The Monk Institute was directed by Terence Blanchard. He would work with us about a week every month. There were seven of us as a band. We would meet everyday rehearsing material and then guests would come in and work with us for a week or so.
We had people like John Scofield, Dave Holland, Mark Turner, Wayne Shorterall kinds of amazing people come inwhich was an invaluable experience. Also it was great because they just let us be a band for two years. When you go to Berklee or whatever, it's not like that, just a group of people trying to get stuff happening. So that was an invaluable experience.
Those guys were very open minded that came and worked with us. [They] encouraged us to find our own styles and our own ways of making music. When you are younger you have to learn how to play like this guy, you have to transcribe Charlie Parker. But now that we'd down that stuff it was time to try your own thing, what is important to you and make that into something that is unique to yourself. I already had wanted to do that. Then to hear that from those guys helped a lot.
AAJ: That is quite a list of teachers to get to work with. But just because someone is a great performer doesn't always mean they are great teachers good at translating to and fostering students.
NV: They all had their own ways. Some guys would come in with a curriculum or set material, others would just listen and say what was on their minds, what they were hearing. Others would tell stories. Everyone brought their own thing. Which was cool because I had already gone to Berklee and been in a really academic environment. It was nice to just get a different perspective.
AAJ: How did that experience shape your subsequent playing?
NV: I was probably thinking along the same lines going in, but it definitely had a big impact on me. I wouldn't be the same if I hadn't done it.
AAJ: Part of the experience was acting as a working band, going to festivals. What was one of your highlights?
NV: Oh, we went to the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia Italy. We were there for a week, staying up in the mountains. Great. That was great. I love Italy.
AAJ: Have you been back since?
NV: I've been back a lot actually. But never like that. I was there for a week playing one set a night, we had the days off. It was unbelievable. This area, Perugia, the town is up on a mountain. It's this old medieval town up there. It's just packed full of great restaurants, clubs, and shops. It's a great place to be in the summer.
AAJ: It sounds pretty idyllic. Italy has the reputation as a real jazz country.
NV: Yeah. The festival is cool. It's a week long and they get great people to come in a place. It's a wonderful festival.
AAJ: Looking back at this early part of your career and where you are now, it takes a lot of perseverance to pursue a career in musiclet alone jazz which has its own special hurdles.
AAJ: What do you think drives you to continue?
NV: I just really enjoy making music. It's my absolute favorite thing. I love the challenge of it. The giant universe of possibilities you have at your fingertips. There is no limit to what you can do. It is only a matter of how much thought you are willing to put in and inspiration you can get out of it. That is my life's goal: just to see where my mind will take me.
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AAJ: That is a nice segue to your debut release Synesthesia. It's been out for few months now. Let's start with defining synesthesia and whether you've personally experienced it.
NV: Synesthesia is a condition of the mind where one type of stimulation will invoke a different type of stimulation. So it works in various ways, but one common one which I based the recording on is certain sounds or tones, you might think of a certain color or shape. I don't know if I would be diagnosed with that condition, but when I hear things I [experience] different colors or shapes. I tired to compose music with that in mind. Everybody has their own thing that they visualize, its not like I hear something and you have to hear that to.
But it's a kind of thing I am interested in and I thought maybe if I write music that way it will come out differently as opposed to coming at it theoretically. Here are the harmonies, here are the melodies. I'd rather think of it as a visual image, like a painter. That is a more honest way for me to compose music.
AAJ: Looking back did you find the experiment successful?
NV: Yeah. Pretty much. It's a work in progress. [Laughs]. For a start it's pretty good. Looking back at it now, the tunes have a certain mood I was going for.
AAJ: You've also mentioned in the past a strong interest in the sciences including astronomy. How did the interest evolve?
NV: My father was a biologist. He introduced me to plant life and geology. That has something to do with it. I've always been interested in astronomy and the starts. The history of the planet. It's crazy to me. Things that have been here, things in the past and the future that we'll never be around to experience. It's amazing what a short amount of time we're here for.
AAJ: Does that also influence your music as well?
NV: Some of the tunes I wrotelike the first track "Voyager," where I used a hard driving groove but added some ambient effects in the backgroundits dedicated to the Voyager spacecraft. They were launched out into space. I tried to imagine what it would be like floating out in space like them.
AAJ: On that tune and others on the album you used programming, you used hip-hop rhythms, its something our generation of players are doing more, blending electronics, hip-hop, turn tables into jazz.
