Gabriel Vicéns: A Growing Voice In Jazz

Courtesy Elana Hedrych

R.J. DeLuke BY

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Music comes from music the same as art comes from art and there are always so many artists and musicians that inspire.
—Gabriel Vicéns
Guitarist Gabriel Vicéns from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, has only been on the New York City scene for about five years. But his rich tone and engaging style have gained him a reputation—still growing—as a remarkable voice and an artist with something valid to say.

He's not a guitar shredder, though he has plenty of technique. Rather he wins people over with his silky approach and sweet sound. His music—he is a thoughtful composer—brings rhythms from different musical arenas. When all is placed in a funnel—guitar, composition, rhythmic sensibility— what comes out of the bottom is a special Vicéns product that can be felt as well as heard. He is a serious artist (he also paints, including the cover art for the new CD).

The musical journey for this guitarist is still in the early stages. Vicéns is 32. But in January he released his third CD, The Way We Are Created (on Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music), a captivating album with Roman Filiú on alto saxophone, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, E.J. Strickland on drums and Victor Pablo on percussion. Co-produced by Miguel Zenon, it shows Vicéns' broad influences, particularly traditional music from Puerto Rico and also changüí from Cuba.

Vicéns' previous two albums, Days (Inner Circle, 2015) and Point In Time (self produced, 2012) both received acclaim. He has also appeared on recordings by bassist Sammy Morales / SM Quinteto, saxophonist Jonathan Suazo and the collaborative No Base Trio (Vicéns, Suazo and drummer Leonardo Osuna) among others. His second recording included trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and saxophonist David Sanchez, while his debut record included bass great Eddie Gomez.

A grand start. But the music world almost lost this formidable artist. Not to a calamity of any kind, but to another potential vocation. Vicéns left music to become an elite bicyclist in his native land.

Vicéns started playing guitar at about the age of 12 and was soon playing gigs with friends. After high school he graduated from the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico with a music degree. But then he took a detour on his path.

"After that, I came to a break for two years to figure out my life," he says. "I found a different job. I was into cycling. I went on to be a professional cyclist. I was an elite cyclist in Puerto Rico."

His passion for cycling began in the last semester of studying for his bachelor's degree. "Somehow, I don't know why, I just started doing it. I got pretty serious about it. I started doing races. Cycling in Puerto Rico is difficult. Everywhere it's difficult. But in Puerto Rico it's not like Europe, for example. You cannot really live as a cyclist in Puerto Rico. It's very difficult because you need to work. I had my job. When you're not cycling, you need to be recovering. When you're not recovering, you're cycling. It's very serious and very methodical. That's your life. You can't do anything else if you want to be a professional cyclist. I would have to move to Europe or something to be able to do this. That was not possible for me. One day I decided: it's not going to work. I figured I didn't want that anymore and I went back to music."

The music world was the victor and now, increasingly, fans are realizing their good fortune.

Diving back into music required a similar dedication. Vicéns' mother wondered if he could possibly keep a foot in both cycling and music. "I didn't want that. I do it full time or I don't do it. That's how much I respect that sport and how much I like it... Before and after, I worked the same with music and the guitar and composing. That was my life. I didn't do anything else. They have that similarity of dedication."

Now that dedication has led to his third CD. The title song, "The Way We Are Created," starts out passive, then picks up steam, cascading over exotic rhythms into a field of serenity imbued by the leader's refined guitar. "It Doesn't Matter" is more up tempo. Throughout, while the solos are outstanding, there is always keen group interplay, propelled by rhythms. The songs are not just something for guitar, sax or piano to solo over. As the instruments interweave, rhythms are the visceral heart. Songs like "Definite Purpose" and "The Upcoming" could be used as the backdrop for a cruise on the Nile River, or through exotic jungles.

"When I begin a composition, I first establish a rhythmic foundation which comes from Afro-Puerto Rican folkloric traditions, and then I build the composition from that underlying structure. The music you hear on this record is authentic to my roots and comes directly from my life," says Vicéns. "When I came up with this title, it had two meanings. It's a reflection on the way that all living beings are created to be naturally inventive and imaginative. It is a tribute to how we are all born to be creative."

Creativity runs in his family. His older brother is a trained classical pianist. As such, hearing classical music was common around the Vicéns household. The youngster born in the 1980s also listened to Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana. His first guitar was an acoustic classical guitar, which he largely ignored. His mind was in the rock world. At about 14, he got an electric guitar and that's when he started playing in earnest. "The bands that I was listening to, the electric guitar was very common."

Jazz came into his musical vocabulary a couple years later.

"What really interested me about jazz was the improvisation part," he says. "I remember even though I liked the rock bands from the '90s, I didn't learn their guitar solos. I always improvised. When I discovered jazz, someone told me, 'Oh yeah. That's improvised. What's happening right now is a conversation.' I was completely amazed about that. 'Oh wow.' Like, 80 percent was improvised and I was completely in love with that."

