Will Vinson: Planted and Growing in New York

R.J. DeLuke BY

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There's no better motivator than the knowledge that there's all these other people within a few miles (in New York)--that are dedicated to the music and working on something new all the time.
Like many musicians of his generation, growing up in the rock-and pop-dominated 1980s, saxophonist Will Vinson got his indoctrination to jazz from the sounds emanating from the stereo system in his home, hearing the likes of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Count Basie from his father's record collection. He took a liking to them. Especially Basie, as Vinson started out playing the piano as a youngster.

But there were a few obstacles. Vinson, 33, is a native of London, and looking around his immediate surroundings, he felt practically alone among his peers. There were few comrades-in-arms for Vinson with regard to his "eccentric interest." Nonetheless, by the age of about 12, he knew that he wanted to make music a career, albeit unsure of what form that would actually take.

The jazz thing was a bit of a puzzle. Schools in the United Kingdom didn't have jazz band programs. "There was no tradition having any kind of jazz exposure," says Vinson. "But there did happen to be a very enthusiastic, very encouraging music teacher at my school who, even though she didn't know anything about jazz and didn't have any background in it whatsoever, she recognized very early on that I was interested in it. She was very encouraging. That was a big help, to have somebody to validate this eccentric interest of mine. Because it really did feel like something that nobody else in the world, certainly of my generation, was ever going to be interested in."

Illustrative is a Chick Corea concert he attended in London, at age 13. The budding pianist/saxophonist ("I actually wanted to be a pianist—well, I still want to be a pianist, but I think it's probably time to let that go now," he quips) was into Chick, and was looking forward to the opportunity. "I thought I must be the only person within 50 miles that's even heard of this guy. At the time, I didn't know anything about what was happening in the jazz world. I just had some recordings. I went to the concert hall in London and there were about 3,000 people there, going nuts. I thought, 'Maybe I'm not the only person in the world who likes jazz.' That was a nice realization. But up until then I was pretty much the only one in school. I managed to persuade a few other people I was in school with to expand their interest to Hendrix, to get them as far as Weather Report or something like that. As a result, I have a few friends from my high school days who are kind of peripherally into jazz."

Pointedly, he notes "But I wasn't around people who were into jazz until I got to New York." As his musicianship grew at home, Vinson never became part of the London jazz scene. He didn't go to local jam sessions. With none of that in his dossier, it must have been some leap of faith to uproot to New York City, the center of all things jazz, in 1999. But it was there that he found kindred spirits. He relished it.

More than that, Vinson, who now calls Brooklyn his home, thrives there. "The fact that, by a million miles, it's the biggest and deepest and broadest and best jazz scene anywhere in the world. That was definitely a reason [for uprooting to the Big Apple]," Vinson says chuckling. "When I was a kid, I had a feeling that I was the only person of my age on earth who was interested in jazz. By the time I got to New York, I felt like I had entered the opposite world. All of a sudden everyone around me was as passionate as I was—often more knowledgeable. It was overwhelming, but purely in a good way. There was nothing that wasn't good about it. It was amazing and inspiring to be surrounded by people like that and be able to go out every night and see maybe three different examples of great music."

He adds, "I still am amazed at the fact that it's still possible for me, after 11 years, to go out and see someone that I've never even heard of, whose name I've never even heard mentioned, who's amazing. It still happens occasionally. It happened every night for the first couple years. I felt like a proverbial kid in a candy store."

As well as being in a candy store, he was at Manhattan School of Music, where he encountered the likes of Aaron Parks, Ambrose Akinmusire, Miguel Zenon and Jaleel Shaw. Not only that, this cat could play. Really play. Since his arrival on American soil, he has played or recorded with some of the brightest musicians on the New York scene, like Jonathan Kreisberg, Ari Hoenig, Kendrick Scott, Mark Turner, Ingrid Jensen, Chris Potter, Geoffrey Keezer, Lage Lund, Seamus Blake, Aaron Parks and more. He's scored gigs with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and with pop/rock artist and songwriter Rufus Wainright.

