This is why it came as a surprise to me that it has been three very long, but fruitful, years since the release of an album by his brilliant quartet. I didn’t realize how much I missed the group that brought us Familiar Fields, especially any work his has done with his “musical brother” and collaborator, Jasnam Daya Singh (Weber Iago)—my favorite guitar/piano team since—and heretically, including—Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.
Now the Hristo Vitchev Quartet has released In Search of Wonders (First Orbit Sounds Music FOSM272) and it has been worth the wait. It is a two-CD album with over 100 minutes of music and, from the opening track, I was taken right back to the beauty of the experience of hearing Hristo Vitchev for the first time. And I reveled in it.
With him is his familiar line-up: Hristo on guitar, Jasnam on piano, Dan Robbins on bass and Mike Shannon on drums. The symmetry and synergy of these four is remarkable and almost-telepathic.
The album artwork is done once again by Hristo himself. As Impressionistic as the music. Hristo composed and arranged, and produced each track of the album.
The album opens on disc one with The Transitory Nature. Dan Robbins gets to opening the album with a two- plus four-note bass groove and is joined by Hristo and Jasnam cascading together before Hristo takes on the melody. Mike Shannon eases into the rhythm and the transition is seamless. Jasnam’s piano weaves in and out in delicate statement of the truth of the song’s title.
Nothing stays the same for long, despite the thematic repeats and grooves. The piece is as much about physics, entropy and human existence as it is about the sweetness of the music.
And the music is extraordinarily sweet. Within it, however, is a bitter-sweet melancholy that must inevitably accompany our own transitory nature. Such is life.
It May Backfire follows as the second track. Jasnam’s piano opens with a gliding, effortless movement before turning fierce accompanied by Mike Shannon’s pulse-quickening drums. It is a 13 ½ minute experience in cool movement and hot counter-movement. The glide becomes a stride then a charge, met always by an opposite movement. The Robbins/Shannon groove is smoking against Jasnam’s brilliant piano work. And it is brilliant.
Hristo then takes on the 8-note motif as Robbins tears into a vicious bass solo. Something backfired, for certain. Hristo retakes the melodic lead while Jasnam works loftily behind. Robbins continue the 8-note motif underneath.
All the while, Shannon is performing steadily and perfectly. I mean perfectly. In fact, I would have to describe this as corps-perfection.
I loved the final 55 seconds of the piece. Couldn’t get enough of this one, despite (or maybe because of) its length.
Post Nubes gives your heart a chance to calm down. The spacing is broader and the pace is slower but the melody is warm and distinctive. Hristo’s tone and texture is smooth (I mean that in a good way) and interesting. There is also a bit of a Steve Gadd-like military cadence that has a bit of an intentional off-step with the piano that brings a certain smile. Jasnam again turns in some great piano work and Robbins’ bass solo is nothing less than a bit of lullaby.
Speaking of lullabies, Fuschia Brown Eyes has that very character. The even pacing and delicate harmony of guitar and piano is wonderful. Robbins plays soft and low and Shannon is barely discernable but appropriately understated.
Absolutely lovely from beginning to end.
The title track, In Search of Wonders, is the fifth track on the album. Probably suggested because of the title, it brings to mind the travels of Odysseus or Sinbad. The quest theme is upheld well by the bass and drums with the sometimes nautical movement as they accompany the wonder seen through the “eyes” of the guitar and piano.
The majestic pre-conclusion to the piece, followed by the gentle ending, made me think of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. A furious battle, followed by rest.
Almost Home-Intro prepares percussively for Almost Home. It is a Mike Shannon drum solo and is the fastball that sets up the change-up to follow. In other words, you’re out. Almost Home is a fascinating work of guitar and piano dynamism that throws you off balance when the bass solo comes in with the treble-trouble.
The melody brings several Balkan accents that highlight the overall movement and tone of the piece. Jasnam’s straight-up Jazz piano against Shannon’s rim-playing is one of the coolest moments in dialogue while Hristo keeps the accents lively. The contrapuntal then groove conclusion is exciting stuff. This is a great ending to the first disc.
The second disc is introduced by Falling in Orange. Hristo’s guitar leads in, joined quickly by piano, bass and drums. This is Impressionistic Jazz in its full expression. Hints of Metheny’s As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls sound occasionally.
The pastoral imagery creates a picture of open vistas and gentle breezes. There is a sound of warmth and affection that tugs at the heart and offers rest. This is yet another example of the open-hearted camaraderie between the four musicians as they each partake of that warmth. The swing from guitar to piano is like watching childhood friends enjoying tire-swings late into the night.
Old Theme may have moments resembling classic or standard pieces but Hristo is building on a well-played and oft-told tradition with this piece. With Wes Montgomery-ish guitar riffs and Art Tatum-ish piano breaks, the stage is set for great solos from Robbins and Shannon.
This was a fun romp.
It was also offered a hot transition into the cooler It Is Here, Somewhere. The tempo and texture changes, the lushness of the melodies, the captivating modulations, and the welcome harmonies present a rich taste of what this quartet has to offer.
It Is Here, Somewhere is one of those well-crafted compositions/arrangements that has earned Hristo Vitchev such respect and notoriety. Sometimes his structures are as intriguing as his melodies and that is saying a lot.
And yet, this is also an example of what makes Hristo such an in-demand guitarist. His phrasing and touch are so good that they almost seem effortless and, sometimes, it is what he leaves unsaid that is as stunning as what he says.
The piano fade-out is gorgeous. This also forms a nice bridge to Stay (Prelude), which is a short piano solo that lets Jasnam have full range and scope as he offers a heart-felt and -warming introduction to Stay. Stay is picked up by the guitar joining the piano in sweet duet before being joined by bass and drums.
The palpable longing and suppressed anguish are echoed between guitar and piano but the affection and desire remain unabated. It is touching and warm, delicious and sweet, and too-soon over.
Without Words, As the Full Moon Shines takes up a tight precision not seen since Disc One. The rhythm section is in the pocket and the piano spins a great tale…without words, of course. As the piano sings, the rhythm section swings. Hristo sits out for a moment as the flexible trio work in cool symmetry. Hristo’s guitar rejoins just as Robbins takes off on a riveting solo of his own. He never disappoints.
Hristo’s chord changes are unexpected and crafty. Even after listening to all of his albums, and coming to know what Hristo is capable of doing, he still has the gift of surprise. He fashions the coolest grooves and then comes off of them brilliantly and meaningfully with his fabulous chord choices.
The Invisible Stairway is the penultimate piece of the disc and album. The strength of the melody and harmony are so well supported by the bass and drums because of their undercurrent of tonal contributions. Robbins bass solo mirrors Jasnam’s piano work nicely and the drums are played delicately and attentively. Hristo’s guitar is slick and sweet. The bouncing between each other is attractively done.
We Search for Wonders recaptures the theme of In Search for Wonders as carries the theme to album’s end. It is played as a duo with guitar and piano and continues the lifelong quest into the silence that envelops the close of this magnificent album.
In Search for Wonders is indeed worth the wait. For these four artists to return to the studio with their leader/composer/guitarist and record and release the perfect successor to Familiar Fields is even more than I dared hope. Nothing has gone unnoticed or unsaid, except where intended. The musicianship and artistry, with a heart full of love, has brought forth an album that speaks from the soul to the soul and we are made better by the hearing from a soul such as Hristo Vitchev.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl