Rochester has long been a town that produces quality musicians. Previous entries in the Bubble Blog have clearly demonstrated this fact. In the Rochester area, there are more than a couple ways to study jazz in a formal learning institution setting. The range of jazz musicians that the area has produced range from local legends all the way up to pantheon musicians such as Steve Gadd.
Michael Vadala is a personal favorite, representing the younger generation via his main project Michael Vadala Trio, or MVT. With an extensive solo discography, and no shortage of sideman appearances, we wanted to get Michael's opinions on his own work and the musical process in general. Join us for the first segment in an ongoing discussion with the man behind MVT!
Mike has also, out of the kindness of his own heart, released a new single today!!!! Check out "My Love" here!!! Look for more singles from his upcoming album soon....
EB: How did this group consisting primarily of yourself, Jamie Greene on drums, Jameson Dunham on bass get it’s start?
MV: The three of us met at Finger Lakes Community college where we were studying audio engineering. I remember hanging with each of them separately for a bit before we played music together. This was about a year before the album was recorded, and coincidentally the same year I got into writing instrumental songs. At the end of the second year Jamie had a project to record an album. Jamie and I were living together at the time so we had been jamming some of my tunes and a bunch of random stuff together all the time already, and we knew Jameson had a great knack for being an incredibly musical bassist, so we asked him to join in. We were definitely experiencing some great vibes through the rehearsal/recording project, and that led to us thinking it could be more than just a project.
EB: How did all of the musicians involved in this project get involved in playing jazz music? Being recorded almost a decade ago, I have to imagine all involved were pretty young at the time.
MV: I'm still learning to play jazz music every day, but at the time I was listening to some really great jazz music from Avishai Cohen, Robert Glasper Trio, and always a lot of Stevie Wonder. I would say those artists sparked my true interests in jazz, but this music wasn't necessarily thought out in the context of something that had to be jazz. I had spent a lot of time playing piano at that age, but there still was so much room for growth and maturing to do at the time. I was just starting to learn how to express myself musically, and I really think that comes through in the record in a good way.
EB: What attracted you to the trio format?
MV: Definitely just being put on to all the great trio's out there - I already mentioned a few, but listening to Bill Evans, Vijay Iyer, and so many other great pianists play in the trio format definitely inspired me to try it!
EB: Songs like “Puddle” and “Sunny & Raining” have an emotional, textural vibe and prominently feature acoustic piano and drum kit played with brushes. What are some of your inspirations behind this sound? I was at times reminded of a favorite jazz composer of mine, Vince Gauraldi, known most for creating music featured in Charlie Brown cartoons.
MV: We were some youngins but definitely were going for the jazz ballad vibe with those tunes. Puddle definitely became a favorite of ours to play over the years, but Sunny & Raining kind of faded the way as we grew older.
EB: Tracks like “Cream Soda” very much sounds like fun and energetic music played by a young fresh crowd. What are some of your thoughts when listening back to music from this record?
MV: Cream Soda was pretty much the fan favorite tune since our beginning. It was kind of just a few different ideas pieced together - but we always had a blast playing it, being one of the more upbeat jams. Tracking this one was amazing too! Spencer Waasdorp one-take'd the guitar solo. I'll never forget telling him just to be himself, and when we stopped rolling everyone in the control room burst out laughing because it was so good and he just looked over at us all concerned like "What did I do?!?"
EB: Jazz records are often filled with long improvisation sections, but this record seems to focus on keeping shorter, more concise packages rather than extended solos and long playback times. What made you want to gravitate more toward a pop-jazz sound for this record?
MV: If I remember correctly our drummer at the time Jamie wanted to put some focus on keeping the solos on the shorter side. I believe the idea was to keep the attention of the listener through the length of the song. I think an unintended consequence might have been that it also kept us from exposing ourselves, as young and raw as we were haha! But maybe that was Jamie's intention the whole time.
EB: Did you do charting for the trumpet parts found on tracks like “Waterfall” and “The Suites”? If so, how was the process of writing parts for non “rockband” instruments for you?
