Warren Vaché: From Manhattan to Scotland

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Warren Vaché
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Warren Vaché

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“I’ve been playing in Scotland for 20 years and have a lot of good friends and feel very welcome there,” says trumpeter and cornetist Warren Vaché. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous country. The people are very open. Any country where you can drink in a different distillery every day of the year for 10 years and not hit all of them is certainly close to my heart!”

His love of Scotland is one reason why Vaché says his recent release, Don’t Look Back (Arbors), “is probably the most satisfying record I’ve ever made.” A collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble, the project was completed in Edinburgh. Although economics played a role in the decision to record in Scotland, Vaché also cites the opportunity to record with the renowned 12-member string group as a major factor.

“The Scottish Ensemble is a working group and their interpretations are greatly enhanced by the fact that they know each other so well and can play the music with a character that studio musicians might not have,” Vaché says. “They’re also more open to doing different types of music than some of the classical people I’ve met.”

Early in the project, Vaché turned to his good friend, guitarist-composer James Chirillo, whose multiple roles here include writing, conducting and playing not only guitar but triangle. Through Chirillo, Vaché scored a real coup: convincing veteran arranger Bill Finegan, now 89, to contribute three arrangements to the project.

“I always knew that Bill loved Warren’s playing, and Warren jumped at the opportunity to meet Bill,” says Chirillo.

“It was such a gift to meet a man with that vast experience and talent who was willing to devote the time he did to this project,” adds Vaché. “These were the first charts he’s written for anyone in 10 years, and I’m extremely proud of it.”

The “jazz with strings” concept has a long tradition dating to the music’s earliest roots in New Orleans, through Paul Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz” of the 1920s, Artie Shaw’s experiments during the swing era and Charlie Parker’s Bird With Strings, the most celebrated example of the genre. In many such alliances the strings are limited to a “sweetening” function. Vaché and his collaborators, however, were striving for more than a pleasant trumpet-over-lush-background recording.

“It would have been a real waste to have this great ensemble sitting there playing ‘footballs’ [whole notes] while the rhythm section is cranking out time and Warren’s playing a solo,” says Chirillo. “So the initial concept was to look at it as chamber pieces with a great string ensemble and a great jazz soloist.”

The strings are such an integral component of the project that the results may have more in common with a trumpet concerto than with the typical jazz-with-strings album. “I’ve had people say to me it’s a great record but it’s not jazz,” says Vaché. “I wasn’t looking to make a jazz record. I just wanted to make the best music I could with the best people.”

In addition to the three Finegan charts, there are three by Chirillo, one by the talented English saxophonist-arranger Alan Barnes and two by Vaché himself. There is also a version of “Spring” arranged by its composer, the late Johnny Carisi, for Bird With Strings but never recorded. “Being able to play that was a treat because I knew Johnny,” Vaché says. “And to have some connection with Bird, no matter how tenuous, is something you live for.”

Of his own arranging, he adds, “If I was frightened about anything on this record it was the writing. Just standing up there with a cornet took a lot of guts! It was frightening, but I was surprised at how well it turned out. Bill and James both held my hand and got me through the writing. Now Bill calls me up and says, ‘What did you write? Bring it up and show it to me!’”

Vaché has always been a lyrical player, and the string setting seems to highlight the unabashedly melodic aspects of his approach. “I play an instrument that produces one note at a time,” he explains. “My choices are: arpeggiate a chord, play a scale or find a melody. I find the scales boring and arpeggiation is formulaic. I’ve tried to improve my knowledge of harmony and my ability to recognize a voicing and play something within that framework.”

Although he had made one other recording with strings, the excellent Warm Evenings (Concord, 1989), that was with a string quartet and did not prepare him for the impact of a larger string section: “I was in the room with the orchestra—not in a booth—and it’s a pretty powerful thing. There’s such a lovely shimmer to the harmonics overhead that you can’t help but be inspired by it.”

Vaché’s performance is absolutely stunning and meshes so seamlessly with the ensemble and the arrangements that it is difficult to determine what is improvised and what is written. As Chirillo observes, “Warren is absolutely perfect for this because his improvisations are completely melodically based, so all he needs is a context. And he’s unbelievably proficient technically; you can write things for him that you might not be able to write for someone else.”

