Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Vibrapohonist Steve Nelson's Homage to Mulgrew Miller: "Brothers Under the Sun"

The vibraphonist Steve Nelson is one of those musicians who has been discreetly plying his craft over the years, most frequently with groups led by the pianist Mulgrew Miller and the bassist Dave Holland. On his latest album Brothers Under the Sun, a title that makes reference to the friendship and astrological affinity Nelson had with the pianist Mulgrew Miller (they were both born under the sign of Leo), Nelson selects a repertoire of songs that are either composed by late pianist or are strongly associated with him. The result is a rewarding collection of music that honor Miller's legacy by perfroming these songs with a joyful reverance, consummate professionalism and an unerring sense of swing.

The rhythm section of Peter Washington and Lewis Nash assure a skilled continuity of spirit for this endeavor, as they, with Nelson played on several recordings with Mr. Miller. The wild card here is the pianist Danny Grissett- who has played previously with this group under the leadership of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt- who does an admirable job of injecting his own creativity into this homage, including his own composition dedicated to Mr. Miller, the closer “Melody for Mulgrew.”

The album leads off with a sauntering “The More I See You” which Nelson plays faithfully in deference to the melody, an approach favored by Mr. Miller when he would play ballads. Nelson’s tone has a warm resonance that comes from the measured and deliberate attack of his mallets. Grissett incorporates some of Miller’s bluesy/gospel feel, while still fluidly traversing across the keys in a modern approach. The group pulses along with Washington’s warm, throbbing bass lines leading the way. Nash, a master swinger, knows how to subtly prod the group, propulsing them forward with just the right mixture of press rolls and cymbal splashes.

The Afro-Latin beat of Miller’s vibrant “Eastern Joy Dance,” allows the group a more fluid platform on which to improvise. Nelson’s mallets glide over the bars in a glissando of notes. Grissett is more angular in his approach here, as Washington and Lewis create the rhythmic rumble.

“Grew’s Tune” is one of Mr. Miller’s most memorable compositions and these guys do it royally. The lock-step, unison playing of Grissett and Nelson is coolly intuitive. Grissett’s solo is a miniature of style, before Washington offers his own impressively effervescent solo.

“Soul-Leo,” -a reference to the astrological sign that binds Miller and Nelson together forever- has its own special swagger. Washington’s bass guiding the tune like a beacon in the night. Nelson and Grissett once again play deftly in unison; both offer invigorated solos as Nash pushes the song along effectively behind Grissett’s repeating left-hand phrases to the coda.

The Rogers and Hart standard “It Never Entered My Mind,” is introduced by Nelson with a gently resonating vibes solo, after which the group picks up at a languished pace. The album continues with the Brazilian influenced Miller composition “Samba D’ Blue,” the bright, uplifting Nelson title composition “Brothers Under the Sun,” and  another  two Miller compositions “For Those Who Do” and the angular, Monkish “New Wheels,” where the group is at its dynamic best. The set ends with pianist Grissett’s persuasive homage, the buoyant and deferential “Melody for Mulgrew.”

Here is a video of Nelson with Miller from 2011:

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Pete Malinverni Trio: "Heaven" The Spiritual Side of Jazz

I have had the pleasure of meeting pianist Pete Malinverni, and the fortune to have seen him perform his pianistic magic in some intimate and spiritual settings on several occasions. Malinverni is a thoughtful, serene man who brings a deep and abiding sense of reverence to his playing. He has been steeped in religious music for decades, with tenures as the musical director of the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY and the Pound Ridge Community Church in Pound Ridge, NY- where I went to several Sunday services just to see him play. He is also a eminent educator and currently is an assistant professor of jazz studies at SUNY Purchase. Pete was kind enough to entertain an interview for my blog back in 2013, which for those who are interested can be found here.

Make no mistake about it, Malinverni can swing, having played in trios with iconic drummer Mel Lewis and with Amhad Jamal drummer Vernel Fourier among others. His music has a naked honesty that sweeps you up in its sincerity and emotional content. 

On his latest release Heaven, Malinverni is joined by eclectic bassist Ben Allison and journeyman drummer Akira Tana.  Together these three make some beautiful and sensitive music. Not surprisingly, the album has a spiritual theme and explores two compositions from Duke Ellington, the title tune “Heaven” and “Come Sunday”; four traditional songs that have an enduring messages of hope and faith; two obscure gems a gorgeous arrangement of a song by Hannah Senesh titled “Eili, Eili” and an Ungar/ Mason composition “Ashokan Farewell;” the uplifting, gospel influenced Curtis Mayfield tune “People Get Ready” and one of Malinverni’s own “Psalm 23.”

“Heaven” is a swinging straight ahead rendering that features Malinverni’s fluid, sometimes Monkish, piano lines, Allison’s pulsing bass and Tana’s light comping. Allison and Tana each offer brief but potent solo work here, before the group returns to the melody line at the coda.

Malinverni’s “Psalm 23,” is based on the famous Biblical passage from David that starts with “The Lord is my Sheperd, I shall not want…” He uses a reverent musical treatment to portray a spiritual that acknowledges God’s grace and guidance given to his people even when they “….walk through the valley of darkness..” The pianist creates a delicate musical monologue that mimics the verse- each challenge met with faith in the higher being- and then he builds the musical tension to a tempest with a rumble created by the trio, until he resolves it to a peaceful conclusion at the coda.  

The bubbling “Down in the River to Pray” is given a buoyant 5/4 bounce with Allison’s pulsing bass line holding down the beat with Tana’s rim and cymbals, as Malinverni explores around the melody.

“Shenandoah” is given a sparse treatment, with vocalist Karrin Allyson lending her clear, light voice to Allison’s bass and Malinverni’s accompanying piano. Allison and Malinverni both take short probing solos before Allyson, whose vocal could bring a bit more emotional content to this song, returns to finish up this endearing American folk song.

