Jazz Notes: Rising-Star Pianist Christian Sands ