This is the debut leader recording by a musician with an extraordinary life story. Donald Vega was smuggled out of civil war-torn Nicaragua when he was 14, was eventually granted political asylum in the U.S., and, through benefactors in the Los Angeles jazz community, received surgical treatment for a cleft palate, without which he would have lost his hearing. He now has a Masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music and an Artist Diploma from Juilliard.
He is an exceptionally articulate pianist, fluent in many idioms of the modern jazz piano tradition, with sophisticated concepts of form. (Check out, for example, his trio’s orchestral enhancements to “Speak Low”).
Vega’s Latin roots are sublimated. There is one danzón here, “Our Spanish Love Song,” but it was written by Charlie Haden. While his trio (with bassist David J. Grossman and drummer Lewis Nash) has a strong spring in its step, Vega’s single most distinctive characteristic is his romantic lyricism. In jazz, “pretty” can be a pejorative adjective. Vega is a pretty player in the deepest, truest sense, because those sweet notes his right hand finds are firm and intelligent. In Vega’s hands, Victor Herbert’s “Indian Summer” is a melodic metaphor for joy, no less valuable because it is transitory. His best compositions, like “Nostalgia” and “Butterfly Waltz,” also contain complex currents of feeling.