There aren't a lot of happy endings in real life. But pianist Donald Vega's performance at Catalina Bar & Grill Monday night was at least an eminently auspicious passage point in a difficult journey.
A little over two years ago, Vega's very presence in the United States was in jeopardy. The son of Nicaraguan immigrants, he was in danger--as a result of the Immigration Reform Act of 1996--of being returned to his native country, even though he had not lived there in nearly a decade. In the interim, as the result of much support and aid from friends and admirers, Vega's situation changed dramatically, and he is now a legal resident.
Equally important--especially to Vega--he also is now a graduate of the USC School of Music, and his appearance Monday was both a celebration and a recital. More than that, it was the introduction of a jazz talent filled with potential, yet already functioning at a first-class level.
Vega's program was demanding, an excursion through the intricacies of bebop and Thelonious Monk, the subtleties of material from the Great American Songbook, the rigorous demands of solo performance and the empathetic interaction of ensemble playing. And he handled each with ease and sophistication. His brisk soloing on Charlie Parker's "Cheryl" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" moved with the flow and articulation of Bud Powell. His work on "Evidence" and " 'Round Midnight" captured the disjunct accents and unexpected harmonies of Monk's lines. And "Love for Sale," "Speak Low" and "Secret Love" emerged via readings that captured the essence of each tune.
Vega was assisted by some first-rate players--especially his rhythm team of Lorca Hart, drums, and Pablo Motta, bass (with Ardom Belton replacing Motta on one number). Conga master Francisco Aguabella joined in for a descarga jam, and the evening climaxed with a solid rendering of Vega's perky original tune, "Wake Up," featuring the added horn section of Carl Saunders, trumpet; Isaac Smith, trombone; and Cory Wright, tenor saxophone.
As the program closed, Vega, 24, clearly aware of the upturn his life has taken in the past two years, thanked the enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd with a smile and a disbelieving shake of his head. It was an appropriate final moment for a rare musical evening, one that provided at least a modicum of proof that good things really do sometimes happen to good people.