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Will Vinson: Four Forty One

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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2020 marks the beginning of Will Vinson's third decade of working and living in New York. Over the years the British-American saxophonist has gained wide recognition as a sideman as well as a leader, with six albums to his name in the bank. Beyond recording highly acclaimed albums for late Gerry Teekens' Criss Cross label, Vinson has appeared with the likes of Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Potter or Kurt Elling, to name a few. The 2012 formation "Owl Trio" featuring bassist Orlando le Fleming and guitarist Lage Lund drew especially positive critical acclaim. A close relationship to the tradition of the instrument defines Vinson's playing as much as the fearless and unapologetic manner with which he searches for his own voice within the genre. This search never comes at the cost of the instinctiveness of his lines or the lyrical tone he inhabits.

On his newest outing, coincidentally his debut recording for UK-based Whirlwind recordings, he broadens his explorations even further and delivers his most ambitious record to date. Vinson confirms: "It took me a year and a half to record, and then another year to actually put the album out. It's been the longest process it's ever taken me to get a record finished." Featuring five different pianists, each a contemporary heavyweight on the instrument, as well as five different sets of rhythm sections, the conceptual scope of Four Forty One evidently entails a complicated process—compositionally, arrangement-wise as well as just simply in regard to making a schedule. The focus of the endeavor lies mainly on the piano: "I've always been a frustrated pianist at heart. But for whatever reason, I play the saxophone (laughs). As a result of working in a city that is packed with great talent, I've come into contact with these five pianists, who to me represent the pinnacle of current jazz pianists (even though of course there's plenty other pianists with claim to that title). To me this album is supposed to capture these musicians, their instrument and where the instrument is in the world today. It's impressive to see what can be achieved on it when played by some of the heavyweights in the world" Compositionally the album moves through a large diversity of structures, colors and approaches— each aspect seeming adapted to or specifically chosen for the respective musicians. The wide range stylistically of the material at hand can be considered like a summary of the different music Vinson has worked on over the duration of his career: "I started recording this album a few months after my 40th birthday and became very aware of the passing of time and of how long it takes to conceptualize a project and then move on to the realization of the same. I think it's fair to say that with this album I was creating a retrospective in real time. You can also see it as a sort of compilation."

It's safe to say that Vinson makes no empty promises when it comes to the quality of the pianomen at hand: Next to Sullivan Fortner, Tigran Hamasyan and Gerald Clayton, Fred Hersch as well as Gonzalo Rubalcaba grace the record with their characteristic piano chops. Each pianist is first introduced with a duo performance in interplay with the saxophone, before a rhythm section, which, impressively, is equally prominently cast, joins for a second tune. As is the case for the pianists, each pair of songs is appointed a different bassist and drummer. By sequencing the titles according to their nature in arrangement (duo-quartet-duo-quartet) and in correspondence with the alternating line-up, Vinson presents a coherent set of music that works as much as a declaration of love to the piano, as it does as an opportunity to showcase his compositional prowess in the hands of equally skilled musicians.

Will Vinson was kind enough to take a couple of minutes to talk with All About Jazz and briefly touch upon each track on the album individually:

Sullivan Fortner

Vinson original "Boogaloo" kicks things off with a joyous spirit at heart. Fortner's hands sweep across the keys performing swift arpeggios and grabbing lush chords while the saxophone delivers the melody with poignancy. Fortner doesn't hide how comfortable he feels in this musical environment and only rarely defies the sweet harmonies with dissonance.

Will Vinson: Although I had met Sullivan [Fortner] before, we'd never played together. So, we were getting to know each other while recording this music. A really fun experience. In fact, the bonus tune on this record ("Milestones") was recorded completely spontaneously and captures us getting to know each other very authentically. Immediately after our last take of "Boogaloo" I started playing "Milestones." At this point we hadn't discussed it. I didn't even know whether he knew the tune. You can kind of hear him coming in on this recording, thinking "ok, I know this tune" and then finding his way around it and just being his phenomenal self. That's the freshest moment I've ever put on a record. I thought to myself that if I wanted to do something like that with anyone it would be with Sullivan, because his command over the entire history of the instrument is so deep and vast. It was a joy. On "Boogaloo" he brings in this gospel direction and it has a very natural and clear vibe. It almost sounds like he wrote the tune, not me. I deliberately chose this song for him to play, as well as "Love Letters."

