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The Jazz Singer

New York-based jazz vocalist Sachal Vasandani speaks about singing jazz, and performing with his idol


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A jazz singer is a very special category of vocalist. He is a rare species, though hopefully not the endangered type. One member of this class breezed in and out of Mumbai in early March. Sachal Vasandani was passing through Mumbai en route to New York, from a concert in Nepal and Rolling Stone organised a hurried session at Casa Soul Fry. Sachal, 30, delighted the knowledgeable gathering of jazz enthusiasts as he sang with the backing of Benny Soans, Giovanni Pereira, Aninha Lobo and Bertie at this one-off concert. We caught up with this young vocalist of Indian origin. We believe that he is a man on his way up and predict that he will scale great heights as a jazz vocalist. Excerpts from our conversation with Sachal:

Great having you here. Loved your gig! Were you born in India?

No. I was born and raised in Chicago and now live and work in New York.

We’re delighted to see a person of your background getting into this esoteric profession. How did it come about?

I grew up with jazz playing in the house. My parents love the music and it was always around…

Any musicians in the family?

My grandfather in Delhi was a singer. Nobody in the immediate family, though.

Still, for a young man to want to sing jazz, is unusual.

That’s true… though like other people my age, I would listen to every type of music, mainly contemporary pop and rock. Also some jazz…

Did you play any instruments?

Oh yes, I played the guitar and later took to playing drums. This has helped me understand the music better.

So how did you drift to jazz?

Studying music at University in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we would hang out at a jazz club and get a taste of some major jazz acts. Sometimes I’d travel to Detroit where big names could be heard. It gave me a real feel for the music.

You were into different types of music. How did you realise that you were meant to sing jazz?

I began to realise that most of the music I listened to and even played as I was growing up, was sounding dated in hindsight. It seemed stuck in a time warp. On the other hand, the jazz I heard at that same time still sounded exciting and fresh. There was something about that music which was not touched by time. I still listen to different music but jazz gives me satisfaction deep inside me.

Do you have any role models or mentors?

My music teachers have all been very helpful in my development.  But the single person to mould my career, in so many ways, is John Clayton. He is not only my music producer, but he has also guided me in every way in my development. He has been an accomplished musician and has helped further many now well known jazz musicians. He advises me with my singing, organises my gigs and generally handles my career very well.

Apart from singing, have you been involved with jazz in any other way.

It’s the total performance that counts.

Give me an example…

Well, once at music school I wanted to perform a song Nat “King” Cole had sung with a trio. I wanted to sing it with a big band backing but nobody had written an arrangement for a male voice backed by a big band. I wrote the arrangement for each instrument in the band and it worked well!

That is quite something. Who do you listen to for musical inspiration?

I listen to them all, but for me, Ella Fitzgerald is the ultimate jazz singer. I can’t get enough of her. She goes beyond Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday or Betty Carter.

What about Carmen MacRae?

Her phrasing and timing is immaculate but Ella has no equal.

How so?

She can take any song, even a sad one and make it a happy listening experience. In my book, she is simply the best all round jazz vocalist!

You mentioned the influence of Jon Hendricks in your concert yesterday. How did that happen?

I’ve been blown away just listening to his work with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross, whom incidentally, I heard about a month ago, and with Yolande Bavan. Jon can take apart any jazz instrumental piece and sing his lyrics to them.

Have you ever heard him live?

Better than that! Last year at a jazz festival in a place called Moscow, Idaho, I was performing on the same day as Jon. He was gracious enough to invite me to sing with him! It was a blast being on the same stage with him.

What did you sing?

We did two numbers together. One was ‘Centerpiece’ and the other ‘Everybody’s Bopping.’ He did some incredibly fast scatting on this one. And this man is 86 years old!

Any plans of singing with him again?

Yes. I’ve been in touch with his daughter, who is his manager. Hopefully, we can work something out.

Sounds like exciting times for you. Who are some of the jazz people on the contemporary scene who have impressed you?

You may not know some of these people. For example, the guys in my band are excellent. New York has plenty of young talent around.

How about some names?

Two people come to mind. One is Rudresh Mahanthappa, a sax player of Indian origin. The other is pianist, Helen Sung, from the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. They are going to be big names in the future.

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