The emotional essence of any Hristo Vitchev recording can be seen before it’s heard via the distinctive oil paintings the guitarist creates for his CD jackets. Vitchev’s artwork for Familiar Fields is impressionistic, haunting and autumnal, the same qualities that characterize his latest collection of tunes.
Born in Bulgaria, Vitchev moved to Venezuela in his teens before his parents accepted engineering jobs in the Silicon Valley in 1998. Still based in the San Francisco area, the guitarist’s international experiences imbue his jazz with subtle cross-cultural touches, but the dominant aesthetic is distinctly European with a lyricism that’s almost classical. Vitchev's music is also very cinematic, which is not surprising considering his affinity for the visual arts.
Unlike some of Vitchev's past recordings, Familiar Fields is not a concept album, but each tune is a bittersweet creation. The album feels like an emotional visit to a memorable landscape that has changed over time. The harmonic connection between the leader and pianist Weber Iago is especially powerful. Reminiscent of the bond between Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, their rapport may be rooted in a shared cosmopolitan awareness, since the Brazilian-born Iago also relocated to the U.S. and spent extensive time in Europe and Japan. Bassist Dan Robbins and drummer Mike Shannon round out the quartet.
The foursome’s interplay is highly intricate, resulting in emotive tunes that wax and wane in intensity. Both uplifting and wistful, Vitchev’s music shows an obvious Metheny influence, although Familiar Fields relies less on electric instruments and more on improvisation than most Metheny Group albums.
“Wounded by a Poisoned Arrow” and “The Mask of Agamemnon” are two of the most engaging melodies Vitchev has recorded. The latter tune features particularly elegant solos by the guitarist, Iago and Robbins, as well as a dazzling coda. With its shifting textures, the two-part “Familiar Fields” is the album’s dramatic centerpiece, while the mellow closing track “Willing to Live” is a tribute to Vitchev’s grandmother.
Whether you call it post-bop or post-fusion, Vitchev’s brand of jazz is passionate and ethereal. Vitchev has developed into a formidable guitarist and intelligent composer, and since he’s only 32 years old, his best work may be yet to come.
by Ed Kopp (Jazz Journalist/Critic)
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