"Love Letters" sees Matt Brewer and Obed Calvaire join the two and finds the quartet rhythmically juggling with the measures at will. Fortner outlines harmonic ideas with an abstract feel for time and melody while bass and drums lay out a dominant drive. Vinson keeps to his role as the understated melodic leader with elegance and lets the instruments have their say.

WV: Even when exhibiting the modern side of his [Fortner] playing you hear the history of music in it too. That's why I chose this old standard with a slightly reimagined modern rhythmic element for him. I knew that he'd be all over it. And he was (laughs).

Tigran Hamasyan

Tigran Hamsyan's unique sense for melody with roots in the folkloric music of his Armenian heritage is a prominent aspect of his playing and shines through on the Vinson original "Banal Street." Rhythmically enveloping the saxophone, Hamasyan seamlessly shifts chordal and melodic duties from his left to his right hand and back again.

WV: When Tigran and I were playing together with Ari Hoenig almost ten years ago he was the first person I heard bringing in this very original folkloric element. He would have been part of this no matter what, simply because of his utterly unique voice. I knew he'd chew up "Banal Street," which is a rearrangement of an older tune of mine. It's rhythmically challenging and his fluency and virtuosity in the extremely odd times is perfect for that.

This time around Matt Penman and Billy Hart form the rhythm section and lay out the deconstructive foundation for Keith Jarrett's "Oasis."

WV: For the quartet track with Tigran I decided to go with something a bit freer, which I've often shied away from in the past. As soon as I opted for Keith Jarrett's "Oasis" it dawned on me that Billy Hart would make the perfect drummer on this tune. He's also a musician who I've admired for a very long time but never played with. I thought that even though they're so different from each other, they might be able to meet on this ground. And they really do, if you ask me. Interesting enough, we ended up doing some very similar things in this recording of "Oasis," as Jarrett does in the original one.

Sure enough, the quartet delivers a thought-provoking interpretation of the tune with Hart's interrupted ride and snare strokes tickling the sparse chord stabs out of Hamasyan's fingers. Vinson's vision of the piece is denser than the original and captures much tension throughout.

Gerald Clayton

So much confidence and imagination are exuded straight from the get-go of the eight-and-a-half-minute duo arrangement of "I am James Bond." The composition, initially featured on Vinson's 2010 record The World (Through My Shoes)(Nineteen Eight Records), is composed of an extensive structure and reveals a striking melodic arc, giving Clayton plenty of space to elaborate different harmonic concepts over and use a variety of different techniques. Saxophone and piano increasingly grow together, twisting and wrapping phrases around each other, creating intense momentum. In light of this great chemistry it's hard to believe that the two had never paired up together before this date.

WV: My feelings for Gerald's playing aren't dissimilar to how I feel about Sullivan's. The tradition is always on his fingertips. He's someone who's been famous for his abilities from a very young age but has the maturity and openness to constantly develop and change as a player, which you can't say for everyone who's achieved a certain level of fame or reputation. The dozen times I've heard him play over the past ten years felt like going on a journey with him. I admire that. Right before deciding what to do and who to do it with on this record I saw Gerald perform with the Peter Bernstein Quartet. Everything he did was just perfect! He's the kind of musician who's able to make everybody sound better. And anything anyone can do to make me sound better is welcome (laughs). Like all my tunes, I wrote "I am James Bond" on piano but originally recorded it with a piano-less quartet that featured Lage Lund on guitar instead. Here I wanted to explore the harmonies again with the instrument on which they were initially envisioned on. The title merely stands in ironic reference to the minor motif of the fifth ascending to the major sixth via the minor sixth and back again.

"Cherry Time," another Vinson original, represents one of the more laid-back group recordings on the record and finds Matt Brewer returning on bass while Clarence Penn joins behind the drum stool. Clayton's soloing is mostly chordal and provocative in its syncopated nature. The rest of the band answer to him with swagger and coolness.

Fred Hersch

WV: Having Fred Hersch play "Work" was intentional on a special level. For one thing he's obviously a great interpreter of Thelonious Monk. The reason however why it's this tune specifically is that the first time I ever played it was actually with Fred. That was probably about ten years ago. I remember it vividly because I'd fallen flat on my face straight off of the head of the tune. I'd only met Fred right before this set. He said: "How about we play a Monk tune?." Someone proposed: "How about we do "work?." I didn't really know the tune at that time, but I didn't want to be the guy who stands in the way of playing any song I don't know. Then on the head in I just completely went down in flames; it was probably quite hilarious. A great first impression of course (laughs). I think I played the remaining parts of the tune just fine and Fred was very gracious about it. After, he invited me over for a duo session and we've been friends ever since.

