A new force in the Jazz world is musician-composer-producer-label owner Hristo Vitchev. He is the founder and CEO of First Orbit Sounds Music (FOS) and is an exciting and extraordinary musician, band leader and composer.
His first recording was with his brother Vladimir in 2001. What followed were years of learning, experience and touring and recording as a sideman. That all changed in 2009 when Hristo gathered his own group together, created his own record label and began recording music that had been in his heart and head for some time.
He was born in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city that has a population of around two million people. I asked him about coming to the US and about the beginnings of his life in music.
TR: “When did you first notice music?”
Hristo: “I first started to be attracted to music at age 8, when I was exposed to the rock bands from the 80's from schoolmates and friends from the neighborhood. Bands like Europe, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, etc. Those were the days of the cassette, and I remember coming back from school and listening over and over again on an old tape deck the few tapes that I was able to get from my friends. Most of these were bootlegs, etc. It was to the point that the tape would actually wear out. However, I did not develop the desire to play a musical instrument until I was 12 years old or so.
TR: “When did you first pick up an instrument? What instrument was it?”
Hristo: “The very first instrument I picked was the guitar, but my start was rather different than most people. I was into all the rock music magazines and collecting posters and photos of the rock groups I was listening to. So from so much looking at these rock stars and their fancy guitars, I fell in love with the instrument. I just thought it would be the coolest thing to own a guitar and be able to play music with it. My grandma was so nice that she signed me up for lessons at the local community school and it was on my very first lesson that I touched a guitar for the first time. I even thought that you were supposed to press over the metal fret wire itself and not the actual place between the frets. “
TR: “What do you remember about your first music teacher?”
Hristo: “My very first contact with the instrument was with a teacher and he was an amazing person. He really started me the right way. Learning to read, all the theory of the major and minor tonal systems, modes, etc...Back then I had no idea how will these things be used one day, but now looking back at it, I feel very lucky to have had such start. Unfortunately, then I moved back to Venezuela [where Hristo’s father’s career took him] and lost touch with my very first guitar teacher. All I remember was his first name, Dimitri. I have no idea if he still lives in Bulgaria or not, but would love to one day connect again and thank him personally.”
TR: “When did you first perform? When do you first perform with a group? What kind of music was it?”
Hristo:“My first professional performance was in Venezuela with the Heavy Metal group that I started with my brother. I was 14 or 15 at the time and our band got invited to perform in one of the country’s largest rock festivals—something along the lines of ‘Battle of the Bands.’ I remember that we won the category for "best extreme rock" group, and for a bit we thought that we had made it and that now we are rock stars. What a funny chapter of my life. “
TR: “What was your first favorite piece of music?”
Hristo: “I remember that my first favorite piece of music was a song by the British heavy metal group "Iron Maiden." The song was called ‘Fear of the Dark’ and I must of listened to it at least 2000 times. I can still probably hum the song from beginning to end, with the guitar solos included.”
TR: “What was your first professional recording?”
Hristo: “My very first professional recording was an instrumental progressive rock album that I composed and recorded with my brother (who was also/and still is a killer guitarist, who now is an analog designer engineer). The project was called VITCHEV "Lost in a Fairy Tale" and I believe it is still available on Amazon and around the net. Since then I have recorded 6 albums as a leader and 2 other as a co-leader. After that first album, all the records I have recorded have been for my own label—First Orbit Sounds Music.”
Hristo and his brother Vladimir released “Lost in a Fairy Tale” on March 6, 2001. It was a self-produced album that the Vitchev brothers recorded after forming the band in 2000.
This is by no means an early laugh-off work. This is an exciting, progressive and skillful work. Although there are only four tracks listed, it contains 38 minutes of expressive and explorative music. Hristo is on guitars, bass and keyboards while Vladimir doubles on guitar and keyboards as well as drum programming and backing vocals.
The opening track is the title of the album “Lost in a Fairy Tale.” It is a 21:35 page-turner through Tolkien or Macdonald or the Brothers Grimm. It is adventurous and revelatory as to what talent was already within Hristo as a composer and musician.
The piece goes through five phases from the languid to the loud to the lyrical. There is a constant forward movement with occasional call-backs to earlier motifs. It is piece worthy of many of the progressive groups of the time.
What was clearly emerging, however, was the emerging instinct of guitar and piano in Hristo’s writing. It would find exquisite expression in Hristo’s collaboration with his “musical brother” Weber Iago but that was still eight years away…and worth the wait.
“Cryptonomicon” was a 1999 novel by Neal Stephenson. It became the title of the second track with cool Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms. The novel was about code-breakers and the guitar work was as painstaking and deliberate as the imagined cryptographers. There is fierce guitar work here from the lead and from the rhythm.
The third track is “Allergic Reaction” and contains a bit of foresight into the Impressionism that Hristo would fully develop later. There is a very imaginative “itchy” feel to the guitar with nice chord changes. The keyboard displays several fine moments, especially as they set up the inspired guitar work of the then-21-year-old virtuoso.
“Sahara” closes the album with synth-and-drum programming which creates an arid, desolate feel. The guitar enters with additional desert themes reminiscent of some of Camel’s fine work.
The whole album is aptly named and not just the title track. It is a work of great imagination and collaboration between the Vitchev brothers.
Hristo described his brother Vladimir as a “killer-guitarist.” Together they display the sibling connection most often associated with vocal groups. Think of this as the “shredding Everly Brothers.”
Most excitingly, this is an enlightening and foretelling foray into the skill levels already on exhibition by Hristo. The compositions are top-flight and the performance surely reveals what would soon follow.
TR: “What made you come to the US? “
Hristo: “My family moved to the USA when I was 16 years old, because my parents (electrical engineers) got transferred to work here from their company (an American corporation). It was really more chance than any planning. My parents are still alive and we all live in the San Francisco Bay area. They are still working for the very same company that got them here in the first place.”
After that, Hristo started studying jazz at the college level and began playing all kinds of casual gigs around the San Francisco Bay area and “that was where I was able to put at work all the things that I was learning in the academic world,” he recalls. That was around the year 2003.
I asked Hristo how many instruments he had studied. He answered, “Later in my college years, I also studied jazz piano with the most amazing teacher and coach I have ever had. Mr. Frank Sumares (aka Unkafunk) was the most amazing soul, mentor, and person in the whole planet. He really opened my eyes to everything I know today, and I do own everything to him. He was the magic that really changed my life forever. Very sadly, he passed away last year, and I will forever miss him, but his soul is eternal. There has not been a recording, show, lesson thought, or note played in my life without his spirit and soul there. The piano I learned is the main tool I use when composing. All the work I have written up to date was started and finished on the piano.”
It was seven long years before Hristo would release another album under his own name. He had played as a sideman and as a session musician for numerous other artists but, by January of 2009, Hristo had brought together a quartet that was skilled, talented and in perfect harmony.
The first and most important member was Weber Iago from Brazil. Weber is a brilliant keyboardist, composer and arranger.
Of Weber, Hristo says: “My musical brother and soul-mate is the great Brazilian pianist Weber Iago. He is everything that I could ask for. An amazing friend, person, great soul, and a genius musician. With him I do not even need to write a chart. He reads and can play everything I hear in my head with the minimal of explanation from my part. I am forever grateful for our musical relationship.”
When asked how he met Weber, Hristo answers “I met Weber back in 2007 when we were both hired in the band of a great Italian pop-opera singer. I knew immediately that this guy had a different take on harmony, melody, and just about anything. I knew that somehow I had found the piece of the puzzle that I was looking for. We clicked right away and he has been in every single musical journey I have taken since then (with the exception of the "Rhodopa" album - which was revisiting my Bulgarian roots and which I decided to do with the great Bulgarian clarinetist Liubomir Krastev.”
With Weber Iago in place, Hristo brought on Dan Robbins on bass and Joe DeRose on drums to set the quartet in motion and ready to record what Hristo had written. The group had already been performing together in support of another duo. The seeds for this album were sown while they were all on tour together in Japan in 2008.
On January 8-9, 2009, the recordings took place in Willow Glen, CA. This would be the first album from Hristo’s own label, First Orbit Sounds Music.
The album was entitled “Song for Messambria” and featured cover artwork by Hristo himself, a trend that has continued on all of his albums as leader. He told the story of how the album came to have that title.
“I met my wife on a vacation trip back home in 2007. She was a childhood friend of a mutual friend who introduced us and I fell in love from the first sight. She is definitely the source of all the inspiration behind the music! She is from an amazing city on the Black Sea coast called Nessebar (its ancient name is Messambria) which was the inspiration for my first record with the quartet ‘Song for Messambria’.”
All of the songs were written by Hristo and the opening track is titled “Waltz for Iago,” and speaks of his understanding of his friend and colleague. The acoustic guitar and piano are reminiscent of the best work of Metheny and Mays. That is a comparison that will resurface again and again in the succeeding years but also one that will lose relevance as the understanding between Hristo and Weber deepens.
“Sad Cloud” introduces Dan Robbins’ fine bass work and Joe DeRose’s subtle brushes while “Looking for One” gives vast room for Weber’s understated but prominent piano virtuosity.
Joe DeRose gets to highlight his impressive strokes on “Dali in Bali” and Dan Robbins gives a foretaste of the exquisite electric bass in a song for the rhythm section that contains beautiful examples of lovely dissonance.
It is probably with the piece entitled “Parisian Skies” with its big chords and wide sweeps that Hristo is first tagged with the “Impressionistic Jazz” moniker. The song is colorful and rich and certainly brings to mind the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.
However, it is Hristo’s performance on “At Daybreak” which may be his finest exhibition of his own talents on the whole album. Added to that is Joe DeRose’s controlled drumming which is on display throughout the entire recording but on this track he is seen for the power and quickness, that always hallmarks DeRose’s playing, and that is all tightly administered with strict scrutiny. All of that is in matching lockstep with Hristo’s crafty guitar.
“The Road to Naklabeht” is marked by fluidity and cool pacing while “Song for Messambria” is melancholy and memorable, another enduring and endearing characteristic of Hristo’s compositions and arrangements that will delight and stir again and again. The longing of the piece is agonizingly delicate.
The two concluding tracks, “Faith Avenue” and “It Follows” both exhibit such gracious movement, such depth and strength. There is also a haunting fragility already present that will continue to spellbind for each successive album under Hristo’s name.
In this, the first album with Weber Iago, a maturity emerges that is astonishing.
Only five months after the recording of “Song for Messambria,” Hristo was back in Open Path Studios in West Glen, CA. For this outing, it was only Hristo and Weber Iago to record a duet entitled “Secrets of an Angel.” It is the second album for the First Orbit Sounds Music label.
In the liner notes, Weber writes about working with Hristo in the following terms. “Working on musical projects with my musical brother Hristo Vitchev…We talk music, discuss ways of improvising, play and compose together and at the end of the day I feel like I’m a better musician as a result of that.”
Hristo states “The sounds and chord colors I have always favored are so comfortably shared by my dear friend and music partner Weber Iago, that when the idea of this project was first conceived, I already knew that it would be a sweet and graceful journey. I have known Weber for a few years, but it wasn’t until the recording of my quartet’s debut “Song for Messambria” that we got to experiment with the duo concept.”
It was the final track on the afore-mentioned album that was the first experiment in that duo format. It can be rightly said that “It Follows” is the bridge song between “Song for Messambria” and this album.
The cool piano arpeggios that introduce the first track “Waltz by Chance Alone” are a fine opening, if not transition, into this album. The guitar is almost classical against the straight-up Jazz of Weber’s piano.
All of the compositions are from Hristo with Weber collaborating on the arrangements. The “experiment” was already paying off grandly.
“Zima’s Poem” contains the pensiveness of “It Follows,” also. It is imaginative and contemplative, at once. The partnership between Hristo and Weber, begun years before, is clearly becoming etched in stone. These two brilliant and inspiring adventurers belong together.
The raindrop piano is followed lively and sweet guitar and piano on “When It Rains.” Again borrowing from the “Impressionist” label, the imagery created is nearly as tangible as if Monet used a pick instead of pigment. The images created by Hristo and Weber are like mental watercolors that blend and flow together without the concreteness of a canvas.