“Eili, Eili” is a composition I ‘ve never heard before, apparently based on a poem written by a Hungarian woman, a Jew who fought the Nazi’s in WWII and died trying to save concentration camp prisoners. True to the feeling of the poem, Malinverni and Allison do a marvelous job of making this one of the most moving pieces on the album. The pianist is at his most emotive here and bassist Allison’s plump lines are in beautiful counterpoint to the piano and to Tana’s masterful brushwork.

The lyrics of Curtis Mayfield’s “People, Get Ready” have an uplifting message to an oppressed people and Malinverni deftly finds an elevating experience in this enduring melody, which he and bandmates play with great spirit and elation.

Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is a gorgeous composition that embodies the maestro’s sense of what is spiritual. Guest Jon Faddis’s longing trumpet solo is a case in point. There is a poignancy to his slurring, voice-like horn, a human cry that transcends formalized religious context and unifies us all no matter what our beliefs. The trio expertly backs Faddis exemplary playing of this gem and there is no way one can’t come away from this unmoved.

Another traditional song “A City Called Heaven” features a moving bass solo by Allison at the opening. The bassist has a tremendous feel for this music and it shows here. His tone is clear, his attack is clean and his ideas seem in line with the pianist’s own inclinations-warm, sensitive and uncluttered.

Alto saxophonist Steve Wilson is about as in demand as anyone on the scene today. On “Wade in the Water,” a song made popular by Ramsey Lewis, Malinverni plays a darting solo that floats above his rhythm sections steady pulse. Wilson’s angular alto brings some swinging bop to this one, and he and Malinverni play off each other effectively for a brief section before returning to the head.

The final song on the album is “Ashokan Farewell” a song made famous as the theme to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns “Civil War” series on PBS. The funny thing is despite its melancholy, old-worldish sound, it wasn’t written until 1982 and by a man from the Bronx. 

Notwithstanding the origins of this song- which is based on a Scottish lament- it has been heard by millions and construed to be a part of Americana folk music. Malinverni finds, as many of us do,that the song has a spiritual core to its tender, moving theme. He plays this as a sauntering slow waltz and it seems like the perfect tune to end this album of music on.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano: "Compassion The Music of John Coltrane"

In June of 2017 saxophonist Dave Liebman, a member of the original group, Saxophone Summit, a group dedicated to the legacy of John Coltrane, was asked if he could organize that group or something like it to perform on the BBC’s Jazz on 3 radio program, for the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane’s passing on July 17, 2007. The original Saxophone Summit from 1996 was made up of saxophonists Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Liebman, as well as the rhythm section of bassist Cecil McBee, pianist Phil Markowitz and drummer Billy Hart. With the passing of Michael Brecker in 2007, the group continued over the years in various iterations that included, at times, saxophonists Greg Osby and later Ravi Coltrane. With time being so tight, Liebman rallied the core of the group; himself, Lovano, Hart and Markowitz for the date. Ravi Coltrane and Cecil McBee, unfortunately, had prior commitments, and so journeyman bassist Ron McClure was enlisted for this recording.

Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane came to life. As Liebman writes in the thoroughly engaging liner notes, Coltrane’s legacy was vast, and spanned so many stylistic , that choosing a suitable repertoire to play would be a challenge unto itself.  With the anniversary looming, Lovano and Liebman decided that for this gig, they would perform music from all Coltrane’s periods. The result is an original interpretation of Coltrane’s music, as well as a wonderful homage to a master that these musicians all see as one of their most enduring influences.

The set list includes “Locomotion” from the 1958 classic Blue Train, a blues based song that is representative of Coltrane’s early Blue Note period. The dueling tenors of Liebman with his sharper, more piercing tone and then Lovano’s huskier horn, take turns carrying on this classic, as the throbbing bass of McClure, the dynamic piano of Markowitz and the splashing cymbals of Hart propel this classic.  

Coltrane’s more universal appeal was often found through his sensitive playing on ballads, and here Lovano chooses the pensive “Central Park West” as a vehicle of expression. His tenor tone is burnished and lustrous. Markowitz plays a resplendent intro to the diatonic “Dear Lord” that features Liebman on a beautifully realized soprano saxophone solo that hovers like an angle on a cloud.

The Spanish tinged “Ole” represents Coltrane’s excursion into the realm of modal, eastern-influenced music.  The sedately paced intro finds the woodwind players conversing, this time with Liebman on wooden recorder and Lovano on Scottish Flute, before switching to soprano saxophone and tenor saxophone respectively. The modal vamp allows the rhythm section to set the roiling groove. Markowitz inventive solo is a highlight, before Lovano enters with his own deep throated voice. Liebman then squeals and squeaks with a flurry on his soprano. As the song progresses, the two horns let loose with a series of high pitched screeches and wails- a precursor to the more avant-garde sounds to come in Coltrane’s music- before McClure takes a pulsing bass solo at the coda.

“Reverend King,” a song dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. from Coltrane’s Cosmic Music album, was originally recorded in 1966 and released posthumously in 1968. This was a period when the saxophonist was experimenting with dialogue between himself and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Lovano and Liebman play on this dialogue with a more subdued alto clarinet and C flute respectively. Hart’s toms accentuating a rolling background with McClure’s Arco bass. The tinkling notes of Markowitz’s piano, Liebman’s fluttering flute, Lovano’s woody alto clarinet and McClure’s bowed bass all create the moody feel of this piece.

“Equinox” was a return to a minor blues format, this time during Coltrane’s Atlantic years, originally recorded in 1960. Lovano and Liebman choose to interpret this as if Coltrane played it in his later years. A looser, more open feeling that was not restricted so much by form or structure. To this end the drummer Billy Hart sets the tone with his distinctively free feel to his rhythmic timekeeping. Liebman’s soprano soars into atmospherics, Markowitz expands the musical palate with a stirring solo of invention and succinctness. Lovano’s tenor is at its most exploratory, a raspy excursion out to the borders of the tune’s boundaries.