He raised eyebrows as a polished alto player with a burning style highlighted by a quicksilver flow of ideas that are elaborate, but so fluid that their apparent ease belies their intricacy. While he's carved out strong credentials, being called for many projects, his own career seems assured, on the strength of consistently exceptional recordings.

Two were released in 2010: a live session, The World Through My Shoes (Nineteen Eight Records), and a studio session, Stockholm Syndrome (Criss Cross). The live recording is a quartet setting featuring longtime colleague, Lund, on guitar. The studio outing also features Lund, as well as Parks on piano.

Vinson explains that his second album, Promises (Nineteen Eight Records), came in 2008, but was recorded two years earlier. So in 2009, he felt it was time for a new recording. At that time, Freddy's Backroom in Brooklyn, a place for live music where Vinson had, in previous years, run jam sessions, was about to close. "It felt like the end of an era that needed to be commemorated, in a way," he notes. "The back room sounds really good, so I knew it was going to be easy to record. I did a live record—included non-originals on record for the first time, and also four new originals. The thought just came to me, and we just did it. It didn't require a lot of preparation.

"In the meantime, I was still feeling like I wanted to do a studio record." Criss Cross approached him, while he was on tour in the Netherlands, about doing an album. "The timing worked out that I ended up putting out two records in the space of a few months (May and September). It isn't necessarily the normal thing to do, but it just worked out that way. ... That was done on very short notice, too. I would say, between the time I conceived of the first one and recorded the second was about seven months, so that all happened pretty fast. If they'd both been studio records, it might have been a bit weird to put them out together. But the live thing is a different vibe. I'm happy with the way both of them came out. I just happened to be on a bit of a writing spurt, so I had enough material."

The recordings benefit not only from outstanding musicians and the strong direction of the leader and his blazing horn, but also from Vinson's strong writing. The title cut of the live disk is an example: a floating melodic line that's a good vehicle for Vinson's explorations. Lund is particularly adept at putting forth crisp, concise flowing lines throughout. The variety in Vinson's writing that appears on the studio disk benefits from the drumming of Kendrick Scott, who has a way of breathing a certain kind of multi-rhythmic life into any composition with his singular organic, musical style. Parks and Lund are up to the composer's challenge, as well as up to Vinson's playing. They are all remarkably on the same page, and the united creativity of each is evident. A change of pace is the ballad "You Won't Forget Me," performed exquisitely by only Vinson, and Lund playing acoustic guitar. Vinson gets a chance to exhibit a luscious tone, and the harmonic interplay is a delight.

"Aaron I've known since Manhattan School of Music, when he was 16," notes Vinson. "I've known him for 10 or 11 years. Lage, I met him through Ingrid Jensen. I decided pretty much right away that this was someone I wanted to play with a lot. I've probably played more with him than anybody else over the last six or seven years. For my money, he's one of the best musicians I know. He's got so much of what I like. I like his approach to music. I like his melodic concept. I love his harmonic concept and his sound and all the rest of it. A bit like me and Aaron, but probably even more so, we have grown together a lot and been a significant factor in each others' developing careers and developing musicianship."

Of Stockholm, Vinson says, "It was done very quickly. ... I had about two months' notice. Got the guys together. Amazingly enough, they were all available. I finished writing the music, rehearsed it, did a couple of gigs, went into the studio and did it. So it's very fresh. Slightly rough around the edges, but exactly the way I like it. Everybody plays amazingly on that record. It amazes me, the way everybody sounds."