One of the few standout interpreters of Monk, little could go wrong on this duo collaboration between Hersch and Vinson. Hersch digs deep into the keys and channels Monk's changes with spicy sarcasm and a driven demeanor. The energy the two are able to capture is at the same time youthful and sophisticated, bringing a new freshness to a classic.

Rick Rosato and Jochen Rueckert come in for the quartet recording of "KW," a song dedicated to late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, with whom Hersch had a longstanding musical relationship. The ballad was written by Bryn Roberts, a pianist friend of Vinson's who was coincidentally also a student of Hersch's.

WV: The difficulty with an album where you're only playing two compositions with each musician is that you want to get everything out of the respective person, but that doesn't necessarily lead to a well-structured set of music because you may end up just covering much of the same ground with different people. So, in order to get some more variety on to the record I wanted to have Fred Hersch play this composition which is probably the closest thing to a ballad on the record. Kenny Wheeler and Fred Hersch were friends and I definitely associate Fred Hersch with that very lyrical school of playing.

One of the most intimately set quartet renditions on the album, "KW" finds Hersch harmonizing the progressions with impressionistic pentatonic language while the saxophone takes on a delicately smooth tone to meditative rhythmic backing. The special transparency of the recording is on prominent display when Rosato's bass lines are able to assert themselves through the midst of a dense harmonic downward movement performed on sax and piano.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba

The final heavy weight featured on the album makes a graceful entrance on the Vinson original "The Way to You." A deep connection between Rubalcaba and Vinson is fast apparent and introduces a new flavor to the album—one that isn't defined be the excitement of getting to know each other but rather reveals the comfortableness of having known one another and building on that existing relationship. Rubalcaba embraces the keys with a soft touch and sparse yet very conscious melodic ornamentations.

WV: Gonzalo is the one of these five pianists who I've played with the most, by far. We first played together in 2009 with his Quintet in Birdland and then I toured with him a bit that year before a couple of years later he asked me to join him on his record Suite Caminos (5Passion, 2015). We've collaborated much over the years and he's also featured on my record Perfectly Out of Place (5Passion, 2016). I can't really add much to what the conductor Simon Rattle once said, describing Gonzalo as "the most gifted pianist on the planet." I find it really hard to argue with that. Even though there isn't necessarily such a thing as a single greatest, what he can get out of the instrument in any genre is something I've never heard from anybody else. That's why I felt that one of the tracks that he'd be on deserved a little bit more complexity. I wanted to get some of the crazy lines that he tends to play out of him. But at the same time, I also wanted to play with him on something much sparser, something that allows you to really hear the full impact of his gorgeous sound. Ergo "The Way to You."

The promised crazy lines and increased complexity follows straight on the heels of "The Way to You." Eric Harland's experience backing Dave Holland or Lionel Loueke's extravagant rhythmic exercises over the past years comes in handy and gives "That Happened" the accordingly off beat foundation for Rubalcaba to perform tricks over. Larry Grenadier holds things tightly together and adds the one or the other dexterous sleight of hand in the process. An inspiring ten-minute tour de force.

Asking these many collaborators to join forces on one album is a tricky endeavor that could have gone wrong for several reasons. The concept however pays off and then some. Each individual is able to add to the respective composition and lift it to a higher level without undermining Vinson's overall vision. The result is an exceptional collection of originals and standards that set the bar very high. For with Four Fourty One Will Vinson not only delivers one of his most ambitious outings to date, but moreover arguably one of his best.

Track Listing

Boogaloo; Love Letters; Banal Street; Oasis; I Am James Bond; Cherry Time; Work; KW; The Way to You; That Happened; Milestones.

Personnel

Will Vinson: saxophones; Sullivan Fortner: piano (1,2,11); Tigran Hamasyan: piano (2,4); Gerald Clayton: piano (5,6); Fred Hersch: piano (7,8); Gonzalo Rubalcaba: piano (9,10); Matt Brewer: bass (2,6); Matt Penman: bass (4); Rick Rosato: bass (8); Larry Grenadier: bass (10); Obed Calvaire: drums (2); Billy Hart: drums (4); Clarence Penn: drums (6); Jochen Rueckert: drums (8); Eric Harland: drums (10).

Album information

Title: Four Forty One | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Whirlwind Recordings

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