The final song is “Compassion” and comes from Meditations, Coltrane’s follow up album to his groundbreaking A Love Supreme. By this point, in his ever-changing search for expression in his music, Coltrane had become his most free and most spiritual. On the original recording Coltrane used two drummers, Elvin Jones and Rashid Ali. Appropriately, master drummer Hart starts this piece off for the first four minutes introducing several different rhythmic variations by his deft use of sticks, toms and cymbals.  A pulsing bass line by McClure and some stabbing piano notes by Markowitz lead into the dual tenors stating their lines in unison. Liebman is first to solo, a piercing, cascade of notes that occasionally shriek into plaintive cries. Lovano enters with his aulochrome, a twinned soprano saxophone, with its duality of voice that reminds me of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s ventures into the simultaneous use of multiple horns. Markowitz, McClure and Hart play an intuitive break that is rash, atonal, bombastic and percussive. The two horns re-enter this time with Liebman on soprano and Lovano back to tenor. This free, unstructured rant goes on for seventeen minutes and is , for me, the least enjoyable part of this album. As with some of Coltrane’s later unstructured, avant-garde work it is not for everyone, but true to the spirit of what the master was doing at this point in his career.

As with many of Resonance Records, and producer Zev Fledman’s recent releases, the packaging is rich, the liner notes informative and meaty, the sound quality is good and the music captures a group of master musicians paying homage to one of their greatest influences. For any Coltrane fan this one is a keeper.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jazzmeia Horn's "Social Call" A Impressive New Voice

Jazzmeia Horn  A Social Call Prestige PRS 00112
It should be no surprise that twenty-six-year old jazz vocalist Jazzmeia Horn is one of the most impressive new voices on the music scene today. In 2013, then twenty-two-year old Horn won the impressive Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. Then again in 2015 she captured the even more impressive Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, which led to a recording contract with the historic Prestige label and her debut album  A Social Call. While the title references Gigi Gryce’s composition Social Call – a song about a one on one interaction between two individual people trying to find a connection-Horn has expanded the concept of “social” on this album to be a timely call for social responsibility.

The woman has a beautiful, supple vocal instrument with a tremendous range and an intonation that has elements of some of her influences-Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson. She recorded this album while she was still pregnant with her daughter. There is a matriarchal strength to the way she sings some of the songs on the album like the gospel tinged “Lift Every Voice and Sing/Moanin’,” (which features a steamin’ trumpet solo by Josh Evans). 

I was especially moved by her poignant and spectral rendition of Jimmy Rowles’ haunting classic “The Peacocks,” a beautiful song that is not an easy to sing well.  Victor Gould should be singled out for his intuitively sensitive rendition of Rowles shimmering pianistic beauty and how well he comps Ms. Horn’s performance. Ms. Horn’s high register inflections at the coda are perhaps the only evidence of her showing some excess of technique where less is warranted.

The opening tune is a splendidly authentic version of Betty Carter’s gymnastic “Tight.” It’s especially grand to hear her elastic rapport with Stacy Dillard’s fluid tenor. She shows equal affinity to the pliable bass work of Ben Williams on her duet openings of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and on the title tune “Social Call.” Ms. Horn has an easy, unforced scat style that is instrumental at heart and her unique phrasing emotes a deep understanding of the meaning of a finely crafted lyric. She clearly has a gift for the art, but scatting is best served in tasteful moderation, so as she gestates her vocal personality I am sure she will become more judicious in its use as she matures. The horn section of Dillard on tenor, Josh Evans on trumpet and Frank Lacy on trombone is tight, bright and swinging in the tradition of Cannonball Adderley’s work with Nancy Wilson.

Ms. Horn’s heartening monologue on the intro to the Stylistic’s “People Make the World Go Round,” her gospel/free-form vocalizations- in communication with the African drum and percussion work of Jerome Jennings-that Ms. Horn contribute to “Afro Blue/Eye See You/Wade in the Water," gives the album its’ social context. Ms. Horn’s high register squeaks and trills remind me of the expressive yodeling work of Leon Thomas and her spoken word sections conjures up the poetic work of Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. There is no doubt that she has been studying her vocal history in all its splendid variations. Her voice holds great prospect for the future. Not only has she absorbed these traditions, she has enough vocal discipline and range to pull off the most difficult of these techniques and enough personal assurance to make the end-product sound like her own invention.

Ms. Horn does her own take on the Scherzinger/Mercer pop classic “I Remember You” and on the soulful “I’m Going Down” originally sung by Rose Royce, on the influential soundtrack to the movie Car Wash. Ms. Horn and her formidable horn section make this last one a rousing exclamation point to this wonderful album. I for one will be looking forward to hearing more from this promising young artist

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Last Night On Clairmont: A Night of Magic

Sam Skelton,  Justin Varnes, Delbert Felix and Brian Hogans 
Last night, at a local restaurant in the shadows of Emory University called the Mason Tavern on Clairmont Road in North Decatur, I was fortunate to be able to experience some of the best live jazz that I have seen since arriving to the Atlanta area from the New York metro area two and one-half years ago. Four extraordinary, locally based, musicians came together and did an impromptu, two-set show at proprietor Sam Yi’s latest bastion of jazz, The Mason Tavern.

You may remember Sam from his nearly twenty-year run as the proprietor of the now closed Churchill Grounds jazz club in downtown next to the Fox theater. Churchill Grounds was a beacon of light, hope and support for the jazz community here in Atlanta and Yi expects to open a new club in Grant Park sometime early next year under the same banner. The original club closed in July of last year and for the last six months or so Yi set up a pop-up jazz night in conjunction with local musician Terrence Harper at this new location in North Decatur.  I have been going frequently to the club on Thursday nights where Harper and Yi usually provides a core band of local professionals that are then augmented by other local musicians, who are encouraged to sit in with the band. It has been especially rewarding to see young musicians, some from great distances, come to sit in and get an opportunity to hone their skills in a real-life session with other professionals and in front of an audience.

This past Friday night, however, was something special. Brian Hogans, Sam Skelton, Delbert Felix and Justin Varnes put on one of the most rewarding sets of music that I have seen in a long time. A little background on these musicians can give you an idea of just how special this event was. 

