Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.
This week, Enos spoke with Vicente Archer, an acclaimed bassist who’s played with leading lights from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to John Scofield.
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Short Stories, released on 9 June, marks Archer’s debut album as a leader. A purchase link for the album can be found at the bottom of this article.
When a jazz musician releases their debut leader album after more than 150 records as an accompanist, it’s natural to ask: why only now?
Initially, veteran bassist Vicente Archer cites an event all musicians went through: during the pandemic, he had time to think, reflect, and recalibrate. But once he drills deeper into his underlying reasoning, he offers a much more intense rationale — one with mortality in mind.
“Your legacy is going to be what you leave for your daughter. She would like to hear yourself, rather than you playing behind someone else,” Archer’s wife told him, as he relates to LondonJazz News.
“Don’t think just of recording for yourself, but for us,” she continued. “It’s nice that you’ve played with and supported so many artists, but it would be nice to hear something for yourself.”
Archer heeded this concern, and the result is the capacious, enveloping Short Stories, his debut album as a leader, available now via Cellar Music Group.
Short Stories features two of music’s finest in pianist Gerald Clayton and drummer Bill Stewart — to say nothing of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who produced the album. Highlights like Archer’s “Mirai”, Clayton’s “Round Comes Around” and Stewart’s “Drop of Dusk” and “Space Acres” underpin this stirring opening statement from Archer.
“I have found every moment of it so captivating,” LondonJazz News’ editor, Sebastian Scotney, wrote in a review for The Arts Desk. “These are three seasoned top-flight players… their sixth sense of anticipation is extraordinary.”
As self-contained a statement it is, Short Stories is perhaps best heard not as a culmination, but a launchpad for further journeys.
“I already have three other albums in my head that I want to deal with immediately, and I know this one’s not even out yet,” Archer says with a smile. “But I’m already inspired to keep moving for myself.”
Read on for an interview with Archer about the long road to Short Stories, his interplay with Clayton and Stewart and how he pushed through tragedy and loss to artistically redefine himself.
LondonJazz News: I was very surprised to hear this is your debut leader album. Can you talk about your evolving self-perception in this regard?
Vicente Archer: I had mixed feelings about doing a recording. Being a sideman for so long is comfortable. But since the pandemic, and during that time off, being with family, I had mixed feelings about playing again. It just didn’t feel like my heart was in it like it was prior.
So, when I did start to perform later in the fall, Jeremy [Pelt] had approached me, asking if I’d be interested in recording for [Cellar Music Group owner and founder, and saxophonist] Cory Weeds. I wasn’t really interested at the time.
But during that time of reflection upon my career, my past and where I am now, and how I feel about music, I wanted more calm to continue, in the sense of going through the pandemic — that sound of space and quiet. Every note that I picked to play, I wanted to mean something, more than just playing the right note.
So, I gave in and started to do it. As the process started, I felt more and more [like I was] trying to find myself, and what I want to say or speak musically. It finally came together a couple of days before the recording.
It’s hard when you like, and play, so many different styles of music. With musicians who have a wide range of interests, it’s hard to find what you have to say. I know what I can say within each idiom, but [it’s challenging] to compile all of that together and make it [feel like] yourself.
At that point, I was being overlooked [in favour of] whoever the leader was, until it was my turn to solo. Just because I’m soloing doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only voice I have. So, I needed to find a place for myself after all this time.
These are feelings I’ve had my whole life, but you’re so excited to play with other artists and different types of music and stuff; the excitement never goes away. It’s exciting to find yourself within these different artists and the music they write.
But some of it I don’t feel showcases who I am. So, I just wanted to have something where I can be relaxed, and be myself, and not have to fit within a certain context.
LJN: When you decided to make a leader record, what were your first impulses as to who would accompany you, and what kinds of tunes you would play?
VA: I was thinking, OK, scheduling is hard. [Laughs.]
I had all these ideas of different bands — mainly trios — and then I was like, Oh, this guy would be cool. Maybe with this drummer, could be cool. I’ll write music towards that. And then I felt, Ah, no, I’m not feeling that. And it kept going around.
And then it just came to me. Prior to the pandemic, I spent so much time with Gerald and Bill, both as great friends and musicians. It’s just so easy to not have to think about what I need to write — or write towards any musician. I felt like I could write anything and it would be beautiful.
