Acclaimed pianist and composer Donald Vega is a luminary whose accolades are rivaled only by the scope of his vision. From studying firsthand under jazz legends such as John Clayton, Billy Higgins, and Kenny Barron, being a staple member of the legendary Ron Carter Golden Striker Trio, and most recently being selected as a Guggenheim Fellow, Vega has had an impressive and wide-ranging career which has pushed him steadily into the upper echelons of the jazz landscape. A native of Nicaragua, Vega emigrated to the United States at age 14 and has been shaped powerfully by the people and experiences who have walked with him from childhood to the musician and person he is today. As I Travel, set to be Vega’s fourth album as a bandleader, is a programmatic, autobiographical suite of compositions inspired by his voyage – both geographically as an immigrant and intangibly as he has been molded through the lives of others. Featuring an all-star roster of Lewis Nash (drums), John Patitucci (bass), and Luisito Quintero (percussion), As I Travel highlights the interactive and interconnected nature of what it means to learn and grow as a human being.
The story behind As I Travel began long before the album was even conceived as an idea. At age 14, Vega – led by his mother, who had previously begun moving to America to pave the way for her family – fled the civil war in Nicaragua and emigrated to the United States. “This album is an American story,” Vega says. “The topic of immigration has been debated in the United States since its founding. No matter what side you land on, each immigrant’s story is unique, full of hope and often heartbreak.”
For his first couple of years in America, Vega spoke little to no English, and his primary form of cross-cultural communication was music. This multi-layered dependence and joyous release that Vega found in music led him to dig into his passion for the discipline and art form even more, ultimately enabling him to study at the Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School. As his prowess in the craft developed, Vega began to recognize within himself a distinct ability to convey stories through music. Now, as an established musician and inimitable creative force in his own right, Vega seeks to tell his personal story – and, in so doing, the stories of so many others – through music. “There are thousands of immigration stories just like mine that don’t get told,” Vega explains. “I’m fortunate enough to be able to share my story through music.”
The album’s title and the title track from which its name stems succinctly summarize the unifying theme present throughout the album. As I Travel refers to the distinct physical distance from Nicaragua to Los Angeles, where Vega’s family settled, and finally to New York, where Vega studied and settled. Simultaneously, this title is a nod to Vega’s personal development of head and heart, with lessons learned through both seasons of wonder and tribulation. “Through moving countries and ultimately attending some of the best universities in the world, I learned a lot about myself, my character, and my passion for music,” Vega says. “Adversity also taught me to have compassion for those around me, the importance of hearing everyone’s story, and recognizing and celebrating their uniqueness.”
Musically, Vega puts storytelling at the forefront of his compositions. Whether through pleasing melodies or idyllic harmonies, Vega infuses his time on the bandstand into every note and rest he performs. More than mere pitch and rhythm, Vega carries with him the compassion and kindness carried from his wealth of varied experiences in each performance. “My music comes from a place of love… This album celebrates friends and family and all the experiences and memories that make us who we are,” Vega says. “I hope [listeners] feel all those things and bring that level of love and compassion back to their families and lives. Wouldn’t that be great?”
As I Travel begins vibrantly with a track entitled “Baila! Dance Like No One’s Watching”. As the name suggests, the piece is a jubilant statement reflecting Vega’s homeland’s culture and outlook. “In Nicaragua, there is so much poverty, and yet the people are known for their joy,” Vega says. “They take time to celebrate every moment and ‘Dance Like No One’s Watching.’” As a father, Vega sees this same unconquerable spirit of happiness in his son. This piece is equally dedicated to and inspired by his son and homeland. The album continues by retelling one of Vega’s oldest and dearest compositions, “Tomorrows.” Originally the title track from his 2008 debut album, “Tomorrows” is a tale of hope and optimism for the future, inspired by the hope and optimism of his own story – even if sometimes the optimism is created in the embellishment. “The story gets told a lot that I came to this country at 14 on the 4th of July. The truth is, I don’t recall the exact date or year,” Vega admits. “…but it’s a nice idea, isn’t it? That America was celebrating another year at the same time I was crossing the border to start a new chapter in my life.” As the album nears its close, listeners are presented with a driving, beautiful work entitled “Dear Mayra,” Vega’s tribute to his mother. Vega’s mother was, in many ways, his beacon growing up. From paving the way to America for her family and ensuring Vega had everything he needed to pursue music, she is a steadfast, “positive force of nature” in the composer’s life. “You’ll notice there are many sections where this song does not let up,” Vega says. “It drives you forward no matter what – just like every mom does worldwide.”
An album with such a high-caliber vision requires a band of equal caliber to pull it off. Vega assembled a perfect (and star-studded) cast for the task. As I Travel boasts the presence of Lewis Nash on drums, John Patitucci on bass, and Luisito Quintero on percussion. In addition to the wealth of experience and unparalleled accolades of such a crew, Vega praises explicitly the band’s versatility. With a body of work that regularly and seamlessly flows between Latin and Swing idioms, such a level of musicianship and interconnected trust was a prerequisite for success. “[The band] 100% brought their experience and musicality to the table in the recording, and As I Travel is better because of it,” says Vega.
With As I Travel, Vega presents an artistic statement that stands as a profound monument to the human spirit. Uniquely creative yet universally appealing, Vega blends with seemingly effortless command a myriad of traditions into a brilliantly unified whole that bespeaks a story worth telling and a tale worth hearing.
As I Travel releases on Imagery Records and Tiger Turn on October 27, 2023.