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The setting is so intimate you can hear him breathe. Like the dry clack of a saxophonists’ fingers on the keys or the slippery squeak of a guitarist’s fingers on the fingerboard, Sachal Vasandani’s audible respiration adds a deeply human dimension to the vocalist’s performance on Midnight Shelter, his recent duo recording with pianist Romain Collin. While a fussy producer might have edited out the in- and exhalations, or fixed moments when the singer’s voice breaks with emotion, Vasandani was aiming for a more direct type of communication, one that transcends the usual polished studio creation.
“[The breathing] is something that I wanted to actually leave in,” says the Brooklyn-based Vasandani, speaking by phone in mid-June. “I spent a lot of my time, technically, over the years, taking my voice and trying to make everything sound easy. And I think sometimes people have taken that for granted, which is fine. But on this one, I put in extra effort that I wanted to leave in. Because I think you get a sense of the human-ness of the singer behind the voice and the melody.”
Midnight Shelter is thick with ambience, each track contributing to a wistful mood of introspection. Vasandani opens the album with his own “Summer No School,” a lovely charcoal sketch capturing the almost painful diffidence of gathering the courage to talk to one’s crush. “Only love could make me this afraid of you,” he softly sings to Collin’s equally heart-aching accompaniment. Naked vulnerability remains at the core of the record; the duo pares down songs such as Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go” and Harry Styles’ “Adore You” to their emotional essence, and Vasandani describes the everlasting embrace of slow-dancing lovers in his lyrics to Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous.”
While romance and longing are key drivers to much of Vasandani’s artistry, the conditions of the pandemic lockdown only deepened the pathos of his delivery on Midnight Shelter. Last year, he and Collin, a friend and neighbor, met at a park near his home to shake off the ennui and isolation and share some food and wine. Conversation inevitably turned toward their playing together in the studio. Without any grand design, the pair arranged for sessions at the then-recently reopened Big Orange Sheep Studios in Brooklyn. “It was just so organic,” Vasandani says. “And at some point, it kind of felt like we should turn this into a record. No big aspirations, but that helped focus some of the repertoire.”
The criteria they set for song selection was that each track confer the emotion of the work as a whole. “Great Ocean Road,” a songwriting collaboration between the two, certainly fits the bill, a moody soul check in which Vasandani’s lyrics about dealing with romantic disappointment feel like healing balm for a pandemic-fatigued populace: “Heading home, breathing in/I’m all right.” Covers were chosen for color and texture: Nick Drake’s mysterious “River Man,” Abbey Lincoln’s wise and mystical “Throw It Away,” Paul McCartney’s empathetic “Black Bird,” and even Bob Dylan’s kiss-off tune “Don’t Think Twice” are rendered with utmost tenderness.
Each song seems to take on added resonance during this moment in time, including Vasandani’s own “Love Away.” He had written the piece about immigrants, some just children, fleeing to the U.S. in search of safety only to be detained, deported and separated from family. “I wrote it about one thing,” he says, “but it kinda works for this bigger thing we’re experiencing, as well.” Same could be said of “Before You Go,” the tune Scottish singer-songwriter Capaldi wrote about a family member’s suicide, but which could also be interpreted as an impassioned plea to a lover with one foot out the door.
“A good lyric allows for the imagination to consider a few different possibilities at the same time,” Vasandani says. “I’ve always been turned on to those kinds of lyrics that don’t spoon-feed you the imagery but paint with a slightly broader brushstroke, so they can paint a mood and you can kind of insert your own experience into it. The songs that have meant the most to me, as a human, fall into that category.”
From his 2007 debut album Eyes Wide Open, a thread of romantic yearning runs through Vasandani’s discography. That first record included a read of Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came,” a meditation on love and mortality as viewed through the eyes of someone pondering existence after his or his partner’s demise. Even jazz standards he’s selected over the years — “There’s a Small Hotel,” “September in the Rain” — present a romantic ideal, a cozy nook for lovers to exist outside of time, without the world intruding, even if that ideal seems somewhat elusive for the singer. “It’s an ambition for me,” he says.
While Vasandani grew up listening to his parents’ jazz records — Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams were early favorites — and has had the opportunity to work with jazz icons Jon Hendricks and Wynton Marsalis, he’s also a product of his time. Born in 1978, he experiences no cognitive dissonance in interpreting the music of contemporary artists such as Bon Iver or Radiohead in a jazz context. “I think that I, who probably loves swing music more than any of my peers who are jazz musicians, I have allowed myself to say it’s OK to have a record that isn’t explicitly four on the floor,” he notes. “I think people’s ears, even jazz listeners’, are looking for that.”
The pandemic might also have contributed to a desire for recordings like Midnight Shelter, in which overarching mood is more significant than genre or song pedigree. Its enveloping warmth carefully curated by Vasandani and Collin, the album, while not exactly a palliative, offers catharsis during a time of social unease.
“The mood is a little dark, it’s a little annoyed, a little upset, a little doom and gloom,” the singer says. “But through it all, there’s still a kernel of hope, and just the power of playing together — that’s hope in and of itself. That affected the repertoire selection and it also affected the keys, and finally it affected the performances for both Romain and me. He found textures, and we would kind of say, ‘Oh, that’s a little too bright.’ Or I would do some delivery and I was like, ‘Well, that was really innocent and happy. We don’t want that.’ So through a couple of rehearsals, and picking the right lyrics, too, we got something.” - Bob Weinberg