Evolution and a fiercely open-minded approach to composition are the hallmarks of alto and soprano saxophonist Justin Vasquez artistry. Shedding dutifully before hitting the east and west coasts for critical apprenticeships, he has honed a boundary defying style as fluid and organic as it is impressive. On Triptych, his startlingly mature self-produced recording debut as a leader, Justin Vasquez - at 26 - is fast becoming a force in a genre he is still struggling to define. One might hear it as jazz, only with a heavy heartland sensibility.
“When I talk to people about ‘jazz’," Justin states, “the term usually means something very small and specific. It’s the exact opposite. I believe that jazz, by nature, is all-inclusive. I consider what I create to be New American Folk Music. Jazz at its core, yet incorporating so much more…as jazz has done through the ages."
Historically, a “triptych" is a 3-panel painting found in early Christian art dating back to Roman times. The painting tells a story as read from left to right. Reflecting on the literal and metaphorical inspirations behind his use of the term as the title of his debut project, Vasquez muses, “There are spiritual overtones in my music but not in a religious way. It’s that feeling of having a piece of music that tells a story from exposition to conclusion. When I wrote the title track, I was thinking of a song that was constantly evolving without a cyclical form. Nothing ever repeats. That idea of evolution is what made me want to do this project."
Evolution on an inordinately high level has been a constant in the life of Justin Vasquez. “I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas and grew up in several other small towns," he begins. “I had little exposure to music. Initially, I was into long distance running, but I trained too hard. I tore the cartilage in one of my knees and had to stay off it for several months. With all this new free time, I found an alto saxophone my Dad happened to have borrowed from a family member. I was immediately drawn to the instrument like nothing else before in my life."
Noting this interest, Justin’s mother and grandmother exposed him to recordings of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell and Johnny Griffin. The result was his painstaking search to understand this music and his instrument. “I didn’t know the first thing about being a musician but I figured you had to study hard and work at it like any other job. My parents worked 8 to 9 hours a day, so I figured that’s how much I should practice."
Justin arrived at the University of Texas in Austin fully intending to study classical music, but was eventually drawn to the jazz department. “I’d been alive for 17 years before I saw a serious jazz musician play live. The first group I saw was the Pat Metheny Trio with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Larry Grenadier. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a musician at that point already, but after hearing Pat, there was no turning back. Following that concert it felt like when the Hubble Telescope first brought back those deep space images. All of a sudden my universe went from being this little bubble of Earth extending only to the moon to suddenly being billions of light years wide."
Justin expanded his musical vocabulary listening to artists like Weather Report, Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jan Hammer and Egberto Gismonti, as well as classical composers Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Chopin and Aaron Copland.
After graduating college in 2005, Justin spent two-and-a-half years in Los Angeles, performing in local big bands and forming the powerhouse group Los Cuatro (a quartet with Yellowjackets’ bassist Jimmy Haslip). He later moved to New York where he has been playing with the city’s top musicians such as Jojo Mayer, Elliot Mason, Janek Gwzidala, Tim Miller, Oli Rockberger, and Sean Rickman. Then in March 2008, Justin opted to make a musical statement of his own.
“I don’t adhere to purism of any sort," he explains. “To me, anything is acceptable as long as it sounds good. For instance, I never really listened to country music growing up but I was always surrounded by it, so it’s made its’ way into my playing. The aspects of country that I like, that sort of heartfelt lilt, I try to convey in my pieces. I think of music as a kind of truth. When we play, we filter this truth through the kaleidoscope of our unique perspective of existence by way of our instrument."
To bring Triptych to life, Justin acquired some of music’s most cutting edge players: pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Clarence Penn. Adding distinctive colors to this wide-ranging palette are Gregoire Maret on harmonica and vocalist Gretchen Parlato. “It was important for me to choose musicians that could play this wide breadth of music in an organic way," Justin says. “It also helped that they had played together before, like Clarence and Adam who had been in Michael Brecker’s band. We had one brief rehearsal where we only made it through two songs before cutting eight pieces at Legacy Studio in New York in one and a half days, so that artistic synergy was crucial. ‘Red Green Blue’ and my arrangement of ‘Stella by Starlight’ were written while in college. Everything else was written or arranged over the last two years with ‘Triptych,’ ‘Fields’ and ‘One & Only’ being the most recent."
The title track “Triptych" opens with the spry lead line played by Aaron, shadowed by Parlato. “Aaron has tremendous technique," Justin offers, “but his playing is defined by restraint, nuance and an acute sense of musical timing." Also sensitively showcased here is bassist Le Fleming. “Triptych" is followed by the laidback swing of “Nimbus," featuring Justin on alto and some blazing drumming on the way out the door by Penn.
Justin’s version of Polish film composer Bronislaw Kaper’s timeless “Invitation" is richly atmospheric, reflecting a dark yet dreamy feel of foreboding thanks to the interplay between Justin’s sax and Gretchen’s otherworldly wordless vocal. “‘Invitation’ is a musing on the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Scriabin" Justin explains. It is followed by another of Justin’s compositions, “Fields," a moving heartland piece that moves between 11/4 and waltz time which recently won the ASCAP Jazz Composers Award. A tribute to his native Texas, “Fields" features the wind spread of Justin’s soprano sax and Gregoire’s harmonica with guest John Ellis’ low-end bass clarinet.
The deeply introspective “One & Only" was written in memory of gone-too-soon Kenny Kirkland, an underrated pianist and composer who Justin cites as a major influence. The piece has a Coltrane feel and inspires some of Justin’s most intense alto playing on the album. Next is “Red Green Blue" which finds Justin switching back to soprano for some impressionistic commentary. “I ‘hear colors’ when I play in certain key," he shares, “and those are the ones I hear in this tune."
“End of the Day" has a country gospel feel that conjures waves of heartwarming nostalgia. It is another proud homage to Justin’s Texas country roots. “When I was writing it, I wanted to incorporate a singer/songwriter's aesthetic. I wrote the melody specifically for the floating quality of Gregoire’s harmonica playing." The CD comes to a close with a burnin’ deconstruction of the usually romantic standard “Stella by Starlight." “The head on this is pretty tricky," Justin states, “but I just told them my concept…and then we were off!"
Triptych is the acoustic portion of what will be a three CD project featuring electronic and indie/progressive rock music, respectively. Triptych II, the electronic offering, is in production and features electric bassist Janek Gwizdala as well as drum and bass legends Jojo Mayer and Deantoni Parks, thus continuing Justin Vasquez’s consistent search for brave new musical worlds. Triptych III is in conception stages and will follow Triptych II.
“My goals are to play with very the best musicians and to push myself as far as I possibly can," Justin concludes, “communicating something worthwhile about my experience on this planet to people who want to listen."