MV: We tracked the trio in an earlier session than horns/guitar, so I originally had all of these trio tracks to listen back on, and it was only once I was listening back on those tracks that the new parts came to me. I might have tried to chicken scratch out some notation at the time but I most likely just taught the guys by ear at the session. I remember doing that on a couple of occasions at least.
EB: “Only Girl” features an MC by the name of Leon Carter. How did this come about? Do you have a love for hip hop?
MV: Leon was in school with us and lived in the same complex as me, we asked him to get on, yes, out of my love for hip hop. He had written out verses one and two, and the third was completely improvised, so kudos to him for crushing that in the booth!
EB: Tracks like “Joy” and “Joker” represent a more electric jazz fusion style that heavily featured improv. What are some of your inspirations behind this type of music? Was there any particular reason for including a few tracks like this?
MV: Joy and Joker both eventually faded out of our gigging repertoire similar to Sunny & Raining. Honestly looking back they aren't necessarily my proudest compositions, but they were still fun to play at the time. I'm pretty sure Joy was the first tune I wrote that involved a key change, transposing the whole melody down a whole step. On 'Joker' I remember I was first learning to stack fourths in chords to get a new color.
EB: You are a big fan of interludes aren’t you?
MV: I sure am. I love when an album is tied together by small, well thought out pieces of music. On this album there are a few interludes that are actually a call and response to one another.
EB: It almost seems like the first half of this record is a bit more subdued and sensitive, while the latter half is more aggressive and lively. Was this a conscious design choice?
MV: Tough to remember, but I'm pretty sure we wanted to set the tone in a calm setting, and then progressively move towards more fun upbeat music as the album played through.
EB: What is the story behind this live recording?
MV: I'm pretty sure our bass player at the time (Ben Crossgrove)'s dad brought one of those little stereo pair recording devices to the show, and that is the story! Haha.
EB: Can you tell us a bit about this lineup?
MV: Ben Crossgrove on bass, one of my best friends to this day and a fantastic bassist. He also creates EDM under the artist name BENTZ. Jamie Greene on drums, founding member, Jamie and I became kind of a power duo playing in some other groups as well (Upward Groove, Mammal is a Mountain). Aaron Davis on sax. Aaron went to highschool with Jamie and was introduced to the band through him, one of the most expressive players I have ever played with. Ryan Hobart on Trumpet, Ryan went to FLCC with us and was definitely a star classical trumpet player at our school. He had recently played with the Statesmen around the time we all met I'm pretty sure, then he went on to become an educator in the music field.
EB: Is this type of lineup typical for an MVT show?
MV: Definitely, we would take into account the type of venue/show we were putting on, and fill the lineup accordingly, but the Bugjar being a pretty prolific dive with an awesome stage where music can really be the focus, and being standing room only - we figured a big band would really hit there, and I think people had a great time.
EB: What are some ways you can deal with navigating group improv with a larger band?
MV: Generally people knew which songs they had solo's on. And everyone knew the form of the songs, and had their own parts that they could improv around that they really knew. There really is a structure to the improv.
EB: “Throne”, “Conflicting Selves”, and “Noisy House” weren’t included on the previous release. What’s the origin of those tunes?
MV: I wrote all three of those sometime after Put me in the Zoo came out. I remember I wrote Throne on valentines day one year on my parents' grand piano. Conflicting Selves was a deeply personal composition about a decision I had made that hurt a friend, and Noisy House I wrote while living with some characters that liked to stay up late into the night haha. Still cherish those days though I can't say I miss them.
EB: There seems (to my ears) to be a good deal of ordered soloing, but also fair amount of free form improv. What’s the balance between the two?
MV: I'd say the free form improv is fairly rare - at least if you're talking true free form. Definitely leans towards ordered soloing with written parts that can be tastefully bent or played around with.
EB: “Conflicting Selves” seems a touch more complex than other tunes, what was it like navigating a more complex tune with a larger ensemble?
MV: Things were really vibing those days, every tune we put together really felt like it just came together without too much work. The fine tuning was usually done the day or two after a show, just talking with eachother. "I liked XYZ" "I didn't like XYZ" ya know.
EB: Can you give us a little background about this particular radio station and radio show?
