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Music Review: Nick Vayenas – Synesthesia

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Nick Vayenas is a jazz musician who, at first listen, sounds straightforward and conventional. A closer listen, however, reveals some intricate and complex compositions, and Vayenas is anything but another jazz musician; he's a musician that's willing to cross bridges into new musical territory, and doesn't hold anything back.

Vayenas' debut album Synesthesia offers a mix of synthesizers, horns, and percussion that ties everything together around a central theme, one that Vayenas describes in his liner notes as a "type of stimulation [that] evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color." With that far-out explanation in mind, Synesthesia becomes an album that is multi-dimensional, forcing the listener to participate with all of his or her senses. That's an adventurous claim, something that Vayenas pulls off well.

The album begins with "Voyager," and the opening synth noises suggest a sci-fi epic voyage–possibly a voyage "where no man has gone before?"–until Vayenas breaks in with steady, triplicated beats, piano, and bass. It's an opening that hints at the larger things to come, and as the album moves forward, Vayenas sprinkles the music with synth motifs and moments of pure jazz.

Synesthesia continues with "Assembly Line," giving the album its first feeling of exploration. The song starts off with another synthesized riff, bringing in a trumpet and organ to keep it grounded. It's not quite like prog rock, or overly experimental jazz, yet it has a vibe of experimentation that leads the listener into the title track "Synesthesia." In "Synesthesia," Vayenas slows down a bit, adding his smoky background vocals as he hums along with the horn section. He fills the band out with keyboards and a guitar, and although these parts are subtle, they seem necessary.

Other times, Synesthesia feels like a conventional modern jazz album. On "Odeon," a swinging jazz drum beat plays on while the horn section takes turns improvising solos. Equally on "The Essence," Vayenas lets the band loose to forge new paths while the keyboard parts accentuate and direct the horns into these new territories.

Vayenas also changes the mood of the album several times. "Along The Way" has an eerie vibe, almost like the backing track of a scary movie. The pianos climb as the strings build the tension, and then segues into "Circuit Dialog," another eerie track that uses synth noises once again. "Circuit Dialog" breaks up the album, and Synesthesia mellows out for "Staircase," another straightforward jazz song that focuses on the piano and bass.

As the album comes to an end, Vayenas turns in a different direction once again. On "Gone From Me," he fuses keyboards with horns and strings, and guest vocalist Gretchen Parlato adds a sultry sound to an album that, up to this point, has remained strictly instrumental. Parlato sings, "why have you gone from me now? / you never said you'd go," suggesting loneliness, but also suggesting the overall theme of Synesthesia: that adventure can be both exciting and abandoning.

Synesthesia is a great debut album, and it should establish Vayenas as a serious jazz musician. Even though it strikes out into the territories and forces the listener to use all of the senses, it also stays well grounded in the roots of jazz. With its changing pace and unique style, Synesthesia is an album that won't lose you.

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