Those colorful chords are expanded in “Haiuri’s Dance” and are supplemented by Weber’s vocalizations and the rhythms beaten into the body of the guitar. It is celebratory and cheerful in its tempos and changes.
The title track, “The Secrets of an Angel,” is lyrical and indeed angelic. The touching guitar and gentle piano evoke a sense of lonely beatitude. The feeling created here is what can be expected and experienced on every album containing these two musicians together.
“The Last Pirate, Part I – Amazonian Tales” grabbed me from the start with its nautical feel and flow. Even Hristo’s fingers sliding along the neck help create the watery sound as Weber fashions the rolling sense of waves. There is an almost island sound in the buoyancy of the melody and phrasing. It transitions beautifully into “The Last Pirate, Part II – The Treasure of Carmel.” There are repeated motifs from Part I and the whole scenario speaks of questing and finding. What seems to underlie it all, however, is the joy of the quest instead of the satisfaction of finding.
“Leak Nosht (Good Night)” is the lullaby ending to this magnificent album. It is the fight to stay awake and the inevitable surrender to sleep. Melodic and lyrical, it is undeniably soothing and satisfying.
The “experiment with the duo concept” of “The Secrets of an Angel” has produced a delectable exploration in touching melody and lush harmony for guitar and piano. It broadens the palette from which Hristo’s future albums will be painted.
Hristo would finish 2009 with his quartet plus saxophonist Dann Zinn to record under the name Joe De Rose and Amici for the album “Sounds for the Soul.” Joe De Rose, of course, was Hristo’s drummer in the quartet. The name Amici is Italian, of course, for “friends.”
The music was composed and arranged mostly by Hristo and Joe DeRose, with three exceptions. It was recorded from September to November of 2009 at Open Path Studios again. It would be released in 2010.
The music is different from that of the previous FOS albums. Although mostly co-written by Hristo, there is a heavy feature for the rhythm section as befits a drummer’s album.
The first track is dedicated to Joe’s father, Nick De Rose, Sr. and is appropriately entitled “Nick’s Legacy.” Joe mentions Nick’s legacy as “the love he left in people’s hearts.” The piece is jovial, lively, warm and is portrayed through Dann’s vivace sax and Joe’s energetic drum work. The track concludes with Nick’s recorded voice from an answering machine saying “Hi, this is Nick. Have a nice day.”
The second piece was written by Hristo alone. “The Skies Below” featured broad, cascading drums with intricate cymbal work. Dann Zinn’s vivid sax playing creates a new audience among Hristo’s followers. Additionally, Dan Robbins reveals himself as one of the most under-rated bassists recording today.
As always, Hristo delights with exceptional guitar work and inspirational imagery. The track concludes after one of the most wicked false stops.
“Tal’s Dream” is dedicated by Joe to Talmadge Hicks, Joe’s musical mentor and the man who gave Joe his first John Coltrane album which is enough in itself to make one appreciate him. Very enjoyable bass lines underscore the exchanges between guitar and sax. Robbins and De Rose are extremely tight.
The excited exchanges move to sax and keyboards for “Bros at Play.” Co-written by Hristo and Joe, it serves as a generous showcase for everyone but Hristo himself. That is another of the hallmarks of Hristo Vitchev as recording artist and composer, his willingness to spotlight those in his company.
“Ancient Prayer” is another sole composition of Hristo’s. The sax work is brilliant and there is a cool corps cooperation. The sense is that this is not a prayer said in ancient times but, rather, a prayer said since ancient times. It is a prayer of joy and fellowship and gratitude. Weber is insurgent in his tempo and exhaltative in his lightness opening the way for Hristo to launch into a psalm of thanksgiving and jubilation. Zinn’s sax keeps the theme of spectacle and splendor alive through the whole piece.
Dedicated to Louis Bellson, “Drum Angel” is an excursion into cool Latin rhythms with astounding harmonies from guitar, piano and sax. The piece contains one of Hristo’s fiercest guitar solos.
“Tears from Tokyo” was written by Hristo and Joe during that 2008 tour of Japan. It marks the first tandem writing between the two of them. Dedicated to Joe’s mother, Mary De Rose, it has a lovely and memorable melody. According to Joe, the melody came to him and he sang the melody to Hristo while they rode an elevator. Joe asked Hristo if he would be able to remember it. When they returned to the U.S., Hristo certainly remembered the melody and also added the harmonization on top.
One of the best grooves on the whole album is found on “Sounds for the Soul,” the title track. A five-note motif is introduced early and Weber’s keyboards in this the third album from First Orbit Sounds shows him to be an integral part of the FOS sound. Weber sets up Hristo in memorable and magical ways. Ample solos abound as the five-note motif is transferred and carried out of the track.
“Sounds for the Soul” concludes with “Miracles,” a composition from Weber and Joe. It is a hymnic affair that is reverent and relevant. Weber creates the most haunting and imaginative melodies of anyone you might think to name.
Although the album is listed as Joe De Rose and Amici, it is still a major example of Hristo’s writing and performance within a quartet setting. Although it is chronologically the third album, the seeds were planted very early.
Much of 2010 was spent writing and touring for Hristo and the other members of the band but they returned to Open Path Studios on December 6-7 to record as a quintet with Christian Tamburr on vibes. The resulting album, “The Perperikon Suite,” is a work of remarkable beauty and texture and the choice of vibes over sax was an important one for the overall expression of the album.
Perperikon is the holy city of ancient Thrace. It is located in the eastern regions of the Rhodopa Mountains in Bulgaria. Those mountains will play a prominent part again in a 2013 recording of Hristo and Liubomir Krastev.
There are four essential elements in the Perperikon complex: the Citadel, the Acropolis, the Palace and two outlying cities to the north and south. The music of the album is a sonic visit to each of those places in Hristo’s first concept album.
“The Stone Passage” is the entrance to the sacred grounds and serves as the introduction to the album. There are cool movements within this musical passage as if walking through a shadowed crevice with flashes of light and vision.
From there, Hristo guides into “The Palace” with the lovely harmonies of guitar and piano. Christian Tamburr’s vibes make a pronounced and profound addition that enhances the airy feeling of loftiness within the piece.