The first albums that impacted him were Blue Trane (Blue Note, 1958) by John Coltrane and recordings by guitar icon Joe Pass, like Virtuoso (Pablo, 1973). "The Coltrane album, I don't even know how many times I played it." Allan Holdsworth and Lage Lund he listened to in high school. He also investigated people like Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and Jim Hall. Later, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Edward Simon, Zenon, Mark Turner, David Binney, Sipiagin, Seamus Blake and Brad Mehldau caught his ear. "Basically, a lot of musicians from the New York City scene. I've always been interested in that scene."

"At the same time, I would listen to a good amount of classical music like Messiaen, Ligeti, Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Webern. I've also been interested in the so-called ambient music and electronic music which I feel it is very important in my life, with composers such as Harold Budd, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Boards of Canada, Ulrich Schnauss, Biosphere and many more."

After Pass, Vicéns says "everything was jazz, basically. I would listen to rock also. But I started learning standards and playing with friends. I got very lucky. I had a great music teacher in my high school. He would encourage us a lot to follow what we were doing. I remember in the school we created a jazz band." The band even went to Florida to participate in music competitions.

There were not a great deal of places to play jazz in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s, but Vicéns was gigging in restaurants and other small places with his colleagues. Through college, he played some festivals, including the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival.

Still in Puerto, and playing with Morales's band SM Quinteto, he released Point in Time. Morales was well known and that association helped him meet other prominent musicians. "He's older and I was young. Playing with that kind of musician always helps. Also I had my band" and was playing a lot with Suazo.

Vicéns also made music with drummer Henry Cole, who had played with Zenon and others. Bassist Gomez was an instructor of Vicéns at the music conservatory. Those early contacts assisted his progression, but primarily it was talent that was always recognized along the way.

Vicéns had visited New York City as a young man and checked out the music scene, but didn't participate. In 2016, he decided to make the move to live and play there.

"Pretty fast, I got very involved in the scene, because I already knew some people from Puerto Rico that were living there. I also knew people from school," he says. Through Morales, he met bassist John Benitez and started playing in his band. "When I came here, I really wanted to play. I was very active trying to meet people, get gigs and have a band. Having those (first) two albums helped a little bit. It's still hard, but I know people."

Once in New York, Vicéns went to Queens College where he earned a master's degree in music, where one of his instructors is the superb pianist Luis Perdomo. Vicéns first met Perdomo in Puerto Rico at the Heineken festival. At Queens College, he worked with Perdomo studying composition. The guitarist is now pursuing a doctorate at Stony Brook University, working with Ray Anderson and Daria Semegen.

"We would work on composition ideas," says the guitarist. "Some of the music on the album (The Way We Are Created), he was the first to play it. We played as a duet." They discussed the composition and Perdomo would give suggestions. "After a couple of lessons, I asked him if he wanted to play music. He already knew it basically because in class we would play it. He said yes." They then played some gigs together.

It was 2017 when Vicéns began playing the music at gigs in various settings. The makeup of the band varied, depending on who he could get to come and play. "It's been like that. Always changing. The final band I decided to play with on the album just happened slowly." It was finally recorded in 2019. The release was delayed by the global coronavirus pandemic. Many musicians faced, and are still facing, difficult decisions regarding when and what to record in such a unique time.

"Being able to release this album in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredible and challenging experience for me," says Vicéns. "There were moments I asked myself if this was the right time, but I arrived at the idea that art is a relieving outlet for people, can build community, and can comfort pain. I feel good about it."

Some musicians on The Way We Are Created were relatively new coming to the music. Vicéns' preference, however, is to have his own band. With people on the New York scene often busy, that is easier said than done.

"I prefer to have a band, the same guys all the time, so the music is more familiar and everything is more familiarized. But in reality, in a city like this, the more musicians in the band, the more difficult it is to make it happen ... It's my music, but in the end, it's a band. I always like to democratize things."

When Days was made, Vicéns, still in Puerto Rico, wrote to some people he admired to see if they would participate. Sipiagin was one of them because Vicéns had always enjoyed his music. The trumpeter accepted and his work on the recording is outstanding. Sipiagin stayed in Puerto Rico and helped Vicéns mix and master the album.

Vicéns' journey continues and his aspirations go beyond jazz. Of late, his listening habits have stretched to contemporary classical music. "Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Elliot Carter, Gerard Grisey," he says. "I'm also very interested in traditional music, folklore music from different places, lately from Latin America and the Caribbean, which of course is one of the focuses of this album. I listen to a lot of bomba and plena from Puerto Rico, Changüí, tumba francesa and rumba from Cuba, Gwoka from Guadaloupe, vodou music from Haiti, bélé from Martinique and much more."

Vicéns is already thinking about his next album, which will be classical music. He will not play on it, but is composing all the pieces, likely using piano and strings.

Without being able to tour to support his new CD, his eye is on the next recording and what he can do in the classical realm. "Let me do that. Let me try it. I'm very excited. It's a new adventure."

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