LJN: With that in mind, how did you choose which material the trio would tackle?
VA: I was looking for something that was very open, loose, so it allowed everyone to interpret the music how they want. We didn’t have a rehearsal; we ran through the music for the first time in the studio. I would say three or four of the takes were first takes. The other ones would be a rehearsal, and then usually, the second take would be the one.
I just wanted to leave this space for everyone to improvise — to both hear and listen to one another intently and find their own path within that.
LJN: Was your choice of a piano trio format in service of that openness? Is that an idiom you’ve enjoyed or preferred in the past?
VA: Yeah, I love piano trio, and I even love formats where there is no comping instrument. But Gerald is such a great accompanist, so I feel like he can hear where I’m going, or leave the space that I need. So, he was the perfect choice.
LJN: Tell me about the opening tune, “Mirai”, and how it grew.
VA: That was just a feeling I had, thinking about my daughter. During the pandemic, I was with her all day. The times I did have to practise, sometimes she would be in the room.
This one time, with my voice recorder, I was practising, and I just looked at her and heard some kind of melody in my head. This bass figure; it just reminded me of her.
And then I had another idea, to allow the song to grow more, so I added this other part later on. I was thinking about her now, and in the future — where it’s going from this moment, right here, when she’s sitting next to me.
LJN: It’s such a lovely introduction to your chemistry with Gerald and Bill. Where would you say you three meet on a creative level?
VA: I told them I had this bass melody, and I told Gerald, “There aren’t really any chords I’m hearing, per se. I just want you to colour this — think of it as your palette, and you can paint whatever you would like.”
It started with myself, and I wanted it to grow. I didn’t really give so much instruction. Again, having this chemistry for so long, [Gerald] could read my mind, or understand what I wanted.
He’s such a masterful musician. Not only does he know so much music — about classical — he has such a wonderful father and mentor [bassist John Clayton].
He grew up under his dad’s wing; he’s taken himself away from that and found his own voice, playing with Ambrose [Akinmusire], Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and Roy Hargrove. He just keeps expanding as he grows.
Bill, as well, is such a great accompanist. He added just the right colours. You could run into a funk beat [laughs] or anything you wanted on it; he knew exactly what to do. That’s the wonderful thing about being with great and like-minded musicians: a lot of times, you don’t really have to speak about what you want. It’s already there.
LJN: “Bye Nashville” refers to a tornado hitting your Nashville home, and leaving that city as a result. How did you make it through that calamity?
VA: Initially, you’re mad. You don’t know what happened, because you weren’t there. I just took it for what it was: it was just a home, instruments, clothes, other items that can be replaced.
I happened to be with my wife and daughter at the time in New York. When you look at that and see what you have in front of you, it’s enough to keep moving on.
I mean, it happened at the worst time [laughs]. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic — scrambling and moving around for the next six to nine months, trying to find your own home.
I had to fly to Nashville maybe a week after that to assess the damage, because since Covid hit, they couldn’t send out anyone from the insurance companies to do that. So, I flew there and found a few things. My car was still there. Whatever was left, I just packed in the car.
It was bittersweet that Covid did hit, because it gave me time to find myself again, within that. Like, What do I want to be from this? This is a new start of my life.
New instruments, new home, new city. I left the city to move to Nashville, to find a new me — and then I was back again, in the same place I had started. And actually, it was right to be back in New York. I just needed that time away. I looked at the city in a different way than I had when I left.
LJN: I don’t typically think of “Nashville” and “jazz” as belonging in the same sentence.
VA: No, I went there to do more country pop — more singer/songwriter stuff.
I didn’t think of myself as a jazz guy going there. Or, I tried to avoid it, I should say. Sometimes, in New York, you find yourself on a hamster wheel. You’re doing more or less the same things; you’re finding yourself playing with the same musicians.
I played with the recording group the Nashville All-Stars. I also played with Jeff Coffin quite a bit. Robben Ford, when I was out there. Brett Eldredge, this country artist. I did mostly recording; I didn’t want to tour so much.
LJN: To get back into Short Stories, tell me about Jeremy’s composition, “13/14”, and what he brought to the album while in the producer’s chair.
