Jazz Monthly.com Interview with Justin Vasquez
Interview by Joe Caroselli
Jazz Monthly: Our guest at JazzMonthly.com is a young man in his twenties who it seems that musically has come “full circle.” By that I mean that he has learned many of the lessons as a performer and also in life in general where it usually takes musicians a few more decades to learn. Sometimes, jazz purists can limit their own expressiveness. Well, alto and soprano saxophonist, composer Justin Vasquez has evolved away from that kind of “jazz snobbery” and limitations, and kind of like a child at the beach, he is able to take it all in and be open to a wide variety of musical styles in his creative processes. No musical boundaries for this very talented and sensitive young man. He calls Austin, Texas and New York City his homes. Performing, composing and just sharing his beautiful talent with anyone who has the good fortune to experience his music is what Justin Vasquez is all about.
His self-produced recording debut as a leader titled, “Triptych” is getting some well deserved great reviews. Including, by yours truly. Justin Vasquez is our guest. Welcome to JazzMonthly.com Justin.
Justin Vasquez (JV): Hi Joe. I just want to thank everyone at JazzMonthly.com for giving me this opportunity. I’ve put a lot of work into this record and I’m glad people are enjoying it.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, and we are going to talk about that shortly. You’re a jazz musician and Justin, you’re also a very sensitive young man and a composer. Do you like being called a “jazz musician” or is it just a bit too confining for you?
JV: It’s not confining for me but what I find is that the term “Jazz” carries a lot of baggage with it. This thing that happens when you mention Jazz… you can take ten different people and you’d say; “What is Jazz to you?” One person would say “Oh that’s Big Band Music with Glen Miller and that style” The next person will say; “Oh well, that’s Bebop.” The next person will say; “That’s John Coltrane.” The next person will say; “That’s Miles Davis, or Pat Metheny or Wayne Shorter." So what ends up happing is, when you say “jazz” it means something specific to someone. I kind of use the Wayne Shorter approach to the word “jazz” which means that, “Jazz is just anything. It means you can take from any style of music or any aesthetic and incorporate it into your style – whatever you’re doing."
Jazz Monthly: Yeah. Hey Justin, I’m about to quote YOU now. Hey isn’t it great! You’re still a young man and I’m quoting you in JazzMonthly.com. How does that sound? (Justin laughing). Well, Jazz as Justin says “is all inclusive,” and I think you define it as “ New American Folk Music” right?
JV: Well, that’s what I feel what I’m doing. At the same time, I grew up listening to Jazz, and I grew up listening to Country and Folk music, and the sort of Mid Western style of Pat Metheny and all the different jazz musicians that came from that and after it. I was born here in America and I’m using a lot of American influences. Jazz was born here in America. I think this is an American art form, and I’m certainly a new person on the scene. In a way, I think of it as a New American Folk Music.
Jazz Monthly: That’s a good description. I know you were born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and you grew up in little towns in Texas. Now here’s the key; this is kind of the turning point in the young life of Justin Vasquez. Now I know you were a long distance runner and you kind of “pounded the pavement” a little too hard and you hurt your knee. This was sort of a blessing in disguise, right?
JV: Well, what happens with me is that I’m absolutely obsessive about everything that I do. If I’m writing a paper, or if I’m in school or running – whatever it is I do – I do it to a point of absolute obsession – bordering on insanity at times as my friends and family will tell you. (Joe laughing) It just so happens to be that my obsession in music actually helps me out. I’m lucky that I didn’t go into something like video games… something that wouldn’t have an impact for me, you know?
Jazz Monthly: I know what you mean. You’re putting you’re obsessiveness forward. Let’s face it, anyone who did anything – whether it was Charlie Parker to Thomas Edison – was obsessive! Right?
JV: I think anyone who’s doing anything creative, goes through those periods where they can’t help but think about anything else. I certainly have gone through different periods of that. When I hurt my knee, I had to take off for six months, to have surgery. I didn’t want to have surgery; so I said, “I’m going to stop running for six months.” Now I had all this time that I spent outside being active and my dad – he’s sort of a “jack of all trades”– had a saxophone that he borrowed from his cousin. So, I basically “stole” it from him (both laughing) and the first moment I start playing it, I was drawn to it like nothing else before… and nothing else since!