As always, Dan Robbins does not disappoint on bass and Joe DeRose’s drumming contributes meaningful rhythms. It is Weber’s piano, however, that provides the elegance and refinement so befitting a palace.
That airy sense becomes grand and expansive in “The Great Hall.” The groaning double-bass, flighty vibes and delicate piano create that open image with such vast room for exploration. This is Hristo’s “impressionism” at its most vivid. The hues and shades render this a thoughtful sound-scape which wanders and wonders and seems to evoke an imaginative memory of what once was great in authority and power and import.
“The Shrine of Dionysus” jumps with a hard swing from piano, bass and drums that is impressive. The guitar and vibes pull away from that deep groove and create a dichotomy completely appropriate for a shrine site to Dionysus. Dionysus, who was so visceral yet thoughtful with celebrations including libation and libido, from primal to sometimes pristine.
It was Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov who concluded that this very site was the antiquity period Temple of Dionysus. It has long been suspected that the mysteries of Dionysus may have had origins from late pre-history Thrace (today’s Bulgaria). This explains why Dionysus is not prominent in Homer or the earliest of the Greek writers. While Greece celebrated him as the god of wine and theatre, Thrace celebrated his agricultural and fertility aspects. For Thrace, he was less refined but more defined.
Hristo captures that completely. There is seasonal cheer and celebration found here that rightly describes a festival setting of agricultural and familial growth and prosperity. With all that, it is deeply thoughtful and meaningfully meditative.
The introduction of “The Acropolis” goes from furious to lyrical and back to the furious. The quick transitions remain fluid without any awkwardness and a blending begins to emerge. Out of that blending arises some of Hristo’s loveliest guitar work. With Dan Robbins’ bass holding the line, Hristo ascends and descends in rapid order like quickly going up and down stairs within a ruin. It is punctuated with moments of wonder and grandeur at each level ledge with Weber adding his typically lush piano highlights.
Then our guide takes us on to “The Northern City” with trademark cooperation between Hristo and Weber and gorgeous supplemental vibes from Tamburr. Joe’s brushes and Dan’s smooth bass develop a cool groove that prepares the listener for departure from this still and profound place.
It is from “The Southern City” that the ancient ruins are left behind. The piece is reminiscent and gentle. It is almost like saying goodbye to the sacred grounds. The melancholy piano and bass are captivating. In the end, Hristo’s guitar offers a look back to the sites and an expectant look homeward.
It is a wholly evocative work full of history and archaeology and far-sighted imagination.
Hristo introduced the idea of another duo project to Weber Iago early on and spent some time working the music out before they returned to the same studio in November 4-5, 2011. Recorded in late 2011, it was released in 2012.
The theme of “Heartmony” as a title and as a concept was attractive to Weber, as he declares in the liner notes of the album. “It took me only a minute playing through the material to realize that the term ‘Heartmony’ was more than a clever play on words, rather, it was and it is, as I see it, the very definition of harmonious sounds from the heart, healing energy that will embrace you long after you listen to it.”
Hristo himself reveals that “the eleven compositions presented here are the most honest and direct message I have ever let out of my heart. As the name of the record will suggest, this music is the truthful result of the many great memories if life I carry deep in my heart, of the endless array of emotions I feel every single day, and the amazing energy and spirit of the people who I dearly love.”
It is the fifth album on First Orbit Sounds Music, the fifth album including Hristo and Weber and the second duo of Hristo and his “musical brother” Weber. The title is also fitting as it exemplifies the connection between the musical brothers and that is precisely what is heard on this album.
“Under Trees of Green, Over Fields of Grey” opens the album. It is by now a given that anything bearing the names of Hristo and Weber is going to be breath-taking. This track, indeed the whole album, is testimony to this.
The piece is colorful and soulful and imaginative. It is a heart-felt welcome into a splendid work of extraordinary beauty.
“Musica Humana” is a term from Boethius' "De institutione musica" in which he declares that there are three forms of music and one of those is the harmony of body and spirit. In fact, says Boethius, "music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it, even if we so desired."
This is precisely the feeling of harmony as found in this, the second track, of the album. The left-hand groove and the strum pattern of Hristo’s guitar incorporates all the stride, exploration and nuclear attraction of body and spirit as envisioned by Hristo and Weber.
“Memories in Black and White” could almost be the film score from a Black and White movie. In fact, this is almost a sonic painting of such with its silvery glow and crisply defined lines. It flows so well and languidly. The virtuosity of Hristo and Weber can make the most demanding piece seem effortless. Together, they create a halo-lighting for this piece and it is warm and comforting. It is the harmony of breath and blood-flow, thought and emotion.
“The Last Leaves Which Fell in Fall” is not quite the tongue-twister of Pat Metheny’s “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” but it is every bit as evocative and impressionistic. There is an autumnal melancholy that is so well depicted in the pastels of the piano and guitar. There is visible movement and tactile sensitivity and it is this piece that puts Hristo in a place among modern Jazz composers that leaves him second to none.
The two-part “Prelude to the Crepuscular Rays” and “Crepuscular Rays” again draw on the imagery of earth and sky. These pieces truly embody the moments leading up to the appearance of those sunbeams that appear through holes in clouds or the branches of trees. It is light finding a way through obscurity as Weber’s vocalizations reverberate with a call to life.
“The Farewell” is a three-part suite that is as emotional as anything ever done by Hristo. Perhaps this is because almost every living thing has experienced the dread, the reality and hopeful longing of separation. Hristo has captured the phases of separation perfectly.
Part I of “The Farewell” is “Prelude to an Act of Departure.” A soft piano intro is joined by the guitar and, together, they create a moment of tenderness and reflective sadness. Whether it is taking leave of a place or a person, the grief of separation becomes gnawing and profound.
Part II is “The Imperative Expression” is the moment of the obligatory goodbye. In the thinking of Immanuel Kant, the “expression of the imperative” is the duty of speaking the truth. In the heart-breaking moment of farewell, it must certainly mean saying what must be said before all chance is lost. Weber’s piano is meditative and an attempt to pack in as many words as possible within a limited span of time. The melancholia is devastating.