Brian Hogans
Brian Hogans is a thirty-five-year old alto saxophonist/pianist, who hails from Morrow, GA and has been playing jazz since he was fifteen years old. His superlative technique and inventive harmonic sensibility has attracted a great deal of attention beyond the local Atlanta scene, where he is considered among the finest saxophonists in the South. Brian’s fiery work, particularly on alto, has been featured in his own groups as well as groups led by drummer E.J. Strickland, trumpeters Russell Gunn, Etienne Charles and Sean Jones and Hogans can often be seen in the saxophone section of Joe Gransden’s Big Band.

Sam Skelton
Saxophonist Sam Skelton is a phenomenally gifted player as well as an influential educator and current Director of Jazz Studies at Kennesaw State University. As a multi-reed player of exceptional talent, Skelton’s work can be heard on everything from the music of Elton John to the London Symphony Orchestra. He has credits on over two hundred and fifty recordings. 

Delbert Felix
Delbert Felix’s is one of those bass players that just makes you smile when you see him play. Originally inspired by the electric funk bass work of Bootsie Collins and Larry Graham, Felix is an in-demand upright player in his own right. His style is ebullient and his fingers are fleet, but it is his joyous love of what he does that makes his playing so special. Felix’s pedigree include work with Wynton, Brandford and Ellis Marsalis, iconic tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, fusion drummer Billy Cobham and local crooner legend Freddie Cole amongst others.

Justin Varnes
Drummer Justin Varnes did his formal musical education at the University of North Florida with saxophone legend Bunky Green and later continued his education in New York at the New School. He is a working drummer who has an abundance of technique, but more importantly a boatload of taste. He has toured with singer Phoebe Snow and has played with everyone from trombonist Wycliffe Gordon to piano icon Kenny Baron. Justin has on online teaching website called Jazz Drummer’s Resource where he shares some of his techniques with students. Locally he is often the go to drummer in groups led by trumpeter Joe Gransden and the pianists Kevin Bales and Gary Motley among others.

With such a formidable group of talent on hand, I expected the music to be both challenging and entertaining. The group ran through the opening song, Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” and we were off to the races. Hogans and Skelton both playing synchronously and traded licks, never sounding alike or for that matter like anyone else but themselves. They spurred each other and the rhythm section on to new heights. Varnes and Felix set the pace perfectly for these two to go off on the quirky melody. The songs were excellent selections from the jazz canon.

The group just morphed from one into the other: “All Blues,” with Hogans sounding like Cannonball, I’ll Remember April,” “Body and Soul” with Skelton sounding very Webster-esque, a Coltrane inspired tune that sounded like it was based on “Giant Steps” and a Freddie Hubbard classic “First Light.” The group continued with the Ellington/Tizol classic “Caravan” and then a hard bop tune from Horace Silver “Doodlin’.”

As drummer Varnes explained to me at the break, the group decided to choose a set of songs that were familiar to all, but then to let their creative abilities to improvise propel where the group would take the music. The result was electric, daring and totally enjoyable. The audience was engrossed with the unexpected twists and turns that each musician brought to the party. Unexpected gems around every corner. The music was surprisingly elastic, allowing for stretching ideas into new territory, spurring new paths of invention from each member.

The group took no break between songs, preferring to allow the last idea to unfold into the next tune organically. Bassist Felix was a joy to behold as he often danced with his upright in a display of oneness with his instrument. Varnes utilized all the sticks, mallets and brushes at his disposal, made his snare, toms and cymbals sing with purpose, while never missing a beat. Hogans and Skelton were like two lions trading roars, brandishing their claws at times or laying back on their regal haunches taking in the scene that they just instigated. It was creativity at its best, spontaneous, unrehearsed and magical.

After a short intermission, the group returned and finished the second set with “Invitation,” Joe Henderson's "Recorda Mi" Mal Waldorn's "Alone Together"  and “There Will Never Be Another You.” They ended as they began with a  Monk tune. 

These guys will return to the Mason Tavern again tonight for a repeat performance starting at 9pm. If you love jazz or just great music the way I do, you owe it to yourself to get down there and catch these artist and be part of this magic. Chemistry like this doesn’t occur that often, so don’t miss this chance to support live music at its best. The Mason Tavern is at 1371 Clairmont Road, Decatur, GA 30033.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Interview w/ Pianist Christian Sands and His Latest Release "Reach"

Christian Sands is a twenty-seven year old pianist who hails from New Haven, Connecticut. His work  with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. in Grammy Award winning bassist  Christian McBride’s  trio, has already garnered him wide spread recognition.  Together these three musicians re-wrote what we came to expect from a piano jazz trio. A sophisticated, extremely intuitive trio that brought a jois de vivre to everything they played-from a re-imagining of a well-worn standard, to breathing new life into an improvised version of a contemporary pop song.  Although the trio was led and anchored by McBride,  Sands dazzled audiences with his silky, polished facility and his locked-in sense of swing that manifested itself in a myriad of styles that he commands.

The young man has been attempting to play the piano since he was a toddler trying to reach the keyboard, and started formal lessons at the age of four.  Classically trained, he found himself all too often distracted by his desire to improvise on the classics. He was directed by a teacher to jazz studies, and eventually met Dr. Billy Taylor at a summer jazz program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who became a mentor and took the young Sands under his wing.  Besides studying masters like Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Dr. Taylor, Sands has also studied with two young lions of contemporary piano, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer and cites them all as inspirational.

Sands will be playing for two nights, Friday and Saturday June 9 and 10th this weekend at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta in support of his latest album Reach. Notes on Jazz caught up with Sands via telephone Friday afternoon June 9, 2017.

NOJ: I understand you have some ties to Atlanta can you speak to that for our hometown fans?

CS: Yeah, it’s my mother’s side of the family. My mother is originally from Augusta- Waynesboro GA. All the family is down there, but I have a few cousins and a few family members that have moved to Atlanta, so that is where the Atlanta connection comes from.

NOJ: So what do you think of the Atlanta music scene?