VA: Jeremy’s one of my old friends, and he’s been working with Cory Weeds as a producer for a lot of his recordings here in New York City.
He had done a quartet gig at Smoke [Jazz Club in New York City] a couple of years prior, and he wrote some different music just to try out. We never even played [“13/14”] live, but we played it at the soundcheck for Smoke. I liked the vibe of it.
As a thank you, I said, “I would like to record one of your songs.” He said, “Oh, I’ll write some song,” and I was like, “Oh, no, no, I actually like this song.” He was like, “Oh, I don’t even remember that song!” I still had a copy of it, so I brought that, and I think that was the second take.
It was normally a swinger — a medium-up song. But it didn’t feel like it needed to go there.
LJN: How about Gerald’s tune, “Round Comes Around”? Can you talk about following his lead on that?
VA: I hadn’t played it before; I asked him if he could write a song. He forgot [laughs] so he had a song he had written a while ago, that he had never had a chance to record.
Again, like “Mirai”, I didn’t really tell him what to play, and he didn’t tell Bill or I what he needed from the song. He just started playing the intro, and once you start a song, you can feel the vibe. You can already feel what it needs.
It was the more uptempo of the session, I would say — even thought it’s not up.
LJN: On the closer, Nicholas Payton’s “It Takes Two to Know One”, you pare things back to just bass and drums.
VA: The ballad [Pat Metheny’s “Message to a Friend”] wasn’t intentionally supposed to be a duo. I think we were coming back from break, and I thought, I want to do the ballad.
I couldn’t find Bill, so Gerald and I played the melody once down. I was like, “Oh, maybe we can split it” — hearing a bass melody that long, I would get bored, in a sense. We took a take, and I was like, Actually, I like it. It felt very intimate.
I always loved this song [“Message to a Friend”], because I was a guitar player. I remember this record that was just a duo with [bassist] Charlie [Haden] and [guitarist] Pat [Metheny], [1997’s] Beyond the Missouri Sky.
From that record, that song always stuck to me; I never thought I’d get a chance to play it. I was trying to write a ballad as well, and I couldn’t think of something I was feeling. I thought this ballad was it, so I got a copy of the song and played it. It turned out exactly how I wanted.
So, later in the recording, I thought, I should do a duo with Bill, since we’ve spent so much time and played with so many artists together.
I had this song [“It Takes Two to Know One”] I played with Nicholas — again, a song we’d never recorded. Maybe it was another soundcheck song [laughs] that we went over, and I liked it. I recorded it with [pianist] Danny Grissett maybe 10 years prior.
LJN: What’s the state of your bass thinking, and how is that reflected on Short Stories?
VA: In this music, you want to show your dexterity, which is what we’re trying to get to.
Dexterity doesn’t mean you have to play a lot of notes, or play very fast; it’s not thinking that you’re trying to impress somebody. But as you grow, you hear more things, so you end up playing more things.
I was hearing the opposite. As I grow, every note I choose has its own weight, and I want that to be heard, in a sense. I want every note that I play, someone to hear as its own composition, as I solo or even accompany another musician.
I have this special gift as a bassist that my note choices dictate the movement of the solo, or the composition, or where we can go musically.
I have more power than I think. Not in the sense that I want control, but I can help move the music to other places as well, instead of just holding it down — which is what we’re always asked to do.
LJN: With your first leader album under your belt, you can go so many places from here. What might those places be?
VA: I mean, I already have three other albums in my head that I want to deal with immediately, and I know this one’s not even out yet. But I’m already inspired to keep moving for myself.
I started teaching this past fall at Temple University [in Philadelphia], and I tell my students — this goes for all instruments, but mostly bassists — that when someone calls you to play with them, I’d rather them say that I want you. Your name, or who you are, or what you can bring to the music, versus “I need a bassist. Are you free Friday?”
That doesn’t appeal to me. It already says I don’t want to do the gig. It’s like I’m just filling in this void that you need. I want someone to say, I need you; I need this help; I need your sound.
Putting a record out myself is establishing to myself, in my mind, that I’m getting away from just being a bassist to an artist, or leader. Separating myself from being another sideman. I want to have more control of my own name, in a sense.