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Sachal Vasandani

Quincy Davis

Joe Sanders

Quincy Davis

Jeb Patton, Sachal Vasandani

Photos by
Andrzej (Andre) Pilarczyk

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Spa Little Theatre
Saratoga Springs, NY
June 3, 2010

By J Hunter

There’s something very cool about being part of a small crowd watching an up-and-coming artist perform; it’s like you’ve been let in on this important secret that’s going to impact a lot more people, and you’ve got the jump on them. Take vocalist Sachal Vasandani, for instance: The first time I saw him, he was knocking (maybe) 100 people’s socks off at Freihofer’s gazebo Stage while the rest of the festival was over at the amphitheatre watching Chris (“I PLAYED WITH STING!”) Botti – and if you were part of the latter group, that’s 90 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. Last Thursday, Vasandani closed SPAC’s extended season at the Spa Little Theatre with a tight 80-minute set of brilliant vocalese, and while the crowd was a little larger than 100, there were a lot of empty seats that should have been filled.

Here’s why (aside from the fact that the show was outstanding): Jazz is blessed with a plethora of talented female vocalists, many of them from this generation of players – i.e. Esperanza Spaulding, Kat Edmonson, and Denise Donatelli. However, male jazz vocalists are extremely thin on the ground… and no, Michael Bublé does NOT count! Vasandani has a talent quotient matched only by Kurt Elling, except Vasandani hasn’t gotten swallowed whole by orchestras the way Elling seems to have become. Mind you, Vasandani’s fellow Chicagoan is six discs ahead at this point, so there’s still time – but, given how well Vasandani works in a stripped-down format, I’m betting he doesn’t go Big Band anytime soon.

Nuance and control are two of Vasandani’s most important tools, and they were in evidence right from the start of the opener “That Old Black Magic.” At one point during the song, he bent one note, so gradually, so gently, and so expertly, and did it while holding that note high above the audience’s heads. During the middle section of “There’s a Small Hotel”, he brought his vocal down to a hush as he “told” the object of the song, “Who wants people?” Then, in an instant, he’s swinging for the fences again with a weapons-grade set of chops. But no matter how hard he hits, there’s an intimacy about everything Vasandani does, be it his closing declaration of independence “No More” or his hushed piano-only take on the standard “I Get a Kick out of You.” Speaking of Big Band singers, you can hear Sinatra deep in Vasandani’s approach to the latter tune, even though this duet with pianist Jeff Patton is about as far as possible from the flag-waving arrangements the Chairman of the Board used to put over his better-known numbers.

Vasandani really makes his characters live – not just the ones he’s singing about, but the ones he’s singing to. We saw that with “Please Mr. Ogilvie”, a Vasandani original where the song’s protagonist is (Surprise!) a burgeoning performer looking for his first break. (“Every Ocean, Every Star” was a bittersweet sequel where that performer has discovered all the expectations that come with success.) It’s like watching an accomplished actor perform one-half of a play’s dialogue, or a series of soliloquies, with a tremendous sense of focus and intention. The down side of that is that Vasandani is so focused on his characters (and on his stellar trio, who literally had him moving all night) that his connection with the audience isn’t as strong as it could be. At one point he said to us, “Let me check in with you guys. You havin’ a good time?” This leads one to believe he hadn’t been ‘in contact” with us up until that point. That being said, Vasandani was in the lobby of the Little Theatre almost immediately after “No More”, shaking hands and spending real time with anyone who wanted to speak with him.

As a result, we need to add “gracious” to all the other superlatives that should be associated with Sachal Vasandani. If we’re lucky enough to see him in these parts again, make sure to fill a seat, because this is a rare talent that needs to be less of a secret.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.