NV: When something first comes out that is newnot that electric programming is newit takes a little while for people to start embracing it across the board. But musicians trying to create something look at all the options. This whole new thing of home studio, such a great opportunity, you can do the whole thing in your home. It's like a whole new world of possibilities. Before I did the album I'd done a little with the program Garage Band on Mac, it's a starter program home studio kind of thing. Then I got into Logic. And I've always been into synth and film scoring and programming and I figured it would be great to incorporate those elements and give myself a little bit of a new slant.
AAJ: Some argue that those kinds of tools work against the improvisational nature of jazz. Do you agree with that?
NV: No. I don't know why people would say that. But they do. Of course you can use them the wrong way. In some ways these days you don't even need to be a musician there are so many tricks. But the music I recorded is improvisational in the jazz tradition. Playing in bands and reacting to one anotherthen you can put whatever you want on top of that and it doesn't matter.
Sometimes you don't want that. You don't want to have the traditional jazz approach. A couple of the tunes I brought in some of the programming already and played along with it. Which is not traditional. The drummer is playing along to a synth track. But it doesn't take away from what we are doing. It's just a different approach. One that has been used in other types of music sincethe '70s. I know there are purists that say that's not valid. But I'm an open minded person. I feel the more you are open to, the more you incorporate, the more creative your music will be.
AAJ: Even though this was your debut, you were involved in the whole process of putting the album together. Can you talk a little about what you learned about the complexity of the process?
NV: I did a lot of the programming, adding other elements after we recorded them. And I was involved in the mixing process. I learned a lot about mixing which isa tricky business. Because I had a lot of layers it wasn't the kind of thing where you can go in and record for two days, hear it all in the studio, and be done. I was working with a guy who had a home studio and I'd go over and listen to stuff and when you get home you reset your brain and you can hear things differently for whatever reason. Then I would want to change this, change that...That is one of the good things technology allows you to do. If you go into a studio and set it all up on the board, it's enormously expensive and time consuming. Now you can just hook the hard drive up. What happens if we turn up the drums a little? That was good. That took a few weeks. Because I was part of the whole process I feel I have a better understanding of how it all works.
AAJ: You also had some great fellow musicians to work with. How did they get involved in the project?
NV: The guys I hired I'd known for yearssome longer than others. Like Kendrick Scott, a great drummer. We went to Berklee together, so I've known him for years. Matt Brewer, I met playing in New York together. Patrick Cornelius I went to Berklee with. In picking musicians I wanted people that would be great in the studio, professionals, highly proficient on their instruments, and also great listeners, which is the most important thing.
They are all great listeners. When we were playing even though we hadn't toured as a band or played together regularly for years, it didn't matter; they are all such great listeners that the chemistry was strong. That is what I wanted and new it would with them.
AAJ: Let's talk about the final track. It's the only vocal track, a bit pop. How did it happen and how did you get Gretchen Parlato to do it?
NV: Gretchen and I were in Monk Institute together. I wrote that tune and I thought it would be fun to have it on there change. It's a little random compared to the rest of the album, but I thought it was fun and she was willing to do it. So we put it on their. [chuckles]
AAJ: And now for something completely different...
NV: Kind of like "What?" I'm a little bit of a vocalist, so I'm interested in incorporating that into my next project.
AAJ: What so far has been the biggest challenge for you?
NV: Trying to still move in a direction for myself, building a career, while making a living in music.
AAJ: A common theme for jazz musicians.
NV: Not a very a unique problem. Probably most everyone's!
AAJ: Not just for jazz musicians.
NV: [Laughs] No, no. Especially in this era of serious decline in the record business. It was already tough. Now it's like, boy, what's going to happen? I have no idea.
AAJ: What's next for you?
NV: When I am in town I try to do gigs, I'd like to try doing some touring. I'm also working on a new album that I'll probably record next year. I've tried to move in a new direction in so far as being more of a multi-instrumentalist. On [Synesthesia] I played trombone and valve trombone. I'm trying to add piano, trumpet, a little bit of the vocal thing. My next album I'm going to try to do more and really put my stamp on it.
Nick Vayenas, Synesthesia (World Culture Music, 2008)
Dayna Stephens, The Timeless Now (CTA, 2007)
Patrick Cornelius, Lucid Dream (Acoustic Recording, 2006)
Jason Goldman Quartet, The Definitive Standard (JMGJazz, 2005)
Michael Bubl&amp;#233;, Caught in the Act (Reprise, 2005)
Michael Bubl&amp;#233;, Come Fly With Me (Warner Bros., 2004)
Courtesy of Nick Vayenas