Issue 138, INTERVIEW with Hristo Vitchev

I was first exposed to Hristo’s wonderful jazz guitar playing a couple of years ago, and have since reviewed several of his CD’s.  He shot me a copy of a brand-new “fusion” release only a week or so ago (Peace Streets, from Joe DeRose and Amici, which Hristo is a co-leader for), and I escalated it to the very TOP of my review QUEUE (it WAS that great)!  Be sure and check out this INTERVIEW to get some great insights on where Hristo is from, where he’s been & where he’ll be going!

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Zzaj:  It’s quite a ways from Bulgaria to San Francisco…. give our readers an “off-the-cuff” bio shot at how you came all that way… where you grew up, how you got into jazz and why you settled where you’re at, please.

 Hristo: My family relocated from Bulgaria to Caracas, Venezuela when I was only 8 years old. It was due to their work and so the entire family moved there. We spent 10 years living in South America and then the company which they were working for relocated them to the USA (San Francisco Bay Area) since throughout the years an Amrican high-tech corporation had acquired them. So in a way, one event led to another, and without too much planning we came to the USA. I started playing guitar at age 12 (my grandmother actually signed my up for lessons) but I was totally into the 80’s rock bands and heavy metal. I had heard that jazz was a style of music, but that was the full extent of my knowledge of the American art form. Gradually my ears kept evolving and hearing different tonal hues and colors and little by little my musical taste kept changing. It wasn’t until 2002 when a friend took me to see a jazz concert at the famous Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, CA that something clicked up there. For the first time, I discovered the beauty and multidimensional textures of the acoustic instruments and the horns, and the brush strokes on the snare, etc. It was like a whole new world to my ears. Ever since that day, my life took a 180 degree change. I made it a goal to study, understand, and finally express myself through that great musical art form. And here we are 11 years later, with 8 records released. It has been a great and very interesting journey and can not wait to see what tomorrow holds for me.

Zzaj:  I noticed that you have an interest in writing about music, as well as playing it.  What have you written, and why did you write it?  Do you have any new writing projects coming up?

Hristo: I love improvisation and all ways of thinking that an improviser has to go through to create a context for the expression of sounds in time. I love researching and trying to explain to myself in different ways the many different approaches by which improvisation can be codified and given formal structure as well as to adopt certain concepts and ways of expression from one instrument to another. I have published a few articles on jazz improvisation as well as a book on jazz harmony and chordal construction for guitarists. My next goal is to publish a book I have been working now for a long time that deals with the creation of intricate melodic ideas and motifs using arpeggios.

Zzaj:  You’ve done a lot of composition… one which I reviewed was “The Perperikon Suite”; how long did it take you to compose that, and how much of your personal life experience was involved (do you think) in creating it?

Hristo: The Perperikon Suite was one of the large scale compositional works I have done up to date. It was all inspired by my visit to the ancient city of Perperikon, which is located in the Eastern Rhodope mountains in my homeland, Bulgaria. It was once the capital of the great Thracian civilization which inhabited these lands 5000 years B.C. It was such a magical experience that I wanted to capture it in notes and sounds. Right after I got back to the USA I started working on it and knew immediately that in order to capture the whole experience this had to be one single composition divided in 7 movements, which reflected the different parts of such city. The inspiration was so intense that I wrote all the material within 2 weeks. I believe that as a composer, it is not possible not to have the imprint of your personal life and experience on your work. After all, I can only say things that I have felt and experienced.

Zzaj:  Your work in the fusion jazz arena was a new (and very pleasant) experience for me; do you have any preference for a particular type of jazz, or is your interest based on the energy of the players (as well as your own)?

Hristo: I think my true voice as a composer fits more with the deeply textured and expansive harmonic characteristics that can be captured with the purest of sounds from acoustic instruments. I think of my music as impressionistic – like brush strokes melting together to add to the larger sum and experience. However, as any artist, one feels and has desires to experience emotions that might not fit with the main working structure or format that you have, and this is where having the ability to play, compose, and perform within different musical landscapes provides the healthiest of options. With the fusion band I can express more of my voice in the groove oriented, sonically modulated/processed, and rhythmically interesting environments. I feel honored, and lucky to have that ability.

Zzaj:  How extensive was your musical training?  Were you trained in a particular discipline (like classical), or a more general sense?  How significantly has the training played a part in what you create today?

