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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vinson Valega: Awake

Though some consider it a cliche, there's more than enough truth to the idea that jazz is a model for democracy, and drummer Vinson Valega wants to see that concept in action. The mission of his company, Consilience Productions, is to promote "progressive music for the socially curious." With his third release, Awake, he continues to explore these ideas –- and create some incredibly tuneful music in the process.

After majoring in economics at Penn, Valega attended Mannes and studied with Marvin "Smitty" Smith (of Tonight Show fame) and Norm Freeman (of the New York Philharmonic). After two albums -- one live and one in the studio -- Awake features a new group with new tunes. Valega solicited contributions from his bandmates, and while they're all very different players, the results are cohesive, not to mention catchy. Altoist Anton Denner wrote the vampy opener "Luftmenschen." Brian Blade Fellowship pianist Jon Cowherd spins out some brilliant ideas, complementing trumpeter Terell Stafford's burnished tone and powerful solo. Denner himself is fluid and lyrical here as well as on the infectious "Fog" (penned by guitarist Sheryl Bailey, a good friend of Valega's but not on the record). Valega's Latin-influenced polyrhythms give Cowherd's sparkling solo even more texture.

Throughout the set, Valega himself solos only sparingly, but he's front and center on the aptly titled "Ed Blackwell." His intuitive playing is deep in the groove, and even in tribute, he never abandons his own sound. Bassist Josh Ginsburg's feature here is also quite full and funky. The title track is a great example of Valega's crisp sound and loose swing, both relaxed and responsive. It's also a great moment for tenorist Chris Bacas, whose solo grows, lopes and flutters. He's tremendously expressive in the low register, and he's even more forceful and distinct on the swinger, "The Trend Is Your Friend."

With a superb sextet of confident players, Valega's newest effort has plenty of melody, subtlety and depth. He's explicit when discussing the affinities between creative music and a participating society -- and mirrors that with the egalitarian push-and-pull of the group on Awake. The album's three related interludes titled "This Is What Democracy Sounds Like" aren't just superficially thematic; they express an overt agenda. Valega's mission is both music and message.

Listen to:
"The Trend Is Your Friend" (via AAJ)

Awake (Consilience)
Vinson Valega (drums)
Terell Stafford (trumpet)
Anton Denner (alto sax, flute, piccolo)
Chris Bacas (clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax)
Jon Cowherd (piano)
Josh Ginsburg (bass)

Consilience Productions (Valega's production company. The site features blogs on democracy, earth, money and, of course, music. Check regularly for live mp3s/video.)
YouTube (Visual Valega…)
Get Involved! (Valega's essay published in AAJ)

Random note: By strange coincidence, Valega attended my alma mater (something I rarely get to say of today's jazz musicians) and was also the drummer of Penn Jazz (a position I held myself a few years ago).


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