Few guitarists have carried the torch of Pat Metheny so humbly as Hristo Vitchev, and never with such brightness of purpose as on his latest quartet album, In Search Of Wonders. The Bay Area-based musician and producer has since 2009 put out a consistent, top-flight catalog of records, ranging from explorations of his Bulgarian roots to straight-ahead jazz road trips, but always by original design. With Wonders, he has at last tackled that most risky of studio ventures: the double album. The result is not only a magnum opus, but his most emotional work so far, and one that is sure to put smooth jazz naysayers in their place.
I asked Vitchev to elaborate on the significance of this album, which to me feels like his most autobiographical. “It has been an exciting journey since I started recording and publishing my own work. All the music presented in this release describes who I am both as an artist and person.” And if opener “The Transitory Nature” is any indication, Vitchev’s life has been one lived in deepest gratitude. It’s right there in the brotherhood he shares with his dedicated crew of pianist Jasnam Daya Singh (a.k.a. Weber Iago), bassist Dan Robbins, and drummer Mike Shannon. Their connections are key to the integrity of Vitchev’s sound, which by virtue of its infrastructure expands the limitations of any foundation. “All of us are first and foremost best friends,” says the leader of his bandmates. “The camaraderie, trust, respect, and love we all share is very special. That is in reality all you need as an artist to be able to open and present even the most fragile sectors of your soul and heart. I have only them in mind when I write this music.”
Vitchev further stresses that he has never subbed in other players when performing this music live, and it shows in the leaps of evolution taken by his distinct method of archaeology, which now yields its best preserved artifacts. Among them is “It May Backfire.” Singh’s intro leads the band into a groove of geometric proportions. The unity of vision, held together in no small way by Shannon’s drumming, is well muscled. And while Vitchev may be the light that gives it sanctity, and Robbins a sense of corporeality through his articulate soloing, it’s the density of build through which the collective reality of this music is best spoken.
If I were to draw any internal relationship from the whole, however, it would be that shared between Vitchev and Singh, whose bond in “Post Nubes” and “Fuchsia Brown Eyes” is unbreakable. The latter’s tenderness reveals a hidden, spectral blues in the pianism, which in tandem with Vitchev’s adlibs adds layers of photorealism. The title track, too, with its Brazilian underlay, opens many doors with a single key.
It’s not by chance that tunes like the understated “Falling In Orange,” which opens the second disc, and the greener “It Is Here, Somewhere” should feel so visual. Vitchev has cultivated this quality in his music with great awareness. “My composing process as well as the arrangements are always driven by vivid imagery,” he explains. “When I sit down on the piano to write I will often close my eyes call up a picture. Only when that picture is in sharpest focus do notes, chords, and rhythms take form in ink.” With this in mind, it’s impossible not to read a growing nostalgia into the album’s progression, at its peak in “Old Theme.” The slick, youthful theme yields some of Vitchev’s most inspired soloing on record, rendered all the more exploratory by the rhythm section’s keen regularity.
Memories thrive throughout the album’s remainder. From the rhythmically savvy “Almost Home” to the dreamlike twists of “The Invisible Stairway,” moving pictures abound, at once frozen in, and animated by, time. In this respect, the album is a living portrait of Vitchev as composer, “a little corner of this musical landscape,” as he puts it, “I can call my own.” In other words, Wonders feels more at home than ever because it reaches farther than ever. This feeling of comfort is perhaps what distinguishes it from its predecessors and underscores the message epitomized in the piano-guitar epilogue, “We Search For Wonders.” Vitchev is quick to underline this point by way of conclusion. “Life is full of amazing things, but it takes desire and energy to lift your head, look around, and notice them. We are so grateful to have found each other and do the things we love as a group. These are our wonders, and this is our musical tribute to all that is around us.”