MV: WITR is a student run radio station out of the Rochester Institute of Technology. One of the DJ's there was a friend of ours through playing on some bills together with his band, Mitch Bennet. Probably one of the coolest dudes I've met through all my years of playing, great friggin guy! I'm not sure if Rochester Sessions was something they did for a limited period of time or whether that's still happening, but it was basically a recording session in the studio that belonged to the school's radio station, and an interview that coincided. Matt Billings, Eli Flynn and Ben Crossgrove were all pretty new additions to the group at the time, but I felt like we were still pretty tight in this session.
EB: How does it feel to play on a live radio broadcast? Is it any different than playing a standard live gig?
MV: I remember being stoked about it. We always found a way to treat big opportunities as normal occasions which I think spoke to our groundedness, but I remember being really excited to have the opportunity.
EB: Tell us a bit about this lineup.
MV: It was really cool when we started getting Eli and Matt involved with the group. This was kind of a prelude to the five piece that played on my -at the time- upcoming album "Long Drives, Late Nights".
EB: “Throne” also seems to feature some electronic percussion elements. What was the inspiration behind this, and was this your first foray into the use of electronic drum sounds in the live band setting?
MV: Matt Billings was running a pretty intensive keys rig at the time, it was super fun to have another keys player to hold stuff down. He's responsible for the electronic percussive stuff, as well as the synthy stuff on this track, where I stuck mainly to the Rhodes sounds.
EB: “Conflicting Selves” gives me small flashes of a Pat Metheny type of sound, in that the track is technical but palatable, and has a breezy emotional quality. What kind of influences went into this track?
MV: This piece is really about having a deep moral quandary, where it seems impossible to make the right decision. I really can't say what artist influenced this music, although I'm sure there's hints of different people I listen to, personal experience drove me to create this song more than anything else.
EB: In my view, this is a high quality recording of a tight jazz performance. How did it make you feel to hear this back after you had played it?
MV: Even years later I feel good about these takes. I feel I'm a much more mature musician these days, and I'm more violently aware of the ceiling for musicians these days haha. I feel more humble these days, but I feel good about how we performed that day and I still really enjoy the songs.
EB: What was the origin of this session?
MV: I can't remember exactly how, but I eventually ended up getting in touch with Derek Lucas, and Rob Linton from Jazz 90.1. Both nice guys. I think after speaking with Rob, he let me know how to submit to be a part of this live series they were doing, and they accepted our submission. So it felt cool to be kind of "selected" and playing on the jazz station felt like there was a bit more pressure than the WITR show. Just with the prestige of Jazz 90.1 and the type of listeners they attract, I feel they would be listening more critically than your average WITR listener.
EB: There was a bit of time between this live recording and the previous one. Any interesting developments to speak of in the interim?
MV: It's really tough to remember the timing of everything, but likely playing a bunch of trio gigs for money and then playing orchestra gigs to kind of gain a following and play more fun gigs and get some people dancing perhaps. We played all over Rochester, a lot of restaurant trio gigs. Bistro 135, Lemoncello, were both great dinner gigs for us. Also Prosecco in Farmington always treated us very well. Bug Jar was where we got our start in the like 'indie' scene, I'm sure a lot of bands can say Bug Jar did a lot for them.
EB; Give me the background on this project. What made you want to do this? Where was it done? How did you go about selecting the participants?
MV: This project was definitely partly inspired by the then recent release "Black Radio" by Robert Glasper. Prior to this album Glasper was an idol of mine mainly for his jazz trio work - which inspired some songs on my earlier records. When "Black Radio" came out it really inspired me to see a jazz artist who was making 'pop' or 'radio' tunes. These songs were some of my favorite experiences with collaboration. Everyone involved was still young and raw and mostly focused on just making great music. I had some help writing the vocal pieces with Taylor Eike, who I went to Highschool with. She's the female singer on these tracks. The male singer is Eli Flynn, who is now a part of GPGDS and was a friend and colleague of mine through many of my years gigging in Rochester. Eli wrote the songs for Upward Groove, a band I played in for a few years and tracked keys on some records for. Stephan Louis is the rapper on 'Generate the Opposite', I also went to High School and played on a CYO basketball team with Stephan, great memories. Also featured on the recording are Matt Billings (piano), John Meeske (Aux Percussion), Jamie Greene (drums), Ben Crosgrove (Bass). It was so cool to blend jazz/R&B/hip-hop together in a live setting. Would definitely do something like that again sometime if I had the chance.
