One of the best things about writing liner notes is knowing that one is among the first to hear a recording that will soon be heard all over the world. It’s rarefied air. But I have the feeling that every time I listen to this music (and I will, often) it will feel like the first time. The music is that rich, its many layers that interesting, the performances that enlivening.
Richard Vitale, long a fixture on the New York Jazz scene, has labored on bandstands, in the pits and in the studio for so long and so well that his voice has become an indispensable part of the fabric we call today’s New York “sound”. Always erudite, his music speaks to the heart as well. The present recital is emblematic of that dual sensibility, the compositions and arrangements cogently crafted while at the same time emotionally satisfying. It’s a tough balance to achieve, but in the doing, one never sees our man sweat.
He’s chosen some wonderful players, each contributing his own, unmistakable voice, while hewing to the vision Richie had for the project. Easy for me to say how big a fan I am of each of these players (and I am) but perhaps it’s better to let the leader speak for himself:
“I chose [baritone saxophonist] Frank Basile for my band after playing with him in the Vanguard Orchestra. I wrote Frank in counterpoint to the trumpet as I'd been practicing quite a bit of Bach and the contrast between the low of the bari and high of the trumpet led to some interesting possibilities. Frank is my musical brother and I am quite fond of him as a person as well as a musician.
“Nial Djuliarso, 30, is the youngest member of the band. Hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia, he graduated Juilliard in 2006. Nial's use of larger two-handed chords and his ability to move around the harmonic structure of a song leaves me with the freedom to explore a tune as I'd like to.
“We're neighbors, [bassist] Paul Gill and I, both living in Manhattan Plaza in New York City. Paul has an unwavering, heartfelt beat, with an elasticity and freedom to it.
“To me, playing with Cliff [drummer Barbaro] is an adventure, like playing with Billy Higgins or Al Foster. He swings intensely, very natural, never contrived, and always a surprise here and there. I feel Cliff is one of the last in a line of great drummers and truly one of the best percussionists in New York City . . . which means one of the best drummers anywhere.”
Now, to the music:
Vita – life. Plenty of that here. There is a lot going on in this composition and yet notice Richie’s ability to hear and account for all the voices in a way that never makes for a too-thick texture. Written over the same chord structure as John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, Richie seems to have unlocked the box that guards jealously the secrets therein, as he shows us that, in his hands at least, it’s actually a nice tune, capable of being rendered with the same lyricism as any other worthy selection. The pointillist approach employed by pianist Djuliarso, abetted by the interplay between his hands, seems to allow his melodies to waft effortlessly above. Nial’s a melodicist in the truest sense and his attention to the sound of the instrument allows that sense to come through, and clearly.
A Promise Kept
Uncluttered, elegant, patient, defined texturally as much by its spaces as it is by its notes. A lovely piano solo from Jluliarso whose seeming simplicity belies the complexity of the thought that gives it breath. Richie’s solo is lyrical, addressing each chord change as it comes, revealing the melodies suggested thereby. A masterpiece of a baritone solo by Basile, possessed of a full, un-pushy sound, filling the room without hitting the walls.
You’d think a tune named, in reverse fashion, after the island of Richie’s residence and over the chord structure of the tune by Sonny Rollins named, likewise, in reverse fashion, after Nigeria, would evince all the head-achy math of the harmonic scheme and titling. But no – instead, this is a moody, jaunty number full of in-the-moment, exuberant creativity.
To the Beat of a Different Drummer
A burner, sure, but no frantic loose ends here. The rhythm section of bassist Gill and master drummer Barbaro do here what they do throughout the entire album – take serious care of business. I know from happy experience that these two are consistently focused onstage, always caring for the pulse and the feel, as professionals should do. But there is a personal touch each has that makes this recording better than it would be without them. What is that personal thing? With Gill it’s a direct and sure beat and notes you wish you’d thought of. And with Barbaro there’s a fulminant sound that, explosive as it can be, always hints at more in reserve. Hang on.
Eulogy For Freddie
In honor of the late great Mr. Hubbard, this painterly tribute would have done him proud, as it calls to mind that part of Freddie’s playing that too often went unnoted, his majestic phrasing. Richard Vitale is that kind of player, too; one who has all the right moves as he navigates the complex tunes he chooses and/or composes in a way that renders his lines apparently inevitable.
Rumba Para los Niños
One of the things that much recorded Jazz has eschewed in recent decades, costing it the greater part of its audience, I’m convinced, is the dance. If music doesn’t just move us but also make us want to move, it cannot feel necessary to our lives. By now, any Jazz musician worth his or her salt can play all the right notes – but that’s only half the story. There must be some motive force animating the proceedings. Richie, an accomplished dancer himself, understands that and plays as though he’s got one foot on the bandstand and one on the dance floor. Good for us. Joining the group at the bongo drums on this one is Vitale’s childhood friend, Chacho Ramirez, playing, as Richie says, “exquisitely”.
“Vitalogy” is a beautiful recording, one that will find a place in the regular rotation of your playlist; Richard Vitale, as usual, putting together an expert group of players to execute the full tapestry of feelings he shares with us between its grooves. He and his group, by dint of hard work and professional attention to the high order of their craft, have given you that gift. Open, and enjoy.
New York City