Jazz Monthly: We say obsessiveness in a good way. As we mentioned earlier, anybody who was anybody: a genius, an inventor, an artist, a Rembrandt… or anyone, had to be obsessive during one or more periods in his/her life. You took the same love and passion; wanting to be the best that you can be. You had that free time on your hands.
You’re father had an alto sax that he borrowed?
JV: Yeah, his cousin had an old beat up Beuscher (sax) from when she was in high school, and it could only play about five or six notes. I ended up messing with it around the house. I just did everything I could to get as many different sounds out of it as I could. I was absolutely enthralled by this instrument for some reason. I never really thought of music in that sort of way before. I didn’t play piano; there were no other instruments in my house. I actually failed my first music class playing the recorder. (Joe laughing) It’s like something just happened when I start playing the sax. I was hooked!
Jazz Monthly: Yes. Your mother and grandmother had a great part in that they exposed you to a lot of great records: Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin.
JV: Well my grandmother loved jazz. She had a bunch of jazz records at her house. When she heard I was starting to play the saxophone – the alto saxophone especially – she said; “ Well you have to listen to Charlie Parker.” I had no idea who he was. I do remember the record she gave me was a compilation… I think it was called; “Jazz Masters Fifteen,” and the first song on there was called, “Confirmation.” I never heard anything like it before. I could barely get any notes out of this thing, and this guy is playing… I had no idea that these guys were playing over forms. It just sounded like everyone knew where they were at any point. The concept that they were playing over forms hadn’t dawned on me until years later.
Jazz Monthly: It’s like your first love almost – something that you remember… that feeling of innocence. It’s almost like when you’re a child, and it’s the first time you tasted ice cream! (laughing). It must have been flooded into your heart and into your brain, right?
JV: It really was. I obsessed over that record, and I still know every note of every solo on that record and learned a lot more since. I remember I spent years just playing along every day with that record, because I wasn’t exposed to a lot of music. As much as my grandmother gave me, (and they probably only gave me about 20 or 30 records) and everything else, I just had to get what I could. We were in the middle of South Texas and there weren’t many record stores around me.
There was a place in San Antonio that I would go that had some actual LP’s (vinyl), and I had to borrow one of my dad’s record players. I would listen to Brubeck recordings, Stan Getz and everything that I could get my hands on basically.
Jazz Monthly: Hey, speaking of Stan Getz, I know that when you were a teenager you were about thirteen years old; tell us about the first (and I say this in quotation marks!) GIG--- the first “gig” that you had in a coffee shop. (both laughing) Tell us about that, Justin.
JV: Well it’s a little embarrassing, but everybody starts somewhere. There was a coffee shop in this town I lived call Victoria. I just wanted to play in front of people. I learned a lot of music… a lot of solos up to that point – just transcribing by ear. I convinced a coffee shop to let me play (laugh) Stan Getz’s solos. I would just play over the record. I would just play what Stan Getz played.
Jazz Monthly: All of those Bossa Nova’s: “Desafinado,” “Girl From Ipanema,” right?
JV: Yes, all of those and all of his “East Of The Sun” recordings.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. “Moonlight In Vermont” was another one of his great hits. So you played not even over on tracks, because we’ve got to make that clear. You were playing right to Stan Getz’s record, right? (Both laughing)
JV: Right! It seems very silly in hindsight, but I was so excited to just play for people; because I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to do that. Somehow I convinced someone to pay me to just play Stan Getz recordings… and play his solos.
Jazz Monthly: That’s a very sweet story. It’s not corny at all. It got you started and it also made you want to become a performer, right?
JV: Well from the start, I really enjoyed playing in front of people. For some reason, I was nervous playing in front of my family, but anonymous audiences didn’t bother me.
Even when I was running, I liked having big audiences. It sort of gave me this anxiety. It was nervousness, but it pushes you to go further than you can go then just sitting in a practice room.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah. Well said. You know in my introduction to you, Justin, I mentioned that you’re not just a jazz snob or a jazz purist. Here you are a young man; you just turned twenty-seven. We talk about purism, and purism really can be flawed, can’t it? They never get out of that “box” so to speak.