Vaché is also an extremely quick study. In one of his last major projects, Benny Carter chose him as the only other horn for his two Songbook CDs (MusicMasters) and was amazed as the cornetist turned in one brilliant performance after another on completely unfamiliar material—all while polishing off crosswords between takes.

Slower tempos predominate on Don’t Look Back, but Vaché, who has always been known for his musical risk-taking, demonstrates that one can take chances in a ballad using range—both instrumental and emotional—breath control and dynamics. He admits to feeling the pressure of performing in an orchestral setting: “As a trumpet player, I have a limited capacity of air and can only hold a note so long. A good string player can do a down-bow and an up-bow and you’ll never tell when it changed, so theoretically they could hold a note forever! My natural reaction is to match the sustain as much as I can, so I probably held notes longer than I would in a purely jazz setting.”

The trumpeter’s extensive experience and classical training ideally suited him for a project such as this.

Born in 1951, Warren and his younger brother Allan, the well-known clarinetist grew up hearing jazz. Their father, Warren Sr., who died last year, was a bass player and jazz historian/writer who was a charter member of the New Jersey Jazz Society and edited its magazine for many years. “He had a big interest in dance bands and a huge record collection, so from the age of 7 there was always music playing. I could recognize the third alto player in Ray Noble’s band!” Vaché recalls. “Of course he had all the things by Louis Armstrong and, unlike most collectors, he let me play the original 78s.”

The elder Vaché was a traditionalist. “My father thought the tenor saxophone had no place in jazz!” Warren jokes. “When I started bringing home Miles and Clifford Brown records, he didn’t throw them out of the house, but we would have some vibrant arguments over dinner as to the validity of this stuff.”

It was his father who steered Warren to the trumpet. “When I was 7, they started an instrumental program in the local schools and I had to decide what I wanted to play. I thought I’d play the bass because we already had one sitting in the corner. But the old man said, ‘Nah! If you play the bass, the rest of the guys don’t even bother to tell you what key you’re in. You’re the forgotten man. Play the trumpet—you’ll get more work.’”

The youngster made rapid progress and by high school was already working regularly in a local dance band: “We would play country clubs, weddings—the whole thing. It was mostly reading the stock charts. Maybe I would get to play a ‘hot chorus’ for half a minute on ‘String of Pearls.’”

By the time he entered college at Montclair State in 1969, he was able to support himself as a musician: “Most of the time I worked at Your Father’s Moustache, which was sing-along stuff with banjos and striped vests. Somehow, I also hooked up with the local Polish bands, so instead of dating, I’d be doing six weddings a weekend!”

A music education major, Vaché’s formal training in college was exclusively classical: “Jazz was not recognized at Montclair State when I went to school there. As a result, I never put the energy into the things they wanted me to do. I’d been told throughout high school what a good player I was, and now this guy wants me to go back to the Arban book and play it in half-time so that I would learn to tongue. I hated him for it at the time, but it was the best thing he could have done for me.”

A chance encounter between his father and big-band and studio-trumpet veteran Pee Wee Erwin led Warren to private lessons, which enabled him to fill the void he felt in his college studies. “Pee Wee was one of the most musical people I ever met,” Vaché says. “He understood what I was going through, took me on as a student and introduced me to a whole range of literature for the trumpet that I hadn’t known existed.” (The elder Vaché later collaborated with Erwin on the trumpeter’s autobiography, This Horn for Hire.)

As his reputation grew, Vaché supplemented his formal studies with on-the-job training in New York City, rubbing shoulders with some of his idols: “I started working at Condon’s around 1976 or 1977 with Herb Hall, Vic Dickenson, Bill Pemberton and Connie Kay, who was like a surrogate father to me. Down the street at Jimmy Ryan’s were Eddie Locke, Roy Eldridge and Bobby Pratt. Those guys would get right in your face if you did something wrong. The first night I worked at Condon’s, I was playing up a storm—notes were flying left and right! Suddenly Vic put the trombone bell an inch from my ear and very softly played the melody on the last chorus. He pulled me aside and said, ‘You can get mad if you want, but you’re the trumpet player and your job is to play the melody in the first and last chorus. And you have to phrase it so we can play the harmony with you.’ If you screwed up they told you but they gave you the opportunity to come back and redeem yourself. It was ‘tough love.’”