Part II, however, is “And We May Meet Again” which is the uncalled-for optimism to lessen the pain of departure. The percussiveness of the piano opens possibilities for reunion despite the overwhelming grief. It is hoping where there is no hope.
The album concludes with the two-part piece “Prelude to a Melancholic Heart” and “The Melancholic Heart.” Hristo introduces the piece with arpeggios that are mirrored by Weber. That one-minute arpeggio trade is like the trudge of sadness until the break which surges forward only to slow again to the slogging arpeggio minor. From that march of despair arises a melancholic heart that is not the melancholy of sadness but is, rather, the leap of creativity as the melancholy becomes the breeding ground for expression and imagination and the deepest beauty. In this, Hristo and Weber are prodigious in their creation of joyous rapture.
This was one of the very finest releases of 2012 and established a new plateau from which Hristo would climb yet again.
In my review of the next album “Familiar Fields,” I wrote in March of 2013: “It is rare that a recording can bring such pure joy in the hearing of it but such is the case with “Familiar Fields” by the Hristo Vitchev Quartet. It is beyond comprehension that Vitchev is not a household name in jazz. If Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton are considered the kings of impressionistic jazz guitar, then certainly Hristo Vitchev is a crown prince and ready to lead a palace coup. In fact, “Familiar Fields” easily stands equal to even their greatest albums.”
Part of the reason for that has to be credited to Hristo’s choice of musicians in the quartet. The musical affinity and effortless grace shines forth on this album like few recordings I have ever heard. They share a single heart and mind that bursts forth in illumination on every track. There is no weak moment or weak player on this album.
That musical kinship is expressed by bassist Dan Robbins in his words from the liner notes, “This has been the most effortless recording I have done; the band chemistry is so in tune with one another that many of the songs were first and only takes… It is pure expression and the essence of music.”
Hristo Vitchev himself explains the evolution of the music as originating in material written between his second and third albums but not yet ready for recording. Then when Mike Shannon joined the quartet on drums, Hristo felt that it was time to revisit the material. As they played the songs of this—his fifth—album, it was as if he was “walking through Familiar Fields yet everything I saw along the way I saw for the first time.”
When asked “Who is your favorite musician now to perform with?” Hristo gave this answer: “The guys from my quartet now; Weber Iago (piano), Mike Shannon (drums), and Dan Robbins (bass) are simply the dream team I always fantasized to perform with. I found the perfect formula and balance and I do not want to change it ever.”
This explains the lyricism and poetry of this wonderful album. There is a flow on this album that exceeds the extremely high standard already established. It is clear from the beginning.
“Ballad for the Fallen” is the opening track of the CD. The quartet opens together and slowly expand in their own directions. Hristo’s strum pattern, pianist Weber Iago’s delicate touch, Robbin’s flowing bass and Shannon’s upper-range tonality in his choices with snare drum and ride cymbal are indeed the perfect fit.
Dan Robbin’s bass solo adds to the flow and creates a splendid platform from which Hristo jumps into his own solo following which Weber Iago spins away his solo piano. Iago is to Vitchev what Lyle Mays is to Pat Metheny, forming the perfect tonal base for Hristo’s sonic adventures.
The following track is “Wounded by a Poisoned Arrow” another original Vitchev composition, as indeed are all the songs on this recording. Despite the foreboding of the title, the piece itself is uplifting and rejoicing.
The harmonies and melody carried by the guitar and piano are brilliantly underscored by the rhythm section. Robbins’ smooth bass lines are accentuated by Shannon’s light stick strikes. But the hearer is repeatedly pulled back to the piano on this lively and lovely number.
Hristo Vitchek is a teaching musician and has taught guitar clinics from Europe to Japan and points between. In his book “Between the Voicings: A New Approach to Chord Building for Guitarists” Hristo gives the secrets to his expanded voicings by moving away from the traditional “drop 2 and drop 2 and 4” approach. This album is proof of those principles.
Far and away the most delightful track for me is “The Prophet’s Daughter” with its evocative imagery created from corps progressions and rolling-thunder percussion. The drum opening with its combined ride and kick—played ever so lightly—splendidly heralds the entry of the harmonic guitar. The classical piano and jazz guitar crescendo together and then fall away into the swirling drum work.
The returning piano is locked in with the bass and drum into a thrilling jazz trio until Hristo’s guitar finds a crack in the door to return to a quartet. This is exciting and invigorating stuff! Percussive piano and bass followed by climbing harmonies—astonishing.
Weber Iago was born Weber Ribeiro Drummond in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has spent his musical life moving from classical to jazz with Brazilian music adding to the richness. All of these influences are brought to bear in his contributions on this album.
This is especially true on “They Are No More.” Weber takes the lead at the start and it carries all the influences of his musical life. There is a melancholy here that is sweet and touching. Hristo and Weber play with and against each other in all the most extraordinary ways. This may be Weber’s most brilliant moment.
It is also a great track for Dan Robbins on bass. He has been featured with many West Coast jazz stars and has taught at the Monterey Jazz Festival. His lyrical closing of “They Are No More” is a highlight.
“Familiar Fields, part one and part” are the fifth and sixth tracks of the album and represent Hristo’s ingenuity as a composer in astounding ways. Standing in the middle of this CD, these two tracks are musically and emotionally the centerpiece of the recording. Hristo is at his virtuosic best here with Weber in strong partnership.
These two tracks are stirring and emotional with all four members of the quartet playing superbly. If any one of the four were absent it would constitute great loss for the whole. These are the perfect four for this music. Of course, any great musician could play the notes but these players contribute something from their individual hearts into the heart of the group. It is not just skill that they bring; it is character and beauty that must come from their individual lives and experiences.
Mike Shannon plays with such innovation and originality that he is truly a transformational member of this quartet. His soft touch is the finest possible compliment to Robbins’ bass choices.
Even with the conclusion of these two magnificent tracks, the beauty and energy and uniqueness do not disappear. On the contrary, the compositions and performance continues to climb. “The Mask of Agamemnon” and “The Fifth Season” mark an on-going ascent that is breath-taking.