JV: Well, like I was saying earlier, I think everyone goes through this period with every creative endeavor. People go through this period where they are obsessive about one thing or another, and I certainly went through my “jazz snob” period where I just listened to Bebop. That’s all I listened to. Everything from Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Monk, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown (I was really big on Clifford Brown). I wanted to get as much of that music as I could.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but just one day I realized that “everything” is OK. I’ve listened to enough “Classical music,” and enough “Pop music,” and “Country music.” Rather than putting these in one big predefined category, I just realized that’s it’s all OK – as long as it sounds good. You can take pieces from “Country”… you can take the harmony from “Jazz”… you can take the rhythm from “Brazilian” music… and you can combine it all into whatever your vision is. I use this analogy; “before the Hubble Telescope we thought that this whole universe was just this little bubble. Now we have this Hubble Telescope, and now the universe is billions of light years wide! It’s unfathomable how large that is! That’s what it was like for me, realizing that everything is OK just as long as it sounds good – and as long as it’s honest.”
Jazz Monthly: Very good Justin. That’s a great analogy! Ya know, talking about all the different styles of music, I think it was Duke Ellington… someone asked Duke; “ You’re a renowned bandleader, musician, performer. What do you like? Do you like “Jazz,” do you like “Rock,” do you like “Swing,” do you like “Latin music.” What do you like Duke? Duke said; “Hey man, there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad,” right?
JV: It’s the truth.
Jazz Monthly: If something is done honestly…
JV: I think music has to translate something. It has to translate something truthful about the human experience in general, and even more specific than that, something truthful about the experience the people were having in the time period the music was created.
Jazz Monthly: Yes. Very well said.
When did you make it to New York City?
JV: Well I have been playing in New York for the last three years regularly, but I just moved to New York about four months ago.
Jazz Monthly: Let’s talk about your debut CD “Triptych.” Now I know – I was an art minor in college – that Triptych was sort of a 3D ancient Roman panel painting or piece of art. Isn’t that what a triptych is?
JV: Yeah. It’s a three panel relief. It tells stories, read from left to right, and it can be folded up. For one thing, I really like the idea of telling a story. That’s one of the main things I listen for in music now. Like when you read a novel there’s an exposition, a series of plots, a conflict, climax and resolution. I think that still applies to music. That’s what I really look for, and that’s what I try to get across in my music. This idea of evolution – telling a story in three parts – that’s sort of how the idea of a multi-record project came about.
Jazz Monthly: Yes.
JV: I just have so much music that I want to try and get out. I wouldn’t be able to do it in one record.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right. I know that there will be a “Triptych Two,” and a “Triptych Three” coming soon.
A Triptych was also a Roman writing tablet too, wasn’t it?
JV: Yeah. It’s sort of pre-dates Christianty. It’s been around since Greece, but it became very prominent in Christian art.
Jazz Monthly: Well it’s a great title because it really describes what you’re trying to get across. In talking about “Triptych,” you really just did one brief rehearsal – with some great musicians, whom we’ll mention in a minute. I understand you went over only two of the tunes, and even that it… was just for form. You didn’t even go all the way through it… and then you recorded it! That actually worked to your advantage, didn’t it Justin?
JV: Well I took a lot of care in choosing the musicians. I knew very well who each of the musicians were, and I chose people that had already played together and already have a rapport with each other. I knew that people weren’t going have to think about anything… they were just gonna play! The music kind of plays itself. It’s more difficult to read than it is to play, in a sense. I was very lucky to get such an amazing group of musicians together two days in a row to play my music.
Jazz Monthly: Tell us about your supporting cast. Tell us about some of these great musicians.
