You’re a high school senior. You’ve applied to the best jazz colleges. They’ve all accepted you. So, what do you do? You blow them off and head downtown to play for spare change.
Does this mean you’re crazy? Not if you’re Andreas Varady, who by age 12 had done plenty of busking on the streets, posted scenes of passersby marveling at his guitar virtuosity on YouTube and cut his first album.
On July 24, Varady turns 21, the age when many of his peers are wrapping up their music degrees. Yet, he can look back on becoming the youngest artist ever to headline at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, being mentored by none other than Quincy Jones, and performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
The brisk guitar work and sophisticated compositions on Varady’s latest album, The Quest (Resonance), confirm that he made the right career choices. They include opting to stay in Limerick, Ireland, where his family settled after emigrating from Slovakia when Varady was 9 years old. He’s still there and happily so.
“I’m not sure college is something I’d want to do for music,” Varady said. “I’m not being arrogant at all, but sometimes I feel like, what can you show me there that I haven’t already expressed? I’ve tried it before. I was at Skidmore [College, on a scholarship from Ireland’s Arts Council in 2010,] for two weeks. I felt like, what am I learning here? We were playing standards. I can do that with my brother [drummer Adrian Varady] in my room. I know the music scene is not good in Limerick. But I like being here. I don’t need to move to New York to be a better musician.”
Varady always has based his approach to improvisation on infusing his own ideas into classic jazz solos. In his early years, he recalled, “I would practice, like, ‘Donna Lee,’ to try to get it to be as clear as possible. I would play it straight-up, and then I’d work on making it more the way I wanted it to be. Practicing runs and scales doesn’t help you as much, because that becomes what you know. I’d rather learn five minutes of ‘Giant Steps’ and practice that.”
Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were among his early favorites. “I always listened to all kinds of music,” Varady explained. “I didn’t get too far into rock. Radiohead was a huge influence, but I was never into rock guitar players. I did get into electronic music, like Disclosure and Kaytranada. And hip-hop inspires a lot of my playing.”
His interest in hip-hop certainly isn’t obvious on The Quest, where several tracks feature a 6/8 meter and the solos reflect a strong grasp of melodic and harmonic nuance. Still, Varady insisted, “When you grow up with a type of music, it becomes a part of you. It’s more about the vibe than the sound or the way someone is rapping. But the way Mos Def and Q-Tip rap, it’s so swinging. It inspires the way I phrase in a solo.”
The recording sessions for The Quest—which contains 10 of Varady’s original compositions—were a bit of a family affair, with the leader’s brother playing drums, and their father, Bandi, on bass. Rounding out the band were Benito Gonzalez (piano) and Radovan Tariska (saxophone).
“My inspiration is everything,” Varady noted. “It’s not one person or genre. It’s just life in general. For example, The Quest is aggressive; it’s in-your-face jazz. The music I’m writing now is very different, because different things are happening in my life now. So, my next album will still be my vibe, but with very different sounds. It’s always about how my life sounds.” DB