Singer Sachal Vasandani is anything but “the traditional male jazz vocalist”. He chatted by phone to Nicky Schrire to discuss his latest musical offering:
Sachal Vasandani has one of the most distinctive voices in the world of jazz singing. He has always flirted with contemporary repertoire, dating back to his 2007 debut album for Mack Avenue Records, Eyes Wide Open, which opens with a gorgeous cover of Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came”. However, due to the inclusion of traditional “swingers” across his discography as well as a duet with the legendary Jon Hendricks on Randy Weston’s Hi Fly (a real swinger if e’er there was), he has never completely shed this label that, perhaps, doesn’t do him justice. Well, until now. Vasandani teams up with the sublime, French pianist Romain Collin for an intensely intimate duo recording, Midnight Shelter, which is released on 23 April on Edition Records.
“It was nice to connect with another human being on a similar plain,” Vasandani says about the draw to playing, and then recording, with Collin, a first for both musicians. He refers to Collin as a “kindred spirit” and the mellow consistency of this album certainly speaks to that connection. Collin might just be the perfect match for Vasandani, the pianist he was always meant to partner with. Or, it could be the choice of tunes. No swinging, only straight-feel songs that leave both their instruments ringing out with clarity, like tiny bulbs lighting a darkened room.
I ask Vasandani about his trajectory, noting how his path has differed from some of his peers who enjoyed similar opportunities to him, like participating in the Thelonious Monk Competition (he was a semi-finalist in 2004), label representation, and management support. “One is constantly evolving and if I’d been doing the same thing for the past ten years, that would be pretty uneventful,” he muses. “There are people who will hear this album and have no idea that my first influence was Ella Fitzgerald and that I spent years digesting as much instrumental improvisation as possible. And that’s so cool. The diversity helps shape who you are.”
Over the past decade, Vasandani has been slowly sloughing off the “traditional male jazz vocalist” shackles. In 2015, he teamed up with Steely Dan’s Michael Leonhart to release Slow Motion Miracles on the Sony/Okeh label. The album is by far his most contemporary release so far with nary a swung quarter note in sight. In fact, the recording goes so far as to favour a pop production sheen and a single-name-billing (Vasandani dropped his surname for this particular outing, going only by Sachal). The album is certainly musical and typically cool, but it does away with the context in which Vasandani really shines – a more contemporary jazz realm. He adds, “I don’t think this generation is as precious about what jazz is. Even though this can sometimes be to the detriment of jazz itself. None of it is binary.”
Midnight Shelter peppers originals by both musicians with popular fare by Bob Dylan, Harry Styles, and The Beatles. Blackbird is given a similar treatment to the other tunes, becoming slower, darker, and lower. I ask Vasandani about the choice to place the celebrated song in the lower part of his range. He touches on the iconic nature of the piece, saying, “That was a tough one for me to agree to. There are so many great versions of the song so I wasn’t sure I needed to tackle it. But, this was Romain’s call and I’m really glad he talked me into it. He liked it in a low key, and that choice made me excited about the prospect of singing it.”
Another bold choice was to keep vocal inhales and other “mouth sounds” in. Most recordings edit these sounds out, to some degree, and even jazz vocal production chooses to tie up these loose ends. As a result, we’ve now become conditioned to hearing a certain level of artificial perfection, a cleanliness, in recordings across the board.
Tidiness aside, the inclusion of such noises can teeter on the brink of being distracting. However, Vasandani’s production choice is admirable. He rationalises, “I’ve always been so focused on vocal technique. All I care about is the voice. On earlier recordings I used to edit out any vocal sounds that got too hot on the mic. But I started to wonder whether this choice affected the emotion of the delivery.”
He also credits the English rock band Keane and lead singer Tom Chaplin, with his “powerful, epic power ballad voice that really shines when delivering emotional lyrics”, for influencing his change of heart. “You would hear Chaplin’s loud inhales before singing a high note and I realised that breath sounded like the involuntary breath before crying. Since then, I’ve left my inhalations in to make it more human. I did a 180 on it. I love it now.”
Vasandani’s voice, in the same vein as Kurt Elling’s and Mark Murphy’s, has a textural edge to it that immediately grabs a listener’s attention. What is it about these men’s voices that is so arresting? Perhaps it’s the fine line jazz vocalists have always tread between the conversational and the sung word. If a lyric is too legato, too “sung”, its edges are too soft and likely lacking emotional heft. Stray from singing completely and we’re in the land of recitative. Is it a lack of vibrato in favour of straight tone? This choice is certainly effective in male voices that live in their lower ranges. Whatever the “je ne sais quoi”, Vasandani easily keeps the company of male jazz vocalists who have gone before and rises to the top of the current crop.
What’s next for him? “Romain and I have been talking about touring this album once we’re all vaccinated, which is something I’d be overjoyed about but the future holds so many variables. Luckily, this is a record for record’s sake. It’s for listening to. All I know is sometimes the best things come out of challenging times, and there will be more collaborating with Romain.”
While we all wait for the end of the pandemic, distanced in our homes, we can but enjoy the sounds of Midnight Shelter, and be hopeful for future music from Vasandani and Collin.
Midnight Shelter will be released on Edition Records on 23 April 2021.
LINK: Watch the lyric video for Adore You