While pianist Donald Vega is beginning to draw attention in jazz circles as Mulgrew Miller’s successor in the Ron Carter Trio, he makes a bold statement as a composer and bandleader on Spiritual Nature. Joined by the regal rhythm tandem of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash, Vega explores the marriage of jazz, Latin and classical music on his auspicious Resonance Records debut.
“It’s a dream come true,” says the 37-year-old pianist in a news release regarding the opportunity to record with McBride and Nash. “Spiritually, this is my dream trio.”
The core trio is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson, violinist and label mate Christian Howes, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and trombonist Bob McChesney on Vega’s sophomore outing (following 2008’s self-producedTomorrows, which also featured drummer Nash).
Classically-trained in his native Nicaragua, Vega emigrated to Los Angeles at age 14 and began learning the language of jazz from mentor Billy Higgins at The World Stage and later with bassist John Clayton at the University of Southern California. Bassist Al McKibbon, a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band of the late 1940s, subsequently took the young pianist under his wing and schooled him on the bandstand on the finer points of bebop. Vega met drummer Nash while working in McKibbon’s trio in Los Angeles. For Spiritual Nature, Vega imagined pairing Nash with bassist McBride, whom he had met in 2007 while attending The Juilliard School in New York.
“The idea of having this tasty drummer with this killing bass player was so interesting,” he says. “But for them to get together in one place, it’s very rare because they’re both so busy. And when we finally got together, the music just played itself, like magic.”
Throughout Spiritual Nature, Vega shifts the configuration from trio to quartet to quintet, providing plenty of scintillating moments along the way. He kicks it off with the aggressively swinging, hard boppish “Scorpion,” which showcases his voicings for trumpet and sax on the frontline and also features an outstanding drum solo from Nash.
“I love writing harmonies,” says Vega, “but most important to me is the melody. I always want it to be singable.”
Ron Carter’s “First Trip,” which originally appeared on Herbie Hancock’s 1968 Blue Note classic, Speak Like a Child, is rendered here as a jaunty swinger underscored by Nash’s brushwork, McBride’s walking bass lines and featuring Wilson on guitar. “My attitude here was, ‘OK, Herbie’s version was so incredible, nobody’s going to do it better than that. So let’s just have some fun with it.'”
The album concludes with a loose, highly interactive trio rendition of Benny Golson’s classic ballad “I Remember Clifford” that is underscored by Nash’s signature brushwork and McBride’s contrapuntal approach to the bass. “All the other tunes on the album were heavily arranged,” says Vega, “so we wanted just one tune where we don’t have to read, we don’t have any arrangement, we just play. Benny Golson’s writing is great and we all knew this tune, so the idea was, ‘Let’s just go in and play.’ And you can hear that kind of looseness on this track.”
Backed by such a formidable lineup, Vega makes a giant leap as a composer-arranger and bandleader in his own right on Spiritual Nature.