Hristo: I was trained formally and have a B.M. degree in Jazz Studies. My education played a key role in understanding the structure and working units of this great art form, but more than anything, my education and the attention from such great instructors that I was lucky to have, made me fall in love with the music and the art. It is something I will do right away if I had to make the choice again. Some people argue that the street is the best education you can get, and just getting out there and playing is the way to go, but I truly believe that the classroom has some things to offer that the street does not.

Zzaj:  Is there a particular musician (or band/group) on the scene today that you would like to have the opportunity to play/create with?  If so, who, and what would you most like to explore with them?

Hristo: I have so many people I would love to have the opportunity to create with, but in particular I would love to explore some of the sonic possibilities with the great Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen. I love the minimalistic approach to his music and the use of space. The other person I always had dreamed to playing with was the great Swedish pianist Ejsborn Svensson. He has been one of my main inspirations with his trio E.S.T. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago way too young, and left behind and amazing legacy of music. Maybe we can do something together in another life.

 Zzaj:  You seem to have many irons in the fire; that’s one thing our readers like to learn about… what projects do you have coming up over the next year or so?  Give us as much detail as you can, and samples (if available).

Hristo: I’m working on and album with my modern jazz-chamber-orchestral group SEVA which I co-lead with the great Brazilian pianist Weber Iago. I also want to do a trio record very soon, exploring some of the more guitar oriented material that I have written that explores the instrument in more detail, but after releasing 3 different albums this year, I will have to take some time to take the music on the road first before we get back into the studio.

Zzaj:  Your website shows all the earmarks of the latest tech… do you get involved in web promotion, or do others do that for you?

Hristo: I do like everything about design, creating, and playing with composition of elements. From creating fliers, to web banners, etc. I do get involved in all aspects of the design and do everything myself from the CD covers and packaging to the graphics in all promo material I use to newsletters, etc. I do have a great web designer who helps me realize all the programming work for the website and he is awesome. It is all art, a way to express things that you feel and that is what attracts me to it I guess.

Zzaj:  Have you been on tour recently?  If so, where?  Will you be on-the-road any time again soon?  Do you like touring, or do you prefer staying local?

Hristo: Yes, we just finished a great North West tour with the quartet in support of our latest outing “Familiar Fields” which covered all major cities on the West Coast. From Los Angeles to Seattle. It was so much fun to share the music with the wonderful audiences and people in all the places we visited. I do plan to go on the road again early next year so that we can present the material from the latest record with Joe DeRose and Amici as well as some of the brand new music that we finished composing with SEVA. However, it gets really hard sometimes in terms of logistics when I’m the only person taking care of all the things: from booking, advertising, promoting, planning travel, etc. But when you love something so much and you are dedicated it somehow is all possible. So in short I love touring and wish we can do more of it, but at this stage with no extra help it is not possible to the extent that I want. Of course, I’m working very hard to change all that and be able to take the music on a global journey.

Zzaj:  A lot of my readers are aspiring players… give them your opinion on if music is worth the sacrifices that must be made; any insights you may have on how to be viable in today’s evolving music market would be welcomed as well.

Hristo: Personally I believe that anything you love dearly is worth all the sacrifices necessary to give it life and a place to blossom. Music and Art are a hard profession in our society. There are a lot of hardships, difficulties, frustrations, sacrifices, and discouragement on the road ahead. But, the moments, when you experience how something you created touched another human being deeply and maybe changed their lives you realize how lucky, how immensely unique and honored you are to be able to do what you do. And then suddenly it all makes scene. All the hours, pain, frustration, and hardships disappear and you feel free as a bird, high above the clouds. It is bizarre. It is as if we artists have the key to unlock a door that opens another dimension, and we have this duty to be the gatekeepers for society.

In short, the few words I have for everyone is: dream high and dream big since dreams comes true, but at the same time work very very hard. Do not let one minute slide by without you pursuing your dream. And do not be satisfied with conservative and moderate goals since this only yields moderate returns. Risk it and give it everything you have. Risking and failing is much more rewarding than looking back and asking “what if?”

At least that is how I try to live every day. Life is way too short to ask the “what if questions” so I try not to have to do that.

There are a lot of specific technical information that I could present to how to promote yourself and so on, but I think it will be way to long of this conversation. 🙂

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