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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."
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