CS: It’s great, I know a few musicians who come from here like (drummer) Terreon Gulley and (vocalist) Avery Sunshine. I actually spoke to her yesterday on the phone. We were going in opposite directions – she was going to the airport and I was coming in from there.  We were trying to link up but couldn’t make it work. The music scene is awesome down here. Just growing up and listening to hip-hop, Atlanta’s hip-hop scene is amazing; the whole Georgia connection is incredible. Georgia is in the bloodstream of my music and in me too.

NOJ: You have been playing piano from the age of about four years old from what I have read. Were you trained classically when you first took lessons?

CS:  I started playing piano when I was about one or two, I started lessons at four. It’s kind of difficult to find a teacher for a four year old. I was originally classically trained, doing Suzuki piano, playing Chopin and Mozart and that kind of repertoire. Then I went to jazz studies when I was about seven years old.

NOJ: Did any of the classical composers really ring true to you?

CS: Mozart. Really because of the story of Mozart .I heard how young he was when he started. I kind of identified with that because I was young at the same time. As a child you think you can identify because you are both five or six or seven. That’s the vibe, that’s what I was hearing myself as.

NOJ: Do you still listen to classical music?

CS: Oh yeah, all the time. I ‘am heavily into Scriban, but since college I have loved Erik Satie. I absolutely love Satie, because of his use of simplicity and depth at the same time. He has got this dark beauty in his writing. I love Ravel and Debussy of course. You talk about colors and textures, the shaping of music, is absolutely incredible. I am still a fan of Mozart, almost anytime I hear any Mozart or any of the operas come on the radio, I am listening. I’m a big fan of Puccini as well.

NOJ: So how did you change direction from classical to jazz?

CS: I always liked to create. I liked to improvise, so when I was younger I would take the songs that I was learning-Bach, Chopin or Mozart- and I would improvise on the etudes, improvise on some of the patterns that they had. In classical you’re not supposed to do that, so I would get in trouble all the time. I would just take a solo and do one chorus and I would change the keys, my teacher finally got tired of telling me not to do that anymore, so she ended up telling my parents to put me into jazz studies. So that’s when I started those studies and I was seven.

NOJ: You took lessons with Billy Taylor?

Dr. Billy Taylor

CS: Well not just yet. I took lessons from Dr. Taylor at maybe fourteen years old. It was absolutely incredible. I started out meeting him at the Jazz in July Program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I actually teach there now, this is my third year teaching at the program. It’s actually awesome to be there. It’s a two week program and I was supposed to do just one week, but I fell in love with the program and fell in love with Dr. Taylor. He liked my playing and asked if I could stay the second week and so I did. Everywhere he went I went.

NOJ: What is the most influential thing Dr. Taylor did for you as a pianist?

CS: The most influential thing that I can say Dr. Taylor talked about (with me) was honesty in music. A lot of people don’t talk about that. He talked about why people sound the way they sound. It wasn’t because they were trying to develop concepts or something like that; it was because they were a product of their environment. He talked about bringing the audience with you. Build your audience to the point that they know exactly where you are going.  If you want to play avant-garde, for example, build into that. He was a master of literally breaking down music. He would tell you what’s going to happen in the form. He would tell you who is going to solo here. He would tell you what kind of groove you were going to hear-(on a composition) maybe from swing groove to Latin groove on the bridge. What is the bridge? Well, the bridge is the middle section of the song. He would take the time to explain all the parts before he would actually perform it.

NOJ: So if I understand what you are saying, structure was essentially is what you took away from his teaching?

CS: Yeah, just the way to play music in an honest way.

NOJ: Meaning what? Coming from your heart? Coming from your soul?

CS: Yrs coming from your heart and coming from your soul, but just coming from where you have come from. Coming from what you have experienced in your life.

NOJ: You also took lessons from Jason Moran. Compare what you got from Jason as opposed to what you got from Dr. Taylor.

CS: Jason was amazing. My studies with him and Dr. Taylor overlapped for about a year. Studying with both of them was so good for me because I learned so much about the history of piano. Dr. Taylor was around when modern jazz piano was being developed. He being a protégé of Art Tatum all the way to him being around to see guys like Jason Moran, was just a tremendous breadth of experience. Jason talked about pianists that a lot of other people didn’t talk about, like Paul Bley, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard. Jaki and Andrew were both Jason’s teacher so he came from that. What Jason taught me was the way to create. Jason was all about creation, all about challenging my creativity. We never worked on repertoire; it was always we worked on creativity.

NOJ: Can you elaborate and explain how he would do that?

Jason Moran

CS: Jason would have a two hour lesson and within that lesson we would just improvise and play off each other. Maybe one goal would be to try not to repeat ourselves for the entire session, or try to play the full two hours without stopping and see how far we got. Continuously just moving in all directions, -almost like water-pushing envelopes and pushing different ideas, trying to see how creative we could be.

NOJ: Was this exercise played within a song format or was it free?

CS: Not necessarily, sometimes it would be or develop into a song. Sometimes it would be free form; sometimes it would just be segments or just vamps or just anything. That was the great thing about Jason, anything was game.Literally, it could be playing inside the piano for two hours and seeing what kind of sounds we could get out of it.

NOJ: So if I can distill this a little bit for myself; Billy was structure and honesty and Jason gave you freedom and creativity. Is that fair?

CS: Yeah perfect.

NOJ:  You also took lessons with Vijay Iyer, what did he bring to the table for you?

CS: Vijay was very similar to Jason, except Vijay was in a way very much structured like Dr. Taylor. He would say creation was good, but it had to be purposeful. So he would like to write something, for say the drums to specifically play. He was more into through composing. It was the creativity with less manipulation of the creativity within through composed pieces.

NOJ:  Within Iyer’s format he still allows his trio to improvise?

CS: Yes, but a lot of it is based on things that are already written, which is interesting. So the drum groove that Marcus Gilmore might play is written there, but then within that he will make a variation of what is already written.  Vijay is all about textures as well. When I mean textures, I mean, I compare his music to like (the game cube) Tetris. You have the block and you can move its parts side to side and up and down. His music is very sequential. He taught me how to take patterns and textures in ways that it’s either the melody or the harmony or the rhythm. Each piece had multiple functions. It works out because he is an engineer so it makes perfect sense.

