Sachal Vasandani Celebrates the American Songbook

A Q&A with the singer/songwriter about his fifth album, "Shadow Train"

Sachal Vasandani

It’s been just over a decade since Sachal Vasandani emerged as one of the most compelling singer/songwriters in postmillennial jazz. To date, his own compositions have always figured prominently in his recordings. Now, for the exquisite Shadow Train, his fifth release as a leader, he focuses exclusively on jazz and pop standards; the album’s 10 tracks extend from Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer to Bill Evans and the Gibb brothers. Key to the project’s sublimity is all-star accompaniment from pianist Taylor Eigsti (featured on Vasandani’s previous disc, the all-originals-but-one Slow Motion Miracles), bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and guitarist Nir Felder.

JazzTimes: What was your vision for the album?

Sachal Vasandani: I wanted to celebrate community. There is a community aspect to this record that came about organically. It very quickly became less about me and more about we, and I have such great respect for the people I was playing with.

The theme I wanted to connect with was being romantic but in a modern age. We’d been reading a lot in the news about men behaving terribly, and I wanted to take a look forward as much as a look back. With all the respect I have for the women in my life, I wanted to find lyrics that would channel that respect, and then to bring it to these guys who have respect for me and for the process. For instance, I told them for “Unforgettable” that I wanted to bring out a feeling of anticipation but also a bit of tension. This group helps bring such ideas to life better than anyone.

How did that unfold in the studio?

We did it in a space that allowed for such creativity to happen. Eric Harland has a studio venture [Manhattan’s GSI Studios, cofounded with bassist Austin White and saxophonist Daniel Rovin] and branched out to create a label. So we were sort of on home turf for these guys. I have a long relationship with Dayna, and Nir and I have done plenty of stuff together. Harland and I played [together] about a year ago, and that’s when he told me about opening up the studio and that we should talk about doing something.

Who did the arrangements?

We all did. There were a couple that Taylor brought in that we read close to the sheet and a few I brought in as charts that we expanded. Everybody lent their energies. Nir might have a unique intro or Taylor might suggest opening something up. Everyone had a seat at the table in a lot of ways. It was very much a group project.

While sometimes you’re right out front, more often it feels as if you’re wrapped inside the arrangements.

You hit the nail on the head. That’s my thesis, in music and in life. Sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow; and sometimes the joy of following is just as special.

There’s a nakedness to your vocals that recalls Chet Baker and Johnny Hartman.

Thank you so much, both [are] big influences, so I’ll take that. Within the collective, we each have a role to play, and my role is to sing these lyrics as bare and powerfully as I’ve ever done.

This is your first album of just standards.

I took off some originals to concentrate on these tunes, to pick tunes that others had written and try to bring them forward. We all know these songs and have our own journeys with these songs. The idea was to find that thread through the lyrics to this spirit we’re bringing to them. Like the Abbey Lincoln tune [“Throw It Away”]; there’s something about that song and the fact that it comes from Abbey that really drives home what I’ve been talking about, the community aspect amongst the men making the music out of a woman’s song, that shows how we’re walking that fine line between being “masculine” and being respectful.

Tell me about the title, Shadow Train.

John Ashbery is one of my favorite poets, and that poem stuck out for me. You can take it as you see it in terms of the record or the times. It just got me.

You recently turned 40. Do you feel you’ve reached a corresponding level of artistic maturity?

SV: I don’t know. I hope I continue to grow. When you look at a number like that you tend to look backwards; but I prefer [to focus on] how I can continue to make great work.