New York City is a long way from tiny San Ygnacio, Texas - not only measured in miles (around 2,000, for the record) but also in temperament. Born and raised in Houston, bassist Marcos Varela nonetheless traces his roots back to the historic Texas town where his family has lived on the same ranch since at least the 1750s. Based in New York for the last 12 years, Varela takes stock of how far he's come on his leader debut, San Ygnacio, due to be released March 18 on Origin Records.
Drawing on collaborators from throughout his time in New York, Varela assembles a stand-out cast of veterans and peers. The album's core rhythm section is composed of two jazz giants: pianist George Cables, a key mentor, and drummer Billy Hart, one of Varela's earliest employers. They're joined by another longtime employer, trombonist Clifton Anderson, as well as two of Varela's most gifted contemporaries, saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Logan Richardson. On two tracks, Varela features his one-time collective quartet with up-and-coming players Arnold Lee (alto, son of bassist/composer Bill Lee and half-brother of director Spike Lee), Eden Ladin (piano) and Kush Abadey (drums).
Varela is a graduate of Houston's renowned High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, where his fellow alumni include Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, and Beyoncé. He arrived in NYC to continue his studies at the New School, leading to opportunities to perform with a wide range of artists including Cables, Hart, Anderson, Moran, Geri Allen, The Last Poets, the Mingus Big Band, Kendrick Scott, Billy Harper and Tyshawn Sorey, among countless others. He has also composed music for several film and TV projects, including director Domenica Cameron-Scorsese's film "Roots in Water."
"This record is a culmination of my New York experience," Varela says of San Ygnacio. "It features some of my favorite people to play with and recalls some of the positive experiences I've had during my New York days."
Legendary bassist Ron Carter contributed the album's liner notes, where he writes that Varela's "tone, choice of notes and compositions will place his playing and name on the list of bassists to be heard." A hero turned mentor, Carter is just one of the jazz elders who have taken note of Varela's talents and encouraged the bassist along his path. While still in college, he was invited to join longtime Dizzy Gillespie drummer Charlie Persip's big band. Around the same time, Hart included Varela in a sextet of young players that also featured rising stars Theo Croker, Sullivan Fortner, and Irwin Hall.
"Billy encouraged us to challenge him and keep him young, and then he wanted to impart his experience and knowledge onto us as well," Varela says. "It was a great learning experience."
Three of the tracks on San Ygnacio come from the repertoire of Hart's sextet: "Pepper" and "Picturesque" are both George Mraz compositions, while "Lullaby for Imke" is a gentle ballad that the drummer recorded on a 2006 quartet release, presented here in a new arrangement by pianist Ezra Weiss. "Picturesque" is the album's sole trio piece, with Varela and Cables doubling up on the angular melody, while the brisk "Pepper" is highlighted by the pairing of Dayna Stephens' tenor and Varela's arco playing.
The album opens with its only standard, Cables' bold arrangement of "I Should Care." Varela says, "Especially on a debut record, the jazz community wants to hear you play over a standard and know that you have that ability. If you can't play a standard, it negates your jazz legitimacy. Besides, I've spent a lot of time playing that music, I loved George's arrangement, and I wanted something that everyone could get together and be creative on immediately."
Varela's "Colinas de Santa Maria" is named for his family's ranch in San Ygnacio, which has been in his family's possession since at least a mid-18th century Spanish land grant. While he grew up in Houston, Varela spent plenty of time visiting family at the ranch and enjoying the town's unchanged Spanish architecture. He evokes a sense of nostalgia for that time and landscape, while saxophonist Arnold Lee contributes a vivid, wistful solo. The same quartet, whose members Varela continues to play with in other contexts, returns on Eden Ladin's simmering "Red on Planet Pluto."
The leader takes the spotlight on "Mitsuru," a bass feature composed by Anderson, who often used the tune to feature Varela in the trombonist's own band. Anderson also contributes and plays on the mid-tempo swinger "Sister Gemini." Cables, who Varela met through the auspices of Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, wrote the intoxicating waltz "Looking For the Light," which Varela calls "one of my favorite George pieces - it really encourages you to play lyrically."
The album concludes with Varela's "Where the Wild Things Are," a modern burner named for his favorite childhood book. Following a darkly atmospheric introduction, the piece erupts into a bristling melody, finally leading into a raucous solo showcase for Billy Hart. The tune is the prime example of Varela's approach to bridging the generations represented in his band. "I wanted to take the veterans out of their comfort zone," he explains. "I wanted to flip the script a little bit and try something different, have them be adventurous and play some songs they wouldn't normally be heard playing. I wanted to push people in different directions to create a new sound."
An intriguing mix of personalities and influences, generations and sounds, San Ygnacio traces Marcos Varela's journey from Houston to New York, a trek rich with experiences and opportunities. It's a striking debut that points the way toward even more music - and miles - to come.