Celebrating the Message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Musician Jason Vitelli

Jason Vitelli 1

Two paths, one man: Jason Vitelli wails on alto sax in the jazzy Emanuele Tozzi Trio, and is a singer/songwriter/guitarist immersed in an emotive genre he calls “cinematic rock.”

Jason’s newest CD, “Head Above Tide,” is a collection of tone poems: free, open-formed, song-stories that could (and should) be the libretto to a contemporary opera or play.

Jason volunteered to discuss societal unity and coming together under a jazz banner in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said this about jazz:

              “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from   this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.”

What has inspired you as a musician to see people of different backgrounds and beliefs sharing the experience of music?

I’ve gained a great appreciation of other cultures’ music from the work I’ve done over the years as a sideman: notably with the Congolese soukous band Shabantu, the Italian jazz singer/songwriter Emanuele Tozzi, the Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church as well as a plethora of local indie bands.

In every situation, music has proven to be the universal language speaking to the joys of a moment. I frequently recall times during performances when these eclectic groups have elevated me to a higher plane of existence. When Emanuele sings his heartfelt melodies, I often feel my saxophone responding from my heart. The church’s gospel choir can create such magic that when a congregation join us, I’ve often felt a higher presence inspiring the band’s dynamic. In Simon Kashama’s band Shabantu, the group’s intoxicating interplay seems to stop time in its tracks.

Working with people from such varied backgrounds ultimately has guided me to expand my musical vocabulary and inspire my writing. I know my band has tapped into something great when similar moments occur during our performances. You can always tell when everyone has a beaming smile after a set! 

Are you in a different “head” when playing jazz vs. rock?

Most definitely. Whether I play jazz, salsa, soukous or rock, the style doesn’t matter as much as the physical requirements of each instrument. Saxophone requires mastery of a specific set of techniques, such as tonguing and breath control throughout the registers. Meanwhile, a chordal instrument such as piano or guitar requires a wholly different practice routine more focused on voicings and accompaniment styles. 

No matter which instrument I work on, I aim to follow the cadences of the moment and keep the ego out of the way. When playing along with my singing, I make sure to solidify my vocal performance before adding any instrumental flourishes. The accompaniment should be supporting the voice, not taking attention away from it. 
Have you met audiences that seem closed to a type of music, only to start to like it once they attend a live performance?

Not frequently, as usually venues cater to a certain genre. Therefore, most audiences have a familiarity with what is about to happen. In my graduate school days, I did notice people warming up to an avant-garde piece that perhaps wasn’t initially their cup of tea. Often the case, music will create an impression when an audience doesn’t quite know what to expect. I try to bring an adventurous spirit to my writing and I’m not afraid to throw in a few surprises.
What do you enjoy most about the music scene in NYC?

Well, the music scene is vastly different from genre to genre. I have the most experience playing in venues catering to either rock or jazz and can say that the economics of each situation vary quite a bit.

Jazz venues, which often include restaurants, will compensate fairly for the band’s time and often provide a meal and drink between sets. In contrast, rock venues are often pay to play, with bookers receiving all the door proceeds unless the band draws a sizable audience. Even then, the door often doesn’t sufficiently pay the band. This challenging arrangement exists so the few remaining rock venues can continue to stay afloat.

I believe the latter situation is unsustainable to the scene, as skilled rock musicians do not have the financial means to support their craft and continue to grow an audience. I am thankful to have a foothold in many different worlds, as I consider myself primarily a writer who plays music. New and interesting sounds attract me and there are plenty of those still happening in the area.
What are you most excited about with the upcoming “Head Above Tide”?

I’m thrilled how smoothly the project came together. I’ve built these tunes from the ground up and the remarkable musicianship of my group brought the arrangements to life.

The lyrics also resonate with the type of person I’ve become. At this point in my life, a new kind of energy other than angst drives me to write a song. I find I am interested in varied viewpoints and attempt to understand what motivates them. This empathy is reflected in many of the songs in my new album.
Some of your favorite tracks on it and why?

This question is tough to answer, as I have a personal relationship with many of the tunes and my favorites change frequently. Right now, I am really connected to “Welcome to My Life, Healing,” as the lyric describes a couple resolving their differences after a bitter fight. In the aftermath, each person may discover a new path to their love. Musically speaking, it is enjoyable to play within the groove of the verse, while the reggae refrain is a nice release of tension.

“A Mutiny” is also a current favorite, as the meter shifts remind me of a ship out in turbulent seas. I love when music can effectively convey a real-life sensation.
How long was the CD in the making?

Although a couple of songs were written a while back, most of the writing began in early 2012 and then I started creating arrangements in late 2013. Rehearsals got off the ground in late 2015 and we tracked the album between March 2016 and January 2017. Mixing and mastering were wrapped up by May 2017. All in all, it took about five years of focused work.

As a storyteller, how do you compose around themes like grief and still make music that’s uplifting?

In composing around these themes, I don’t worry what the audience will feel from my work. I think if a writer happens to be pessimistic, the resulting music he or she writes will come across that way. The essence will peek through no matter where the intent lies or how hard the writer tries to make it happy.

The opposite holds true as well. As with most folks, I have high and low moments and believe my art should proudly show both. An open-minded audience will be able to accept this dynamic. As this album has an appreciable range, not every song has a happy ending. In times of heartache, I find the only way to move past pain is to first accept that it is within us. Such is life. 

What gives you hope as an artist that music can bridge differences – whether cultural, racial or political?

The work Paul Simon did on his album “Graceland.” He took a huge chance in collaborating with musicians in South Africa, a country which at the time had a cultural boycott imposed on it by the rest of the world. I think he perhaps knew that breaking the barrier could open the door to showcasing the art of black South Africans marginalized by their brethren.

All in all, it is always wonderful to see people from other sides of the world coming together in the name of creating art. It is an acknowledgement of our common values and humanity. 

You’ve said, “Grace and compassion will always keep our heads above the rising tide.” Please elaborate.

The statement is a reflection of what the album represents; an acknowledgement of each other’s struggles. I believe it is necessary in order to persevere beyond them.

We all need a way to connect to one another and exist in a community. Our close family and friends ideally fill this community with love and support, which can bring out the best in one another. Only a community’s compassion can provide the impetus needed to pull out of a deep struggle and be delivered from despair. In this vein, compassion is a vital part of our humanity and has influenced much of my songwriting. 

If you had to choose one quote that MLK is known for that conveys how you see the world, what would it be and why?

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” If we are to live side by side, we need to understand what it means to live in each other’s shoes. Only then do we have a chance to build a better world. Nowadays, social media has encouraged people to share some tough stories. I hope their commonalities will help improve our collective consciousness, keep us aware of other points of view and enrich our understanding of the world.
What are your plans for performing/touring and writing this year?

I am planning on releasing a couple of EPs of instrumental music, which will be quite a departure from this current effort. Nonetheless, my audience will enjoy the change of pace and the tone it will set. I’ll continue to be playing locally in NYC and plan to attend some festivals over the summer. 

When you look back at 2018 what would you like to be able to say?

I put one foot in front of the other and here I am!

Other comments?

Thank you, Debbie, for this opportunity to present my work to you and on this very special day.

For more information, visit www.music.jasonvitelli.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jason Vitelli.

(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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