He also recalls an encounter with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, one of jazz’s fiercest bandstand gladiators: “One night after Condon’s closed I was getting in my car and Roy comes across the street and says, ‘Man, you gotta help me. My chops are down—you gotta come over and play the last set with me.’ So I get up on the bandstand and he says with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You play the first chorus.’ After I finish, he stands with his side to the audience, holds the trumpet up with his right hand, and plays no note under high C for three choruses, with his left hand in his jacket pocket swinging back and forth on ‘two’ and ‘four.’ He dug a hole, put me in, filled it up and stomped on it! I felt so thrilled to have been his patsy. There was such a wonderful camaraderie—a much more fraternal feeling and accepting feeling than there is now.”

Another jazz legend with whom Vaché worked from 1975 until 1985 was Benny Goodman. “He was one of the most dedicated musicians I’ve ever known,” Vaché says. “He thought about music all the time. Yes, he was a very difficult human being to get along with, but I‘m not exactly the poster boy for mental health, either!”

Rather than adding to the litany of negative Goodman stories, Vaché prefers to recount one of the many lessons he learned from the King of Swing: “It was Benny who first made me understand what the process of making sound on a wind instrument was about. He brought me into his dressing room and asked me to play the second movement of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, which consists of soft, long, sustained notes. There was a great deal of air in my sound because I was playing soft. Afterward he says, ‘Did you ever consider the fact that just because it says “soft” it doesn’t mean the tone should suffer?’ He proceeded to give me a lesson in breath control by playing that same thing loud and soft, and the sound quality was the exactly the same.”

In the mid-1970s, Vaché often teamed with another young swing-oriented musician, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton. The pair was heralded by fans as the standard-bearers of a swing revival, and while it helped Vaché to garner some popular success, the trumpeter found himself increasingly pigeonholed. “You reach a certain point where it isn’t worth the fight,” Vaché says. “I take all forms of jazz seriously, as I do all forms of classical music and a lot of the American musical theater. There’s a lot to be learned musically from everything. Where do I fit in? I stopped worrying!”

Many of Vaché’s admirers may be surprised at some of the trumpet players who have inspired him. In addition to the more obvious influences of Armstrong, Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Joe Wilder and Billy Butterfield, Vaché also cites Don Cherry and Lester Bowie for their sense of freedom: “I told some of my students who wanted to play ‘free’ to go back to those Don Cherry records and figure out just what a genius he was. It’s not easy to be loose and creative without a form to hang the suit on. I’ve done very little of it myself—I know my limitations—but I can find certain instances during an improvised chorus with a drummer where it doesn’t necessarily have to go back to the form all the time. I admire Bob Stewart, the tuba player, very much. He did a lot of work with Lester Bowie, who was a free thinker of the first order. I can attain a level of looseness when I’m working with Bob that I wasn’t able to get to before.”

Although he has achieved a certain amount of recognition, Vaché has yet to reach the wider audience his talent would warrant. Too old to be a wunderkind and too young to be a legend, he says, “Let’s face it—I’m not a pointy-haired, blond-dyed waif. The hipness factor is an impediment to music.”

In addition, the trumpeter has had his share of personal trials and freely admits to being a “curmudgeon.” Vaché is an extremely erudite and cultured but complex person who can be delightfully engaging to friends and audiences alike. Like one of his idols, the late Ruby Braff, however, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and hasn’t always chosen the most diplomatic path. Lately, he seems to be channeling any disappointments and frustrations into his playing, and on Don’t Look Back he bares his soul in every solo.

“It’s certainly more productive putting that angst or emotion into the horn than the other places I’d been putting it!” he says. “When I was younger, extramusical things seemed much more important than they do now. At this stage, I am what I am and I can allow myself to be more at ease with that. Life’ll kick your ass, and frankly, the only time I’m really comfortable is when I’ve got that horn in my face. So I’m allowing myself the freedom to be whatever the horn tells me to be.”

Originally published in October 2006

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