“The Mask of Agamemnon” sounds like it could have been composed by George Gershwin in collaboration with Django Reinhardt. It is a modern revisiting of early jazz in its layers and tone.
These comparisons are in no way meant to describe Hristo’s compositions as derivative or unoriginal. Quite the opposite, they are fresh and innovative and incredibly intriguing. None more so than “The Fifth Season” which is the penultimate track on the album. The rhythmic piano couplets in the melody are at once fascinating and emotional. Those couplets fade forward and backward throughout the piece, changing key and moving from forte to pianissimo as the guitar weaves in an out with the piano like a sonic double-helix. This is easily the most riveting composition of the recording.
This wonderful album concludes with a song written for Donka Krasteva, Hristo’s grandmother, and is entitled “Willing to Live.” In the liner notes, Hristo dedicates it to her “endless desire to keep fighting and living.”
The song is sweet and determined. It is the music of life indeed. It is played with love and devotion and it stirs those feelings in the hearer.
The entire album is joyful and life-affirming. It is like a soundtrack of the best day you ever had.
After Hristo Vitchev’s brilliant release of “Familiar Fields” with a quartet, he turned his incredible interpretive guitar-craft and arranging skills back to a duo setting but this time with clarinetist Liubomir Krastev. With an audience longing for more collaboration with Weber Iago (piano), Don Robbins (bass) and Mike Shannon (drums), Hristo boldly departs from that group setting and gives the audience even more of what they crave—soulful arrangements and virtuosity with heart.
They have been releasing singles from the now-completed album over a period of several months and the result was a heightened sense of anticipation for the release date. Months and months after the release, enthusiastic reviews continue to pour in.
The album “Rhodopa” is a collection of Bulgarian folklore and modern Jazz. The title is taken from a mountain range in Bulgaria named for the myth recorded by Plutarch and Ovid of the Queen of Thrace and her husband Haemus, a proud king who called the two of themselves Hera and Zeus, thus offending the king and queen of the Olympian gods who transformed the two into mountains.
“Thracian Mount Rhodope and Mount Haemus, now icy peaks, once mortal beings who ascribed the names of the highest gods to themselves.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6:87-89)
So now they stand, separate peaks denied embrace forever, always seeing the other but never touching. This is indeed theme of the album; loved ones isolated by duty and distance, by chance and by choice.
And so begins the first song of this touching album entitled “Devoiko Mari Hubava” [Beautiful Young Lady]. It is a traditional Bulgarian folksong and speaks of duty and separation. A young soldier is coming to speak to his lover of his duty and his worry that he has not prepared a home for marriage. She also tells him of her own duties that she is preparing a hope chest for marriage. But their true problem is deeper still.
The unsung lyrics (translated from the Bulgarian) are:
“O pretty girl/Pour me some wine/Wine and white rakija
So we can drink/Tell me your problem/Whose problems are greater?
Crazy hero, and young/My problem is greater/Because I have clothes [a Hope Chest] to make.
My problem is greater, girl/Because I have [military] duties to perform/Because I don’t have a home built.
My problem is greater/Because never will we be together.”
The song begins with Hristo’s walking pace guitar, as if he is approaching the young woman. Liubomir’s clarinet recalls the flowing of wine and the two instruments begin the heart-breaking dialogue until the guitar walks away in a final distancing from the plaintive clarinet. Sweet and sad.
This extraordinary understanding and interpretation of the folkloric tunes are close to the heart of these musicians. They do not fail in carrying the emotion, devotion and affection of the Bulgarian music and presenting it with such delicate taste to us who have not heard these songs before.
Another of the traditional Bulgarian songs is “Oblache Le Bialo” [Little White Cloud] with another beautiful arrangement by Hristo. The piece opens with the floating of the clarinet as the cloud coming overhead to the son who is far away from home. In the folksong, the singer asks the cloud if it came from flying over father’s garden and hearing from mother’s voice. The cloud is then told to return to mother and tell her that her son will be coming back someday to hug his dear mother.
Hristo’s guitar is determined and compelling as the earthbound voice speaking to the fanciful cloud of Liubomir’s clarinet. It is filled with longing and the cry of absence.
In the third track, Hristo opens with solemn piano chords followed by the supplication of the clarinet. It is entitled “Silent Prayer” and is an original composition of Hristo’s. As a gentle guitar is introduced, the supplication gives way to thanksgiving and the solemn chords are carried aloft by the guitar and clarinet.
Liubomir moves from hymn to jazz and back to hymn in a progression that is wondrously revealing of the nature of prayer and meditation. The final piano chords, touched with the sweet guitar and the joyous clarinet create a sound of fulfillment that is indeed worthy of heaven.
“Improvisation #1” is a melancholy piece that echoes eastern modes and yet adds a western Jazz sense that creates an intriguing dialogue of cultures and musical sensibilities. Liubomir’s clarinet sounds like his playing the entire family of clarinets instead of just the one. One a technical scale, Liubomir’s skill allows him to move away from any limits of key-range with no difficulty.
Once again, Hristo has picked exactly the right musician for the project at hand. This is a true collaboration of like-minded virtuosi. Liubomir Krastev never comes off as a side-man and Hristo never pushes Krastev into that role. Hristo willingly and often surrenders the spotlight.
“Blues for Clever Peter” is Hristo’s second original composition on the album. It is captivating jazz with a great opening from a happy guitar and joined by the highly entertaining voice of the clarinet. The listener is drawn into the pure delight of the moment, especially at the :55 mark when Liubomir’s raw clarinet brings a quick smile that holds throughout the remainder of the piece.
Hristo’s steady and optimistic guitar strumming is almost more bluegrass than blues until he takes the lead at 4:11 and turns in some of his most bluesy jazz heard yet. The interplay between the two musicians creates something worthy to accompany a Winnie-the-Pooh story and I mean that in the best possible way.
From that we are taken to another traditional Bulgarian piece entitled “Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul Li Si” [Are You a Tulip, Are You a Hyacinth]. The imagery is pastoral and restful. It is contemplative and nostalgic. This is the song to stop one in their own tracks and let images come to mind as they may. It is a question posed to everyone as to who we are.
