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Hristo Vitchev: Charting His Own Way

David Becker By

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Hristo Vitchev isn't a typical guitar hero. Supremely fluent with his instrument, the prolific composer and performer would rather communicate than show off complex technique. His albums and concerts are full of gorgeously understated performances that leave just the right amount of room for the musicians to support each other and the audience to fill in the blanks.

Maybe it was inevitable that Vitchev would take an idiosyncratic approach to jazz, given the twisted route he took to get to the music. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, his family relocated to Venezuela for a decade before making it to the U.S. The moves were accompanied by serious shifts in taste —heavy-rock. particularly Metallica, was Vitchev's fascination before discovering jazz late in adolescence.

Vitchev, now based in Northern California, dug deep when he caught the jazz bug, however. He's released seven CDs of lilting original compositions over the past decade, mostly working with his well-oiled quartet. He tours regularly, including annual forays to Asia, and has created instructional books and videos to explain his distinctive approach to the guitar.

All About Jazz: "Impressionistic" seems to be the description most often used for your work. Are you satisfied with that?

Hristo Vitchev: I'm not someone who really likes putting labels to things—as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But you have to be practical, and categorizing music in a larger area is helpful for people to find something they might like.

I definitely think my music at the technical or theoretical level does come closer to the impressionistic school. As far as the mechanics of the movement and the harmonic structures and so forth in impressionistic music, they're a little bit outside of the established conventions of Western classical music. There's something called the non-functional harmony, which are harmonics which don't function by the rules of attraction of harmony but they function by the sound. As long as the sound is pleasant and conveys an emotion, in impressionistic art that makes is useful.

So when I write music, it's more along those lines. My harmonies and movements are definitely away from the main established rules...I think impressionistic music creates these opportunities... There's more unknowns, and the listener can maybe bring meaning to the piece in a much more personal way.

AAJ: What's really impressed me, especially with your last CD (In Search of Wonders, 2016, First Orbit Sounds Music), is how lightly the songs wear their structure. I know there's a lot of thought behind each piece, but there seems to be so much space for the instruments to react to each other.

HV: My main goal when I work with an ensemble is I want this to be a conversation between all the members and for everyone to be able to bring their unique voice to the table. So the theme of each composition is really just a conversation topic, in which I bring a question to the group and we hope we can find an answer together.

So I do try to plan this music with a lot of space for each character in the play to say as much as they can possibly say. A lot of the time, dates end up working better if you play with exactly the same people because the music at a technical level looks much simpler. I already know each musician's way of speaking, so I can just put down some harmony suggestions and I'll have a pretty good sense of what we'll do with it.

Definitely over the years that's become more and more of my main goal, to focus on that in-the-moment experience, where we're having a musical conversation...That's pretty much the soul of jazz music.

AAJ: Do you still do your composing on piano?

HV: To this day, I think I've only written one composition on the guitar. I started (composing on the piano) on purpose because after practicing guitar all these years, you cannot help but develop muscle memory. Certain things are so ingrained in my muscle memory on the guitar that my fingers think way, way faster than my brain. If I compose on the guitar, decisions get made without me realizing it—it's just inevitable with the autonomous nature of muscle memory. It sounds OK, but afterwards when I listen to it it's somehow missing that soul. It's not really what I wanted to say.

To escape that, I play piano, which I've done for a while but I don't have anything near the muscle memory I do on guitar. So when I compose that way, I really have to think about every note I play. It's a slower process, but I get much closer to the voice inside, what I'm trying to say.

AAJ: You came kind of late to jazz. How do you think that has affected your approach?

HV: My early influence was definitely with rock music, particularly heavy metal. I wasn't really influenced by jazz playing until later, by the preparation of the guitar and the stringing,

When I got in to jazz, I learned the basics and studied the Wes Montgomerys and Freddie Greens, and I learned how the language evolved. I did that, but how it came out there was still a quite a big difference from what a traditional jazzman does. Then once I learned the theory and the grammar of how jazz harmony and melody work together, my only approach point at that level was what I had known from rock guitar, blues guitar, metal, so that was my first point of entry to that world.

I think that really influenced my melodic voice as a composer. It's a little bit different from a jazz person who from an early age would get into this music and follow all the established players.

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In Search of Wonders

In Search of Wonders

Hristo Vitchev
In Search of Wonders

The Acropolis

The Acropolis

Hristo Vitchev
The Perperikon Suite

Musica Humana

Musica Humana

Hristo Vitchev
Heartmony

Wounded by a Poisoned Arrow

Wounded by a Poisoned Arrow

Hristo Vitchev
Familiar Fields

Live Reviews
Jazz Journal
Album Reviews
Catching Up With
Album Reviews
Multiple Reviews
Album Reviews
Extended Analysis
Album Reviews
Read more articles
Of Light and Shadows

Of Light and Shadows

First Orbit Sounds
2018

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In Search of Wonders

In Search of Wonders

First Orbit Sounds
2016

buy
Hristo Vitchev Quartet: Familiar Fields

Hristo Vitchev...

First Orbit Sounds
2013

buy
Familiar Fields

Familiar Fields

First Orbit Sounds
2013

buy
Rhodopa

Rhodopa

First Orbit Sounds
2013

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Rhodopa

Rhodopa

First Orbit Sounds
2012

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Upcoming Shows

Date Detail Price
Aug22Thu
Hristo Vitchev Quartet
Kuumbwa Jazz Center
Santa Cruz, CA
$21.00

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