EB: Could you give us a little background on these participants that you ended up choosing?
MV: Touched on some of them already, but John Meeske is worth another mention in terms of his resume. He studied drums at both Eastman and the Frost school's of music - two of the most prestigious programs in the world. John is one of the most grounded people you'll ever meet to come out of programs like those. They tend to produce rigid musicians but John still has such a great feel to his playing.
EB: There’s more of a vocal presence here, is that in efforts to appeal to the “radio” part of the concept?
EB: Are there any plans to pick this idea up in the future?
MV: I wouldn't say so, this was awesome, and I would definitely do it again; but I've gotten away from facilitating large groups like this. It's something I feel I have a talent for, but I did this many times for a long time and unfortunately it gets kind of exhausting if you are doing it all for free. I have found a new outlet for my creations now where I do not rely on others, and I feel it has reduced my stress greatly. I loved doing it while I was doing it, but after a while I just felt too much responsibility to get everyone paid a living wage and I think a lot of people will tell you that is nearly impossible to do.
EB: “Generate the Opposite” has a Roots-esque full band hip hop sound. How did this come about? What is your relationship with hip hop?
MV: The Roots are in my opinion the greatest hip-hop group in the genre's young history. They are profound people with extraordinary talent and good intentions. They peaked my interest as far as the idea of live hip-hop, and definitely were an inspiration for this track, as well as Dilla, of course.
Upward Groove - Sweet Tooth for Sweet Tunes
EB: How did you get involved in this group? What is your relationship to Eli?
MV: I met Eli through Ryan Schindler. Ryan is a fantastic Engineer, Guitarist, Artist. We ran into eachother once at Fairport Hots where he invited me to a jam he was having, that jam is where I met Eli as well as Ben Crossgrove. I knew a bunch of the guys in Upward Groove which Eli was the front man for. We were all buddies and used to jam together, and eventually after sitting in once or twice, I officially joined the band, and soon after came Jamie from our group, and Eli started playing with my group at some point as well. It all kind of happened in the same time period, can't remember how or when what became official.
EB: What was your role within this group? Did you play live much? Were you involved in writing songs or horn parts or anything like that?
MV: My role was mostly just keys player. We gigged a good amount, and I wrote most of my own parts for songs that Eli was bringing to the group - all though occasionally others would bring an idea or the group would collab on something together.
EB; What was the recording process for this record like?
MV: Great times. We recorded at The Green Room - Matt Ramerman's studio. This was when I met Matt, but funny enough I graduated high school in the same class as his little brother John. We tracked just about everything in one weekend. A lot of it was live, with some overdubs where it seemed convenient/necessary. Eli tracked vocals in a separate series of sessions a week later. Pretty sure I joined him at a couple of those. We all had a lot of fun. One fun story about the making of "Breathe Out" that I always tell: The track starts with a deep inward breath and then exhale. Eli was recording this in post in the vocal booth, with the rest of the band sitting in the control room. We kind of pranked Eli by making him do the breath take like 30 times. "Could you make the inhale a bit shorter", "Breathe out a little louder" "Oops we weren't recording". After he caught on the entire control room burst into laughter.
EB: What is this music to you? It seems quite an eclectic blend of styles.
MV: Definitely a blend of like, Alt Rock, Funk, with some Reggae vibes?
EB: How is being a sideman different than having your own group?
MV: It's fun, Upward Groove was always great because the core of the band had all been friends for years before being in a band. Some of them had known each other before even starting to learn an instrument. I knew some of those guys when they had just started playing, and it was amazing to watch them progress. Ryan Longwell and Ryan Schindler I was always astounded with the progress they made over the first couple years I knew them. In terms of being a sideman, I relished the opportunity a lot of the time. I liked trying to find ways to really put the spotlight on Eli. Upward's music was also a bit more accessible than MVT's was, which definitely led to a different type of crowd experience too. Very fond memories of playing in Upward Groove.
Thanks to Michael Vadala for a supremely interesting part one!! Give MV's music a listen, and as always...