MICHAEL BUGEJA hangs out with VINNY VELLA JR for a chat about the pianist’s latest album and the various elements that have shaped him and made him see music in another way.
Vinny Vella Jr is an affable person, the kind of man who immediately makes one feel comfortable in his presence, and he likes to debate, especially when it comes to music. I found out all this when he invited me over to his place for a chat about his career and particularly his latest CD, Another Way. Asked how he got into music, he explains that he grew up surrounded by music. “The entire family, my aunt, my uncles, my dad…they were all musicians, so it was inevitable that I would follow in their shoes” he says, adding that he did also dream of playing football for Valletta, the city where he was born and is very, but very passionate about, “but that’s another story”.
Although he is known for his piano playing, Vella admits that he originally wanted to be a drummer but his father Vinny Sr, one of the top musicians and bandleaders of his time, convinced him to take up the piano instead. “He knew that most venues had their own piano so it would be less arduous to be a pianist”, Vella explains. “Of course, he also insisted I had to learn to read music and all the theory that goes with it, so there was still work to be done, but looking back, that is what helped me get to where I am now, and I’m happy at the way it’s all turned out”.
Once he had taken up the piano, Vella says he immersed himself completely in learning all about it. “Most people associate me with jazz, which is perhaps the genre I’m most active in, but I’m quite partial to other styles too”. He mentions his time in 1980s rock band Keystone, whose music he describes as “part rock, part jazz and a lot of experimentation”, and among several music choices, Deep Purple, The Beatles, Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Bob James and Bob Marley. “Then one day, I was listening to BFBS radio, and they played Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the key of life album, and I’ve been hooked ever since”. Equally significant in his musical preferences is Chick Corea, thanks to whom he got into Latin jazz which, he adds “is very close to my heart”.
11 years from the release of his 2003 debut album, The Beatles Works, Vella recently released his second album, Another Way, which captures all of the above and more within the space of 12 tracks. “The two albums were produced very differently”, Vella tells me, pointing out that the songs on The Beatles Works were originally intended for a live concert. “It did very well and we ended up giving two more performances, further to which (drummer) Noel Grech suggested we should perhaps record an album featuring those arrangements”. As spontaneous as the idea was, so was the recording of the album; “it was all recorded in live takes in two afternoons and that was it, no more, no less”.
In contrast, the approach to Another Way was better planned, in that Vella took his time (work on the album actually started around three years ago) to pick and choose his band (featuring several top local jazz musicians) and the songs to record. “We’re not getting any younger”, he jokes, “so I thought I should get this done sooner rather than later”. He sifted through his many original compositions, of which five eventually made it onto the album; the rest being covers of tunes that are special to the artist, re-interpreted of course, with his own jazz twist. “The decision to also include covers was because I wanted the album to reflect my own musical journey, which has been inspired by different genres”.
From Stevie Wonder to Lennon and The Beatles via 10CC, The Real Thing and Pink Floyd, the covers are anything but predictable, the latter in particular presenting an intensive jazz overhaul that captures Vella’s knack for getting truly inside a song before re-arranging it. “Looking back, I wish I had included a song from Antonio Carlos Jobim too, as I consider him a musical phenomenon, but perhaps that is something I can work on for the next album”. The original numbers, culled from Vella’s extensive body of mostly-unreleased work, include My One and Only, written when his son Jamie was born. “The original had lyrics too, but (guitarist) Marvin Gaerty brought something to the song which I felt gave it a new feel that I liked very much”. He explains that most of his songs have a story behind them; “Moments, for example was written after I’d come out of an operation”.
The only original track with vocals, Everything will pass was written especially for this album. “I played it to (vocalist) Andreana (DeBattista) with whom I work very closely and she loved the song”. DeBattista sings on two other songs on Another Way (among them the standout Blackbird) with other vocal contributions coming from Nadine Axisa, Francesca Galea and Glen Vella. “Like Andreana, Nadine and Francesca are well-versed and well-known in jazz circles. Glen on the other hand comes from the mainstream, and having him on board gives the record a touch of pop that blends in well”.
Overall, Another Way is an album that wears its jazz roots proudly on its sleeve, but they’ve been presented in a way that is inviting not only to jazz aficionados but also to a general audience that appreciates easy-listening music. “I could have gone for a different, more exclusive approach”, Vella responds, “but in the end music is there to be heard and shared, and the more people it reaches the better”. It all falls nicely into place with the title of the album really, as Vella puts it only too well. “I believe that in music, there is always another way of doing things…as in life, really”.
An edited version of this article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta (16 November 2014)