Kenya Revisited  Bobby Sanabria's Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra

NOJ: You were on the Grammy nominated 2009 recording Kenya Revisited Live when you were with Bobby Sanabria’s Manhattan School of Music Jazz Band. This, by the way, was a great, great album. Tell us about that experience.

CS:  Bobby Sanabria is quite an individual. He is an amazing person and an amazing band leader. The majority of the students in the band were seniors or master’s students. That year myself, I think Jake Goldbas the drummer was in that band, and there were a few other freshmen in that band. The fact that he could take like five freshmen and the upperclassmen and turn us into this machine, and what a machine; it’s incredible and even Bobby said that was the best band he ever had. Then to be nominated for a Grammy was absolutely an incredible experience. I got to learn more about Latin music. I grew up playing it in New Haven and also Hartford CT. They are both big Latin scenes. I grew up playing in different Latin ensembles like a Latin Jazz Ensemble or a Brazilian Jazz Ensemble. The first Latin pianist I was introduced to was Chucho Valdez and then Gonzalo Rubalcaba after that. There are so many cats that can play that. I first got into Chucho and for me he was like a combination of Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner. But he had this heavy, heavy rhythmic feel. Both of them are heavy rhythmically and both are virtuosos. So listening to that was incredible.  My senior year in high school I also started playing with Los Hombres Caliente out of New Orleans with Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield. They were heavily into Latin influence, but also Creole music. That was the first band I ever went out on tour with. Being a fan of Bill Summers from Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters days, I was already hooked into that, and Irvin Mayfield just played a pile of trumpet. That’s when I joined Bobby Sanabria, being in that band I learned so much. One of the things I learned was how to play intensely. You heard that band, how to play with so much force and a lot of passion, because you hear Bobby just yelling and screaming. He would point and you and tell you to solo, and you have no chord changes or nothing and you have got to play something. Again creativity, but also just passion, and playing with fire. That’s how I describe playing with Bobby, playing with fire.

NOJ: You played with Christian McBride for several years in a remarkable trio (with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.) what did you personally get from that experience with Christian?

CS: Similar to Dr.Taylor, just the honesty of music, because with Christian his music is him. Away from the stage he is this big personality with this big laugh and this big smile and this loving personality, and that’s what his music is. His music reflects that personality. So one of the things that I learned while I was with him was just how to be yourself in music. How to truly be you, and how the music should reflect you, because that is what he is all about. It should reflect everyone (in the band), but it mostly reflects him. He probably learned that from Freddie Hubbard, or all the people he has played with, because when you listen to Freddie Hubbard it’s unapologetic, it’s in your face. One thing I learned from McBride is how to be yourself in music and also I learned just how to play for people, instead of musicians. He is such a virtuoso that he can play anything.

NOJ: But he is also a bit of a showman, right?

CS: Yeah he is a bit of a showman, how to entertain people. When musicians come up to your gig, they know what you’re doing already, but the people don’t. It’s all about how you feel, how people feel. So we will play a Motown or Jackson Five tune or like we recorded that Rolls Royce tune “Car Wash.” So I’ve learned not everyone is a jazz lover or aficionado, but they are all music lovers. So play music, so that is what I learned from him.

NOJ: That gets us back to that Dr. Taylor statement about how do you try to bring your audience along with you without compromising yourself and your own musical integrity?

CS: Exactly.

NOJ:  It is always an issue for club owners and promoters of this music, who want to preserve the tradition and the legacy but struggle with maintaining an audience. What was Dr. Taylor’s solution to this problem of bringing your audience along with you?

CS: It’s funny, because Dr. Taylor just loved all music. Because we would sit down and have conversations about Mary Lou Williams and the next conversation would be about the Roots or A Tribe Called Quest. He knew them, especially the Roots. They recorded “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to be Free” with John Legend and I asked him about that recording and he knew it and he told me he loved what they did with it. His thing was that music is supposed to evolve. Music is supposed to be a documentation of what life is (at any given time.)  I have had a lot of conversations about where jazz going is or what jazz is. Is hip hop jazz or should it be straight ahead, or big band or traditional?I’m a product of both. For me jazz is supposed to evolve, but you should evolve from the knowledge of where you have come from.

NOJ: I understand what you’re saying and people like Nicholas Payton have their own ideas about jazz and the word and what it all means, and if the word has any relevance anymore.

CS: Yeah, I totally understand where Payton is coming from too. I feel that jazz is still there because that is where all the music comes from. So either you call it all jazz or you don’t call it anything at all. So Nick is saying let’s not call it that anymore.

NOJ: To me jazz is like an umbrella. It takes in so much and maybe you don’t like the word, or some kind of outdated connotation or where it came from, but it has served its purpose. The music has widened its reach out all over the world.  I don’t know of any other music that is so universally loved and even cherished in all parts of the world as jazz. It has become so inclusive under the banner of “jazz,” that for us to label the word as some kind of problem I don’t think is very helpful.

CS: I understand what he is saying; there is just different ways of saying it. What he is saying is that the word is bad. What I ‘am saying is take the word away, the genre is like the root of all music today. It comes from the blues, it comes from classical music, it comes from classical harmony, it comes from African songs, it comes from field songs from slavery, and it comes from early French music which had a swing to it. It’s actually very interesting, other music was relatively straight and then French music had a bounce to it.  When you hear older musicians play jazz or you listen to older recordings, even the blues records like Blind Willie Johnson or you listen to these early classical recordings it’s all related. But jazz is a direct mirror from American history. Today it sounds the way it sounds because it has absorbed so many different parts, views and conditions of the American experience. It’s so broad because America is so broad culturally. That’s why it sounds like it does. So either you call it jazz or call it all jazz or you don’t call it jazz and instead don’t name it anything. Somebody once said if everything is art there is no art. So if everything is jazz then there is no jazz. It’s kind of like the way you want to take it. Nick is kind of saying don’t call it jazz call it Black American Music or Black African music because it is, and it is that, but it is also a lot of other things .