Guitar is featured on all four of Vinson's recordings. "It is a sound that I love," he explains, "but the truth is that it has more to do with the fact that there are so many good guitarists around these days. Not that there aren't good piano players, obviously. Aaron has been on three of my records. But one of the great things about being in New York is you don't have to think so much about filling instrument chairs. If you're in a smaller scene, it's like: I've got to find a pianist or I've got to find a chord player. Someone to fill the roles you need to be filled in a band. In New York, everyone's so good and everyone's got their own musical personality. It's that which attracts me to a musician, not that they play a certain instrument. Having Kurt Rosenwinkel and Lage and Mike Moreno and Jonathan Kreisberg and other people around playing guitar—those guys all have a very distinctive sound. It means I can pick from that palette every time I do a gig. Sometimes, as a result, I don't even think of piano players. ... One of the real joys of New York is that there are these amazing voices on the scene that I can call."

So New York has taken a liking to him, just as the reverse is true. But it's been somewhat of a strange trip for this superb saxophonist. Prior to coming to the U.S., Vinson had some connection to America. His great grandfather worked in tin mines in North Dakota, and on the side he played trombone in a band. But his main music connection is his father, a British scientist who also dabbles in piano. "Everyone in my family has been, at one time or another, fairly active as amateur musicians. They're all music lovers," says Vinson.

He started playing piano at about the age of eight. "My dad used to play every Saturday morning, because that was his day off. He would also play jazz records around the house. When he was playing piano, sometimes I would go and sit on the bench and kind of tinkle along at the top end of the piano. I'm sure it made very little sense and sounded absolutely terrible," he recalls, chuckling at the memory. "I definitely had an interest in trying to make sense of that."

He started taking piano lessons at that age and took up the saxophone when he was 11. "But I was most serious about playing the piano until much later. ... I think it was pretty gradual, the realization that the sax was going to be my instrument. It had to do with various factors, including ... I got a little bit of tendinitis and I couldn't play the piano anymore, but I could play the saxophone for some reason. So that was one reason. I never really knew how I made the switch at one point, but I did. I became a saxophonist and that was that."

Again, his father's record collection was educational. "The first people I got interested in were Ben Webster, Lester Young, Stan Getz. It wasn't until a bit later that I got into bebop, because those weren't the records my dad had. They were swing era, big band stuff. As a result of that, I still have a great affection for those players. ... That was the sound that I associated with the saxophone. All of those guys are tenor players. Most of my favorite saxophone players have been tenor players. ... I'd heard Charlie Parker, but it didn't make sense to me until later. I then got stuck into that music, with a vengeance."

Vinson says he was too young to be connected with the jazz scene in London, when starting out. "I was also pretty shy. I never went to jam sessions or anything like that. So I was never part of the scene (in London), which is a bit weird. I think people find that curious."

Before his voyage across the ocean, he attended university in Bristol, about three hours from London, at age 18. His studies there were valuable, if not particularly jazz-focused. "It was classical music and musicology," explains Vinson. "I have to say that at school I learned quite a lot of things that I wouldn't have otherwise, about classical music, classical harmony, that sort of thing. I do think that's actually been a big help to me. I don't think it was necessarily fundamental or essential, even, but I do think it's found its way into my music, and I'm quite happy about that. I would have had no exposure to that, otherwise."

He knew from early on that music was his career path, "but I also didn't have any concept of how it was going to work. I knew from the age of about 12 that I wanted to be a musician, but it was really an abstract concept. Obviously, when you're 12 you're not really worrying about how you're going to pay the bills. Unlike a lot of musicians who go to school and enter the jazz scene while they're at school, I didn't do that because there wasn't really a jazz scene in Bristol."

He views that as a benefit, rather than a drawback. "If I'd really thought about it and been part of a jazz scene, the bewildering, daunting size of it might have put me off at the time. But I was young and I didn't really think or worry about that too much. I had a friend who was at university in Bristol doing a film music degree—a guy from Italy, who had studied at Manhattan School of Music already. He suggested that I go there, so I just looked it up and followed the steps. I ended up applying and getting in, getting a scholarship and going. It happened quite quickly, actually. I went from not thinking about it at all to suddenly doing it, in the space of a couple months."

