Sunday, April 15, 2018

Piano phenom Christian Sands graces the stage at Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta

Christian Sands, Eric Wheeler and Jerome Jennings at the Woodruff Arts Center

Last Saturday evening, those in the know attended the final concert of a three-part Emerging Jazz Icons series at the Richard Rich Theater in the Woodruff Arts Center here in Atlanta. The series was a symbiotic collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Georgia Public Radio and WABE and the Woodruff Arts Center that was meant to showcase three emerging talents in the jazz world by presenting them in concert to the citizens of Atlanta. By any measure the series was a fantastic success. If you were fortunate enough to catch any one of these three fine talents, your life was immeasurably changed for the better;each offering a new and exciting take on the jazz tradition.  

The series started back in November with the chanteuse Charnée Wade and continued in January with an appearance of the sensational Jazzmeia Horn (you can get my take on Ms. Horn’s concert by clicking here). The final show featured a piano trio led by the piano phenom Christian Sands.

I have been following Christian Sands since I first heard him as part of the Grammy nominated Christian McBride Trio. I caught this dynamic trio at a small nightclub in New York. While I expected nothing but a superlative performance from the virtuoso bassist McBride, it was the young firebrand pianist that most impressed me that evening four years ago. The twenty-nine year old Sands comes from a musical family based out of New Haven, CT  and he has ties to Atlanta on his Mother’s side of the family, as he made clear by announcing his mother was in the audience on this evening. Sands was mentored by the late pianist Billy Taylor and in addition to his former bandmate McBride, he considers the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the pianist Marcus Roberts as strong influences; their approach to the music starts with a deep and abiding respect for the tradition while still moving the music forward.

Christian Sands
On this night, Sands was accompanied by the bassist Eric Wheeler and the drummer Jerome Jennings. The group started the set with a composition by the pianist Eric Reed titled “The Swing in I.” Among the fine young pianists on the scene today, Sands and Aaron Diehl, are in my mind, two of the most respectful of the piano tradition.You can just hear it in their playing. 

On the opener, Sands played with a percussive intensity that had elements of McCoy Tyner’s style. The young man has tremendous velocity on the keyboard and so he naturally likes to strut his chops, astounding the audience with his facility, but make no mistake the man can swing with the best of them. He also knows dynamics and can play block chords ala George Shearing, which he incorporates into his repertoire with skillful aplomb.

The trio took their cue from Sands as he led them down various paths of rhythmic and harmonic diversity. Mr. Wheeler was particularly effective on the second selection, a Chick Corea composition titled “Humpty Dumpty,” and Jennings made the song explode with his rhythmic dynamics. This burner was for me a highlight of the evening. Mr. Sands has obviously been influenced by Corea’s work, what pianist hasn’t been in the last forty years? But Sands has big ears, and besides his ability to play with the facility of a Corea, his playing wove in elements of embellishers like Errol Garner and maybe even Hampton Hawes. His interplay with the powerful Jennings was particularly empathetic.

After the first two songs, Sands rose from his piano chair to address the audience. When he spoke, the was a sense of maturity and wit in his delivery. You could see that he has absorbed a great deal of the polish and affability that his former employer Christian McBride is famous for.  After introducing the titles of the songs previously played and naming his bandmates, the dapperly dressed Sands went back to his seat and began with his own composition “Reaching from the Sun” from his latest album Reach. The song had a Latin influenced beat and Wheeler was given a lengthy solo.Sands imparted a driving gospel sound to his playing as Jennings and Wheeler laid down an effective backbeat upon which Sands could explore.

On the next selection, Bassist Wheeler was given the stage for an extended less than melodic bass solo that I could have done without. Nonetheless it elicited shouts of approval from the crowd, who eventually started clapping along with him.  Sands and Jennings returned to support him bringing in some bluesy swing with Sands offering some colorful arpeggios that included some ragtime chording.

The pianist offered a beautifully filigreed intro to the Jackson 5 song “Never Can Say Goodbye” which gave the willing audience a chance to sing along to this familiar pop classic, once they finally caught a whiff of the melody. Sands started the song out slowly, but as the band continued to build momentum, first with a pizzicato bass solo by Wheller, he began building tension on his piano. He created a wave of sound using his uncanny ability to hold a seemingly endless sustained tremolo effect; his right hand producing a deluge of notes that washed over the song like a torrent from a broken dam. The trio developed a sustained groove over which Sands explored multiple harmonic possibilities, oftentimes with Jennings taking on an aggressive polyrhythmic role. The audience just roared with approval.

The set continued with another Sand’s original from his album titled “Oyeme” which the pianist said was inspired by his recent trip to Havana, Cuba. Sands started out with a clave-based rhythm over which Wheeler and Jennings ruminated. The song darted into and out of the rhythm as Sands danced all over his keyboard in an inspirational display of his grasp of hard-driving Latin music. Jennings showed how he was no stranger to the polyphonic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music, playing his own nearly three-minute solo of sustained rhythmic articulation. Sands has clearly absorbed the tradition of jazz piano in all its ethnic diversity.

The set closed with a ballad that Sands used as a vehicle for some his most impressive harmonic explorations of the evening. The young pianist showed signs of his mastery of stride, as the melody emerged from his musings on a song often associated with the late great Nate King Cole titled “Love.”  To watch this talented pianist explore the different styles that he can call on at will is quite impressive. I hear sounds of Tatum, Shearing, Garner, Tyner and even Teddy Wilson in this man’s playing and yet with all that influence there is something unique here that is all Christian Sands. Catch him if you can, you will be glad you did.

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