NOJ: You have played with McBride and Thomas Fonnesbaek and Ben Williams all different bass players. How does playing with these different bassists differ for you as a pianist?

CS: It’s funny because if I wasn’t a pianist I would either be a trumpet player or a bass player. I love melody and I love how trumpet and bass can manipulate melody, it’s very much the closest thing to the voice that you have.

NOJ:  The trumpet definitely is like a voice, I don’t know about the bass?

CS: The bass is like a voice because you can bend notes and manipulate notes like a voice. So that’s how I viewed it like that. I love the bass and I grew up playing with a lot of bassists. I grew up playing with Nat Reeves and Rufus Reid, Phil Bowler, Jeff Fuller. I definitely played with Jeff every day. Christian McBride, Thomas Fonnesbaek, Ben Williams, John Clayton, and Derrick Hodge the list goes on and on.

NOJ: I’ve noticed that you have played several children’s songs in your repertoire. You’ve played “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; you’ve played “If Your Happy and You Know It” another children’s song and now on your latest album you do “Somewhere Out There” from the animated feature An American Tail. What is it about these happy children’s songs that give you so much inspiration?

CS: That’s because that is what gave me inspiration as a child and gave me inspiration to play. I know I am not the only one who has had inspiration from these songs, because this is a memory from my childhood and who I am today. These movies were part of my experience and a part of my generation too. To play them is also reaching to audience members and to people who have gone through that experience as well.  I can talk to somebody about Willie Wonka and say “I said good day sir” and people can remember that scene and identify with it.  Or I can talk about Fievel from An American Tail and people who know that movie can relate .Many peoples childhood or many people who have children can all relate, so it’s part of the American culture and American life.

NOJ: The three times I’ve seen you perform; you have always dressed very nattily, always in suit and a tie. How did this fascination with clothes come about and how does the way you dress affect the way you play?

CS:   The dressing is Sand’s men thing. My grandfather dressed up, my father dressed up, my brother dresses up, my uncles. So, all the Sand’s men were pretty dapper. I guess it is a family thing. I don’t always wear a suit sometimes I just wear a tee shirt, but the majority of the time I wear something nice anyway. It’s kind of empowering in a way. To dress up and have, not a uniform, but something that sets you apart from the listener that is coming to see you. At the same time I also dress up, on an African American side of it, because I want to show African American boys that you don’t have to just have baggy pants to be a rapper. You could totally wear a suit and still convey a message. So it’s a message thing too.

NOJ: How does it affect the way you play?

CS: Well it used to affect the way I played. When I wore a suit I tried to play more elegantly, as opposed to when I wear something less dressy when I play more rugged and raw, but now I just play.

NOJ:  You dedicated two of the songs on your latest album to pianists. One to Chick Corea called “Armando’s Song” and one to Bud Powell’s called “Bud’s Tune.”  Tell us about those influences and why you wanted to do this?

CS: I listened to Chick as a kid, but not intently, because I grew up listening to Fats Waller and Ahmad Jamal and a lot of Herbie (Hancock), but I didn’t really listen to Chick as a kid intently. Later as an adult I really started listen to him and kind of understanding what he was doing. I listened to him with the Latin piano, because he has articulation with his rhythm .Later on, I really got into listening to pianists and trying to figure what they did that made them who they were. Then with Chick it was more about his compositions. Where he came from, the way he articulated and where the Spanish thing came from. McBride started working with Chick, and there was a lot of Chick material and we would actually practice some Chick tunes for sound check or play some on the bandstand. Then I got a chance to meet him, and he was such a nice and gracious guy. So I just wanted to write a tune. I was really listening to him a lot at the time, trying to understand what he was doing compositionally.

NOJ: But you don’t feel he is an influence on you?

CS He is, but he’s not. He is, because I love the way he plays in time. He has a similar way, as do a lot of Latin players, of playing very structured, but then loosening it. It is almost like breathing. The way Chick plays, he will play very much on the beat and then he will play these phrases and then go back to the beat and then he will leave some space. It’s very, very incredible. I would say he is definitely an influence, but a later influence.

NOJ: What about Bud Powell?

CS:  If you go to Chick you got to go to Bud and McCoy. He was another guy that I got into later on, because I grew up listening to Monk. Monk was the guys for me, the end all, be all. Thelonious Monk.

NOJ: That’s funny because he was a great composer, but some say not a greatest pianist.

CS:  Right, but something about his compositions made him the greatest pianist on his music. Monk had this wittiness, he was just funny. Listening to Bud was similar, but Bud was faster. Bud was a little more stylistic, more suave.

NOJ: Well Bud came directly from the (Art) Tatum school, right?

CS: Exactly, right they both did. They were different translations of Tatum. Dr. Taylor would tell the story of Monk listening to Tatum and Monk actually sounded like Tatum at one point.  So someone would tell Monk, we already have a Tatum so you have to do your own thing. The Monkism was already there in his playing, but like when you hear some of his flurries that‘s a Tatum line. “Round Midnight” was written after an arrangement that Tatum played of “Body and Soul," it was inspired by that. When you hear that version you can understand where it came from. Monk had the harmony thing and Bud had the linear ideas. So if you take Bud, he has all these little slips and they change keys and dexterity. So Bud was another influence on me as to how to play time, how to play up-tempo, but also how to play in different pockets.

 NOJ: You haven’t mentioned Bill Evans. How, if at all did Evans playing influence you?

CS: Bill Evans just because of his clarity. Each note was just ringing. When he played he was so clear and so patient and he was an honest player. I heard him on some interviews telling people how he was still working on things and you’re saying to yourself how is that possible that you (Bill Evans) are still working, what are you working on, it’s so beautiful.

NOJ: Many people consider Bill to be one of the most honest, sincere players who ever played. He bore his soul every time he sat at that keyboard. It was like he was playing with no clothes on; he left himself out there naked to the world.

CS: That’s really what I liked about his playing. Honesty and he has patience about his playing that I really like.

NOJ: What living artist would you most like to play with if you had a chance?

CS: Wayne Shorter. That’s the guy for me it’s Wayne.

NOJ: Well Wayne is one of the best jazz composers in the last fifty years, for sure.