It was a question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked of himself while in a Nazi prison. In his poem “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer wrote: “Who am I? This or the other?/Am I one person today and tomorrow another?”
It is the question put before a flower in the folksong but Hristo puts the question to us in this heartfelt and penetrating arrangement. “Are you a tulip, are you a hyacinth?” Once again, the album’s continued theme of separation is that we are often cut off from our own sense of self-identity.
“Improvisation #2” begins with a raw clarinet quickly accompanied by the flamenco-esque guitar which comes and goes all-too-quickly.
“Polegnala e Todora” [Todora Took a Nap] is a rather scolding number about a young woman asleep beneath an olive tree. The north wind blew and snapped off an olive branch that fell and awoke Todora from her sweet dream of her first love coming to her with a bouquet and a wedding ring. Again, separation from love and even the dream of love.
The mood of this piece, however, is a bit more comical than all the rest and Hristo and Liubomir indulge themselves fully in the fun. The sound of reproach of the north wind is certainly there but the anger (or mock-anger) is carried along festively.
“Hubava Si Moia Goro” [You are Beautiful, My Forest] is another traditional Bulgarian folksong with lyrics from a poem by Lyuben Karavelov. The poem and its song speak of the beauty of a forest and the scent of youth. The saddest person is the one who only sees a forest once without seeing the renewed beauty of each spring. “Under cold and under snow new life arises.”
The melancholy of the forest’s beauty is that it will succumb to the frost and, even though it will be reborn, it will be with different flowers and grasses and lambs. It is the sadness of not being able to enter the same forest twice (to paraphrase a line from Zen).
It is that sweet melancholy that engages this song, indeed this whole album. The lyricism of Vitchev’s approach enhances the delicacy of the subject of these traditional songs from Bulgaria’s folklore. His watercolor imagery is as fluid as that medium. Krastev’s articulation and intonation are in perfect harmony.
The album’s ending is to the sound of Liubomir’s clarinet and Hristo’s guitar fading as into a forest. It is the sound of being pulled farther and farther from home and family and perhaps this is the separation that runs from start to finish on this magnificent musical experience.
There is a beauty and an elegance that comes through on each and every one of Hristo Vitchev's recordings. The music he composes, the arrangements he crafts, the musicians that he assembles together and the dignity and reverence of his musicianship speak of the heart of the man and his love of life.
Joe DeRose and Hristo Vitchev teamed up again for Joe DeRose and Amici’s second album. The line-up remains the same for the second album with the exception of Murray Low taking the keyboard role. This album “Peace Streets” is also on the First Orbit Sounds label and is a brilliant continuation of the sound created by this group.
That sound jumps out with full fusion energy on the very first track “New Frontiers” and, at the 1:00 mark, the piece turns lyrically without losing its energy and drive. The opening track gives a quick taste of all the band members and it is spectacular from the start.
The double-pedaling Joe DeRose maintains the efficient drive as Dann Zinn’s sax is highlighted while Dan Robbins’ bass thunders from below. Murray Low takes over with the keys for rapid-fire brilliance before Robbins gets his own solo. Finally, Hristo’s sizzling guitar sets up a drum feature full of precision and punch. From lightning to lyricism, this is a ride that requires seat belts.
As on the first Amici album, Joe DeRose and Hristo Vitchev co-wrote most of the songs. Hristo once remarked, "I usually approach writing from a harmonic perspective, then the melody. And the last thing I think about is the groove. With Joe, we'll start with the groove, and he'll start singing the melodic line. His sense of melody comes from a vocal perspective, and it's a very lyrical approach, almost like creating a pop tune."
The results are something very different from Hristo’s other albums which have been described as “Impressionistic soundscapes.” If Hristo’s other albums are like Claude Monet’s blending colors, then this is like Georges Seurat with his precise pointilism.
If familiar with the works of Hristo’s quartet, then the hearer may be surprised and yet...not so. It is indeed consistent with the movement and elegance of what is heard on then quartet recordings. After all, they were all in it together with the exceptions of Low and Zinn.
“So It Is!” is the second track and is opened with Hristo’s guitar which is quickly joined by Zinn;s sax doubling on the melody. A Spyro Gyra vibe is created which is cool and exciting at the same time. Hristo shows himself as a completely versatile virtuoso as Joe DeRose and Dan Robbins are tight in the pocket.
The composition is brilliant and opens room for great performances by the assembled musicians. This has always been a hallmark of Hristo’s writing craft--he lets the others truly explore and share.
As broad-brushed exposition on melody is found in “Native Son.” While the lead instruments do get individual spotlight time, it is the corps which carries the broad theme over as the sax is most pronounced with Dann Zinn’s marvelous touch. His time with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard was, obviously, well-spent.
“Native Reprise” pushes him up again as Hristo’s crunchy guitar swings behind. Joe and Dan Robbins get a cool swing going as Hristo shades the sax from above. The guitar is masterfully wielded in frenetic distinction to Zinn’s sax. This was a fun one.
“In a Moment’s Time” almost makes this band look like they are masquerading as South Florida boys. Small wonder since DeRose and Low are masters of Latin Jazz. The rhythm section is beautifully together as the melody is given firm footing from which to spring.
This is followed by “After the Storm” which contains great moments of pairing between bass and keys and then bass and guitar as the lead is traded between sax and guitar. Murray Low then gets a lead and reveals why he is so desired as a musician. Dann Zinn gets his own moments of sheer lyrical beauty in this piece and the song ends long before you are ready for it to end.
Joe Horner contributed one of the coolest bass lines ever for “Smiles for Miles.” Fortunately, Horner graciously let Joe record it with Dan Robbins.
Zinn contributes beautiful intonations followed by staccato punches in accordance with that bass line funk. The track also features some of Low’s most effective keyboard work. Hristo climbs high with that incredible skill of his as Joe and Dan keep the whole thing anchored with that unbelievable groove. Good Lord.
“Silent Prayer” is the second of the Hristo-only compositions and it features full-bodied harmonies on top of what can only be described as a reverent melody. The song first appeared on Hristo’s album with Liubomir Krastev entitled “Rhodopa.”
