Donald Vega: Spiritual Nature (2012)
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Some musicians willingly praise anybody who simply picks up an instrument, but bassist Ron Carter isn't known to be one of them. The legendary bass master has incredibly high standards and a reputation for telling it like it is, so an endorsement from Carter really means something. The fact that he hails Donald Vega as "the next piano voice" in jazz, and selected him to be Mulgrew Miller's successor in his trio, should serve as evidence of Vega's abilities, but those who need recorded proof to verify these claims need look no further than this album.
The Nicaraguan-born pianist delivers big on his first date for Resonance Records, as he melds European classicism, jazz and Latin stylings into a cohesive whole. Vega absorbs source material from every corner of the musical map and nothing is off limits. He tackles the music of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Brazilian icon Antonio Carlos Jobim, saxophone giant Benny Golson and Jamaican-born piano phenom Monty Alexander on his own terms. While his chops are evident, and likely to attract a certain segment of listeners who simply want fireworks, Vega has so much more to offer. He can go from cool to hot in the blink of an eye and he cooks on a low-volume flame like few others can. His takes on other people's music are actual arrangements, (rather than the straight run-throughs that often pass for arrangements these days) and he adapts to different settings and surroundings, rather than simply playing everything in a one-dimensional manner.
While Vega proves more than capable of carrying out musical missions on his own, as demonstrated during a romantic solo take on "Falando De Amor-Tema De Amor," he has some heavyweight help to carry some of the load and keep him company. Bass powerhouse Christian McBride provides his inimitable sense of groove and drummer Lewis Nash brings his trademarked sense of touch and taste to the proceedings. The core trio is a delight to hear, whether swinging ("You Never Tell Me Anything") or lamenting the long-ago loss of a jazz giant ("I Remember Clifford"), but they aren't on their own for much of the album. A-list guests, like guitarist Anthony Wilson, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and violinist Christian Howes, help to add some variety to the program. Sheppard shines on the bossa nova-based title track, Wilson and Vega trade feisty quips on "Accompong," and Howes brings a touch of tenderness to "The River." The violinist proves to be the MVP of the guests, as his instrument also acts like a ray of sunshine on "Child's Play" and helps to bridge the stylistic divide on the intriguing "Etude Opus 8, #2," which best demonstrates Vega's ability to equalize Latin, jazz and European elements in his performances.
Vega is currently being recognized as Carter's pianist but, if he keeps making winning albums like this, he'll outgrow that designation in no time.
Track Listing: Scorpion; First Trip; River; Spiritual Nature; Accompong; Future Child; You Never Tell Me Anything; Contemplation; Etude Opus 8, #2; Falando De Amor-Tema De Amor; Child's Play; I Remember Clifford.
Personnel: Donald Vega: piano, Rhodes; Christian McBride: bass; Lewis Nash: drums; Anthony Wilson: guitar; Christian Howes: violin; Bob Sheppard: saxophone; Gilbert Castellanos: trumpet; Bob McChesney: trombone.
Record Label: Resonance Records