CS:  I don’t even feel like he is playing jazz anymore. It’s hard to describe. I don’t even think he is playing music anymore, it is just got its own identity now. Its expressions and gestures; it’s coming from a different place. It’s not coming from this scale or this sound there, it is coming from how he breathes into the horn and whatever comes out, comes out. It is just him. You talk about honest music, it’s just Wayne. It sounds like science fiction.

NOJ: If you had to choose one pianist that most represents where you want to be stylistically who would that be?

CS: That’s hard, but probably Jason Moran or Chucho Valdes. I’d say Jason, because creatively he is in a place by himself. He is creating his own palette, sort of like Cecil Taylor did.  When I was studying with Jason he would send in incredible subs like Fred Hersch, Ethan Iverson, Mathew Shipp and Gonzalo Rubalcaba so you got it all. That expressionism that Jason and Cecil and Mathew have makes sense if you understand where they are coming from. They have created their own scales, and the scales are not derived from one note, it can be a chord, but to them it's like one note. It’s strange and different and it’s totally their own.

Jason is coming more of a fine artist perspective, where his music is coming from skateboarders or paintings or words and voices and installations and multi-media presentations. I love that and I want to do more of that. At the same time I also want to represent America and where I am from like Chucho is doing with Cuban Music. So that’s why I say Chucho. He has this staple of what Cuban music is all about, but he also has a very specific style and sound. He is very much the ambassador of Cuban music, just like Danilo Perez is the representative of Panamanian music. They represent all the good and all the musicality and all the studying and the history of their music. So eventually, I want to do that as well, like Chucho is doing and at the same time continue to push it forward.
Chucho Valdes

NOJ: What is your go-to song, when you have the crowd in the palm of your hand, and at the end of the night all you want to leave them with is something really special that you can dig into?

CS:  Recently it actually been “L.O.V.E.” the Nat King Cole kind of thing. Everybody understands love or some form of it and right now that’s the go-to song for me. We can kind of go anywhere with it and people can understand the concept of it.

NOJ: What contemporary musicians are doing the most interesting music and what is it that grabs you about what they are doing?

CS: Nicholas Payton and Christian Scott because they have taken what Miles did and are pushing it into different boundaries. I’m a big Miles fan.  I think Miles would have still been doing this had he still been here, but somebody has to do it so those two guys. Kendrick Lamar, because as far as words go, as far as rhythms go, he is totally doing something that musicians in general are not doing.  He brought the idea of theater back to the music. Things have prologues and transitional sections in his music, so he is really doing something different.  Chance the rapper. What I like about him, he is so honest with his music, and he is always sounding like he is just having a ball; so much fun.  He is coming from Gospel music and jazz and he is putting it all into his music. Sometimes it doesn’t all work out, but you kind of appreciate the attempt.  Wayne Shorter is still doing it. He is beyond music. My brother and I are big Star War fans and Wayne is our Yoda. He just exists and tells us things in riddles and we just have to figure out what they mean. Wayne is incredible compositionally and as a playing artist he is just amazing.

NOJ: You play some of the Great American Songbook. Do you believe it has run its course?

CS:  No. I don’t think it has run its course, but now it is giving us different ways to think about music for today. I think now, instead of playing them verbatim, they have information about how to put song form together or how to form melodies that really speak to people, because those songs did and they still do. People still relate. So there is something there even though it was written so many years ago.

NOJ: The songbook has amazing durability, but if you could just take the last fifty years, because many of these songs are beyond fifty years old, who would you say are contemporary composers that have created songs that will transcend their period and have the lasting endurance that the American Songbook has had?

CS: Wayne (Shorter), Miles Davis but he played a lot of Wayne’s music.

NOJ: I’m thinking along the lines of more popular music, because jazz often takes popular songs and re-imagines them for their purpose.

CS: That’s a tough question. We live in a time when music is constantly changes, but what is lasting.

NOJ: Well I will give you a few that I think do make it to this level of durability and see whether you agree? Stevie Wonder.

CS: Oh totally yes. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, probably him more than Prince. Eric Clapton, a lot of his music is blues, but his words and the story he tells. I would have to say Sting.

NOJ: I’m not sure about Clapton but Sting I would agree with you on. I think Paul Simon is enduring and of course Lennon and McCartney. But what about people like Antonio Carlos Jobim?

CS: Jobim’s writing is beautiful and gorgeous, but I think his music has sort of finally, not run its course, but is fading into the background now. It’s a shame because I think his music is absolutely beautiful, it’s given us the tools, like the American songbook, to build off of. But anytime you hear the song the “Girl form Ipanema “everyone knows the song even if they don’t know it is a Jobim song. So, yes you could put him in there.

NOJ: Some other people that you might consider as durable song composers are Carole King’s work or Bob Dylan’s work.

CS: Well yeah and then I would have to say Bob Marley’s work. You talk about love, I’d have to say anytime you talk about love and the betterment of the human condition than that is what stands the test of time. Like Stevie Wonder or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell they are talking about all of us together.

NOJ: Tell us about your new album and your upcoming tour and your gig at the Velvet Note.

CS: The new album is called Reach and it’s about reaching out and self discovery; not only for these artists but for the listener.  Finding out who you are or understanding who you have been. So that’s what the whole album is about. I wanted to write music reflecting that search, those questions that I have had and some of the answers that I found. A majority of the compositions are music that I have written for this session and some I wrote way before the session, years ago. The standards that I did include the Bill Wither’s “Use Me” and the song “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail are songs from my childhood that I have identified with, and I play them for me, but also for people who want to hear something they can relate to, that they remember or that they know. The record is really just a feel good record, it is for people and that is who I dedicate it to.

NOJ: You will be playing tonight Friday June 9th and Saturday June 10th at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. Who will be playing with you in the band?

CS: At the Velvet Note, Barry Stevenson will be on bass and my younger brother Ryan Sands on the drums.

NOJ: Good luck with this record and the tour and I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday and thank you for spending the time with us.

Check out one of Christian Sands new songs from Reach here