As I described it in my review of that album, “supplication gives way to thanksgiving” as the movement goes “from hymn to jazz and back to hymn in a progression that is wondrously revealing of the nature of prayer and meditation.” The piece ends with the sweet fulfillment that comes from emptying oneself.
“Just About 8” is a great showcase for Dann Zinn at his melodic and lyrical best while the rhythm section is in lock-step. Great pacing and melody makes this a very enjoyable piece.
However, one amazing example of the unity exhibited by this quintet is found in “The Spirit of the Room.” Given their long history together it should not comes as a surprise and Hristo himself gets deserved attention with his ascendant guitar solo. Robbins contributes a sweet, virtuosic solo, as well.
Beneath it all, DeRose establishes an Afro-Cuban groove which is situated nicely with the bass. The track features a drum solo from the bandleader himself as Hristo paints a vivid sound-scape before the song closes with a hot stop. So well done. The piece is an on-point example of the vocal melody that Joe contributes.
The eleventh track is the third of Hristo’s solo compositions. He shows again his generous understanding of how to best use the musicians with him. The melody is touching and warm and the musicians respond with their own warmth and understanding.
It is an emotional piece as so many of Hristo’s works are. There is the joy of friendship and affection found here. It is a fine piece for Low’s delicate keyboard work. The slow melody of the Zinn sax is extraordinary while the tempo is like a stroll on the edge of memory.
“Peace Streets” closes the album and it is a fine and fitting end. It is always fascinating which songs are chosen to finish a CD or LP. “Peace Streets” is almost the inevitable end for this album with its summation of the preceding tracks but also with its sense of sending off the listener back into the world. The admonition is to carry the heart and spirit of Peace into the streets. The encouragement and exhortation of the work is almost like the issuing of marching orders.
The track is a work of beauty to bring down the curtain on a work of beauty. When all is finished, there is only one thing left to do...turn it on again.
TR: “So, after all of the recordings in different formats, what settings in music do you like best? Duo? Trio? Quartet? Marching band??”
Hristo: “I do love all settings, especially when they are done with the right people, however, I do have a great love and passion for smaller groups. The duo has to be one of my favorite settings. There is so much space, elasticity and dimension to it, and so much space to explore, that it is very inviting for the improvisatory arts.”
TR: “What is your very favorite piece of music now?”
Hristo: “It is so hard to pick a favorite piece of music now, after all that I have been exposed to, but if a choice had to be made, it will have to be a Pat Metheny record. ‘Speaking of Now’ or ‘Imaginary Day’ are amongst my all-time favorites.”
TR: “There is clearly an understanding and appreciation of classical music in your compositions. Among classical composers, who is most interesting to you?”
Hristo:” I do love classical music especially from the Romantic and Impressionistic periods. My favorites are Ravel, Debussy, and Mahler. “
TR: “How about Jazz composers, who is most interesting to you?”
Hristo: “In the jazz arena, my favorite voices are Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldou, Keith Jarrett, Esbjörn Svensson, Tord Gustavsen, Tomasz Stanko and some of the new generation of amazing musicians like Aaron Parks, Julian Lage, Mime Moreno, etc.”
TR: “Considering your first album was a rocker, from the rock and rollers, who do you like?”
Hristo: “I like so many groups that it will take forever to name, but people like Dream Theater, Steve Morse Band, Dixie Dreggs, Iron Maiden, Steve Vai, Satriani, EVH, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc.”
TR: “If you went home at the end of the day, what recording would you probably turn on?”
Hristo: “Nowadays, I'm really into the ECM catalog; something very harmonically soothing will do—especially in the evening—Enrico Rava, Keith Jarett, Gary Burton, Tord Gustavsen are amongst my favorites to finish a long day with.”
TR: “There is something very spiritual (and I do NOT mean religious) about your compositions and performances. Can you explain your spirituality?”
Hristo: “I'm not a religious person by any means, but I can say that I'm very spiritual and I do a lot of self reflection. I believe in the internal and external balance of the individual and especially in finding your balance within our world and larger universe. I try to observe everything around me, all the energy, good or bad, and somehow accept, reflect, and respond to it in the most natural way. It is really hard to put in words, and that is why I think I am so attracted to music and art in general since it provides us with another dimension of expression and understanding. “
TR: “Let’s move over to your recording label. Why did you begin FOS?”
Hristo: “First Orbit Sounds Music began with the sole purpose to release my own music and work to the world. It was around 2009. However, since its beginnings the label has grown to a larger selection of artists that I really admired and now we have around 10 artists on the label.”
TR: “What are your plans for expanding FOS?”
TR: “Early in 2014, the FOS brand will be adding two new members: ‘FOS Design’ and’ FOS Promotion and Publicity.’ Both new brands will concentrate and provide services in the jazz/music markets and offer an array of interesting and creative solutions to independent as well as established artist. Anything from brand development, graphic and web design to full press and publicity campaigns for album releases and tours. “
TR: “What is an artist wanted to approach FOS to get signed up with promotions or recording or distribution?”
Hristo: “If an artist is interested in the many different solutions that FOS Music offers to the independent and well established artists they can simply visit: www.firstorbitsounds.com to find out more. We are currently in the process of creating separate websites for the 2 new brands: FOS Design and FOS Promotion and Publicity and they should be up and running within the next few weeks. Also, people can email us directly at: email@example.com and request more information by email.”
TR: “What is the philosophy of FOS?”
Hristo: “As stated on our web site, ‘First Orbit Sounds Music was founded…with the sole mission to foster and produce original music in the improvised genres. The label’s goal is to present the deep, multi-dimensional, and rich tonal ideas found in today’s modern composer’s expressive palette. The label produces new and original music, spanning from impressionistic chamber ensembles to modern fusion and world traditions, with the desire to expand and enrich the artistic colors of today’s ever changing musical landscape.
First Orbit Sounds Music is located in Northern California where the musical scene has been influenced by the numerous cultures, traditions, and ethnic groups residing in the area. All these elements have helped develop a widely diverse and unique music atmosphere which is reflected in the works of the composers and performers in the region. First Orbit Sounds Music seeks to capture and present such new voices and share them with audiences all around the globe.’”
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