JV: Well, Aaron Parks played piano on the record. He’s, without a doubt, one of my favorite pianists of this current generation. He’s played with so many people. He’s played with Terrence Blanchard, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gretchen Parlato – who also sang on this record. I first really knew that I wanted him when I heard him on Terrence Blanchard’s “Flow.” He has amazing technique! You know, a lot of times guys that have amazing technique… they sort of throw it at you constantly – which is not necessarily a bad thing. It just happens often. Aaron’s playing style is not defined by his technique. It’s defined by his restraint, his nuance, and his amazing sense of timing. He knows when to add something… when to add tension with a chord or to answer something. It really is one of the very special things about his playing that I wanted to bring on this record.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, he’s a great player! Of course the guitarist, Adam Rogers…
JV: Adam Rogers is one of my favorite guitarists! He’s been a part of so much music in New York. Like I said before, I’m a “live recording” obsessive-compulsive collector. I remember the moment I decided I wanted Adam on the record. I was listening to some recordings of him in Michael Brecker’s band. He has an amazing breadth of style that he can play. He can sound like, “Wes Montgomery,” one second, and then, “Jimmy Hendrix.” the next. He does it all in this amazing fluid style where nothing is disjunctive. A complete idea flows into another; it’s absolutely amazing! I needed people that understood: Country music, all the Bebop music and Post Bop, Coltrane… and a wide variety of styles. Adam is the consummate musician in that sense.
Jazz Monthly: Yes. Absolutely! You also have bassist, Orlando Le Fleming.
JV: Orlando has been playing in New York for years. Not many people know this about him, but he was a professional cricket player!
Jazz Monthly: I never knew that! (Justin laughing)
JV: Orlando has got great “time.” He and Clarence have such a “lock in” that I knew he would be perfect for this project.
Jazz Monthly: You’re talking about Clarence Penn, who’s just a drumming virtuoso.
JV: Clarence is another guy who’s played with everyone from: Winton Marsalis… to Josh Redman... to Maria Schneider. He also played with Adam in Michael Brecker’s band. I remember listening to them; they have such a hook-up! They have such an ESP about their playing. We almost didn’t need to rehearse. They have an amazing hook-up; so they work really well together. Clarence has a sound. I wanted someone to bring “drama” to the record, because that’s what a lot of my music’s about – creating these dramatic moments where the “bottom” drops out and then there’s this “build.” Clarence has a sense about that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, “drama” is the right word. It’s almost like he is his own conductor… the shadings… and the subtleties and dynamics. He’s really a great player. Tell us a little bit about your harmonica player. There were some beautiful harmonica solos on your album.
JV: On a couple of the songs, I wanted to have this “singer/songwriter” aesthetic, but without the singer. I wanted to have a lead instrument be that voice. I had played with Gregoire Maret a few months before the recording and I knew he would be perfect for, “End Of The Day” – which I basically wrote for Gregoire. He has this way of playing “time”… it’s sort of this “floating” thing. It really is beautiful. No one else, that I know, has that sense of time – much less on the harmonica, which is a difficult instrument.
Jazz Monthly: Yes… and the beautiful vocalist, Gretchen Parlato, right?
JV: I’ve known about Gretchen for a while, but the moment I wanted to get Gretchen on the record… a great friend of mine, Walter Smith – another great tenor sax player – had a song on his debut record called “Kate’s Song.” He played a solo, and then had Gretchen come in and sing the exact same notes over his solo. From what I understand, she came in the day of the solo and sang over him right after his solo. It’s amazing. It sounds like another instrument on top. It doesn’t sound like a saxophone or a vocalist… it became this “other instrument.” That was the moment that I knew she would be perfect!
Jazz Monthly: She sure was! You know, I mentioned earlier that you only had one brief rehearsal, and even with that brief rehearsal you didn’t even get through two tunes. It reminds me in another sense, of the comedian Jackie Gleason – who of course, did the “Honeymooners.” He never wanted to rehearse. He didn’t like to rehearse because he felt that once you rehearse, it kind of puts a squelch on your creativity. You know, in other words, “Let’s save it until the cameras are rolling.” So in your case it’s “Let’s get it down; let’s go over it. But, once the microphones are on... Justin and the band “Now Let’s do it!”
JV: You know, you hear something about “first takes,” and that there might be some inaccuracies on them. But it kind of has “something” in terms of the emotion or the “moment” that it captures, that subsequent “takes” might not have. These guys are all absolute professionals. They came in and had everything together when we were recording it. It wasn’t like they were sight-reading this music. They checked it out earlier with some recordings that I gave them… and it was like, “Here are some of the “tricky” spots and this is how it’s gonna go… and let’s just play it! The record is the result of that.