"I never spent any time as a professional musician in the UK. That was good for me, because I think if I had come to London and started to realize wheat was involved in being a professional musician and how hard it was, I might never have made the move to New York. I might have been too daunted by it. But somehow, in a moment of madness, I decided to go. ... Then the same thing happened to me which happens to just about everybody else who goes to New York, which is that they fall in love with it within five minutes and decide that's where they want to be. That was 11 years ago and I haven't left."

It took a little time to establish contacts and credentials, but gradually he entered New York's jazz scene. Entered and blossomed. The world of jazz became the proper landing spot.

"It's the improvisation, and as a result of that, the musical conversation that can happen with people who are really committed to the music," he says. "Again, in New York the level of musicianship is so high, the level of listening is so high. People listen to each other and they really do, on a good day, create things that haven't happened before. That's amazing. That's really a unique thing to jazz.

"Not that we've created what hasn't happened before, but that we do so just by getting together and taking out our instruments and playing. I think that's an amazing quality of jazz. That's why it's interesting to go and see a band you've already seen before. It's not going to be the same, even if they're playing the same music. That's why it's interesting to be on the road and to play the same music every night but, if you're in the right company, to have something new and different and amazing happen to it every night. ... In jazz, you can have wildly different things happen every night on the same music, which is just endless joy and an endless source of inspiration."

Over the last decade, Vinson has had other inspirations, among them musicians new and old. "One of my biggest early influences was Seamus Blake. Sometimes you hear someone and you think: 'This guy's doing what I want to be doing.' He's a perfect example of that because he has all the sophisticated harmonic and technical stuff that excellent players are going to develop. But he also has something that is much deeper than that, which is an amazing intuitive melodic sense and a beautiful sound. It's those two things that we need to strive for as saxophone players. There's so much daunting history of technical achievement on our instrument that it's very easy to get caught up with trying to reach the level of that bar that's been set. It is important for us to do that, but Seamus does all that, but he also has this effortless melodic sense that's just amazing to me."

Saxophonist Mark Turner is another musician Vinson has learned from. "I've always been pretty harmonically minded in my music and what I'm trying to do. Mark is just an amazing example of what can be achieved harmonically on a single instrument. The first time I heard him, I was completely devastated. I felt like I was exploring some things, harmonically, on a saxophone. Then I heard him and I was, like, 'Wow. He's knocked it out of the park.' So he's been a huge influence, too."

Other influences change periodically, he explains. "I've listened to a lot of Cannonball Adderley [Adderley] in my life, a lot of Lee Konitz, a lot of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and all the rest of it. Right now, I'm on a bit of a Paul Desmond kick. He has this amazing melodic imperative to the way he plays. When you hear him play a line, it's hard to imagine how anything else could ever have happened. He has an amazing, almost classical sense of what I would call melodic imperative. It sounds obvious, in a way, when you hear him set up a line and complete it. But then when you actually try to do it, it's incredibly impossible. What he's doing is playing something that's so melodically balanced and perfect in its imagery. It's the kind of thing Bach would come up with. The reason it sounds obvious is because it's just so perfect. When you actually look at what he's doing and try to play like that, it's one of the hardest things. So, yeah, I'm a big Paul Desmond fan."

In the meantime, in addition to working with his Brooklyn peers, he hooked up with Cuban piano wizard Rubalcaba, which resulted in good exposure as well as being an important experience. "That's kind of a dream come true. I've been listening to him for millions of years. It's only just occurred to me now, he was the first jazz artist I saw in America. Before I moved to New York I was in L.A. on vacation, in '96 or something. I saw him play at Catalina's in L.A. I was completely blown away by him. I've always loved his playing on his records and Charlie Haden's records. I was lucky enough to be called to play with him just over a year ago at Birdland [New York City]. Then we did a tour this summer in Spain. He is definitely an inspiration. ... Playing with him is a pretty amazing musical experience."

