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Nick Vayenas: First Steps

Franz A. Matzner By

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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.
Nick VayenasSoft spoken, straightforward, and possessed of a pleasantly down to earth sense of humor, trombonist Nick Vayenas' speech reflects well his musical approach—deliberate, unassuming, mellow, and deceptively layered.

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.

Chapter Index

  1. Getting Started
  2. Monk Institute
  3. Debut Album

Getting Started

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?

Nick Vayenas 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 so—I mean you can still do that stuff—but 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.


Monk Institute

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 Shorter—all kinds of amazing people come in—which 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.

Dayna Stephens / Nick Vayenas 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 music—let alone jazz which has its own special hurdles.

NV: [Laughs]

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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