Jazz Monthly: Yes. It sure is. Let’s talk about some of the cuts on “Triptych.” One thing I noticed is that on every piece you’ll start with an idea and just kind of go from there. No section is actually repeated. It doesn’t follow any “predictable” pattern.
JV: Well, with “Triptych,” I just conceptualized that this song would constantly evolve. A “constantly evolving melodic narrative.” That’s the way I would describe it. Where nothing is ever repeated… something may come around again... but it will be slightly altered and slightly altered in a way that it will move naturally to the next part.
It was sort of a challenge for myself because I had never written anything like that before. I certainly listened to enough “classical” music and enough “other” kinds of music where that’s taken place; I wanted to push myself compositionally.
Jazz Monthly: The one thing I noticed, Justin, from the moment you hit “play” on the CD player there’s about two minutes of “ground work” before you… YOU even arrive! (laughing)
JV: Yeah. A couple of people have said, “ Why didn’t you start off with something where you’re the first note they hear?”
Jazz Monthly: I really like what you did.
JV: I wanted this record to be about my musical intent more than my playing or anyone else’s playing in general. I feature everyone in different spots, but I really wanted it to be about the larger picture – not just me playing a bunch of notes.
Jazz Monthly: That’s wise of you too. You’re utilizing all of these great musicians and great talent.
JV: Yeah. It was a bit of a gamble on my part to do that, because a lot of times when people are first listening to a record… as they say, “ You only have a minute or so to capture someone’s attention before they move on.” But if you stick with it, the music will take you on a journey that I think you wouldn’t get – if I just went and played a record of “standards.” People have already done that, and frankly have done it better than I’ll be able to do it.
Jazz Monthly: Plus this is your project, and keeping with the title of it, “Triptych” you’re creating a “three paneled expression” of your music. Speaking about “standards,” I would like to talk about one of my favorite tunes that I think you did beautifully. It was the tune by Bronislaw Kaper. It came out in the early fifties… I think 1952… from the movie; “Invitation,” and you describe it as sort of a dark, brooding, dirge rendition.
JV: One of the things I’ve done for years now is, I take a “standard,” – it’s an exercise a lot of people do. You put these standards in new context with “arrangements” or “de –constructions,” or whatever you’d like to call them. This melody’s so beautiful, I just wanted to put it in a completely different context. As much as a different context as all the records I’ve heard it on. Playing it very slow with this real dark harmony. Most of the time it’s either heard in a “Swing” tune or some version of a “Latin” song, or something like that. I though this would be something different… a different concept.
Jazz Monthly: One of the things that I know is dear to you is… playing a ballad. You really are “exposed” when you play a ballad. Right?
JV: Well, I think it is one of the more difficult things for a musician. Every aspect of your playing is put in the spotlight: your sound, your phrasing, your development… and your time – especially at slow tempos. It’s something I do work on and I have to work on it a bit more. Playing fast and having chops, that’s easy for me and I think that’s easy for anyone. You just have to practice and be consistent, but don’t practice any faster than you can play “cleanly.” Playing a “Ballad” is an art unto itself.
Jazz Monthly: Sure is. But I tell you. You are really a fine musician, at any tempo. One of the great cuts on here too is “End Of The Day,” which we mentioned earlier. Growing up in South Texas, this track has some of the “Country” roots of Justin Vasquez.
JV: You know, I’ve never really actively listened to “Country” growing up. I was certainly surrounded by it – George Jones, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson. Being surrounded by this music, and being able to say something very “true” about your experience… I think “Country” music does that very well.
Jazz Monthly: Well, Justin, this project “Triptych” is a fine piece of work by anyone’s judgment.
JV: I really appreciate that. I always say that I can only play as good as the people that I’m surrounded by. I have to thank the guys that I play with on the record and the guys that I play with every day in different bands, just as much as the work that I put into it myself.
Jazz Monthly: Alto and soprano saxophonist, composer, Justin Vasquez. We do urge all our readers here at JazzMonthly.com to get “Triptych.” Well thank you so much, Justin, for sharing your beautiful thoughts and your beautiful talent with JazzMonthly.com.
JV: Thank you Joe, and thanks to everyone at JazzMonthly.com.
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