Vinson has also played with Rosenwinkel over the course of a few gigs in Europe. "That actually happened by accident, too, but I was very glad when it did. As far as my generation and perhaps people a bit younger than me goes, Kurt is one of the most important musical influences. I was in New York at the time he was playing at Small's and stuff. I'm old enough to have been around when he was making his big impact for the first time. I'm young enough to be one of the many people who are under his influence, in a way. Playing with him, and playing some of his music and some of my music that has been influenced by him, was really a treat. I hope get to do it again. I'm sure I will at some point."

"The two people I've played with the most as a sideman have been Jonathan Kreisberg and Ari Hoenig. Both of those guys have been very important for me in the development of my career for the last few years. It's very difficult in jazz to make yourself known out of the blue. You have to be seen with other people as a sideman, even if you are a leader—even if you have amazing music that's fully formed. It's very difficult to get people to hire you out of nowhere. The exposure I've gotten out of playing with those guys has been invaluable," Vinson says.

Being based in Brooklyn is also a good thing. That borough has been an emergent, fertile hotbed of music in recent years. The number of musicians living there has grown significantly. Aside from being a less expensive place to live than Manhattan, it's an important place where creative paths cross.

"I would say 85 percent of the people I know and the people I play with and work with live in Brooklyn. It's amazing. That's a change that's happened gradually over the last 10 years. There used to be quite a few people in Astoria (Queens), and I guess there still are. But I used to know a lot of people in Astoria, which I don't really anymore. And I used to know a lot of people uptown, which there still are, but so many people I know have moved to Brooklyn. It's great. Everyone's right there. ... The studios that I like are in Brooklyn. I can often be pretty busy without leaving Brooklyn."

New York City doesn't have the amount of clubs and venues that existed years ago, and it can be a struggle to get good gigs and push a career forward. It's something musicians live with. It's rarely easy. But like many musicians around his age, he didn't experience the days when venues were more plentiful. Those musicians, without that comparative experience, are left to deal with the straight realities of New York and today's music business atmosphere. It's just life.

"In a way, I'm fortunate to never have been around in that golden age when everything was wonderful," opines Vinson. "I suppose if I had been, and I felt that way, I'd be pretty depressed about it. But I think the scene, certainly in terms of the music and the musicianship that's around, is very healthy. There seems to be a constant stream of new voices emerging. There's a pretty broad range of people that I'm interested in playing with and listening to. I'm still inspired by what I hear in New York. As long as that's the case, I would say it's pretty healthy."

Vinson will keep busy in 2011 touring in support of his two latest CDs and will also hit the European festival circuit in the summer. He'll also do gigs with musicians like Kreisberg, touring in support of the guitarist's new recording, Shadowless, that comes out in January. Vinson also has ideas for more recording of his own later in 2011. He's pleased with the way things are going: "I've always felt like things are at a more advanced stage than they were, let's say, six months earlier or a year earlier. That's a good feeling." And he maintains his fondness, and even awe, for his adopted city.

"There are other great musicians around the world. But if you've been in New York for a while and you go to other scenes, even if they do have something of their own to offer that's very strong, you realize just how great New York is. Just because of the basic bar that is set. Everybody that you see playing anywhere is more or less world class. Then it just goes on from there. There's no better motivator than the knowledge that there's all these other people within a few miles (in New York)—hundreds of people that are dedicated to the music and working on something new all the time—and that if I call them I can play with them. I'm inspired by the other people that are trying to do what I'm trying to do. For me, that's all it takes."

Selected Discography
Will Vinson, Stockholm Syndrome (Criss Cross, 2010)
Will Vinson, The World Through My Shoes (Nineteen Eight Records, 2010)
Will Vinson, Promises (Nineteen Eight Records, 2009)
Ari Hoenig, Inversations (Dreyfus, 2007)
Jonathan Kreisberg, The South of Everywhere (Mel Bay Records, 2007)
Will Vinson, It's For You (Sirocco Music Limited, 2004)

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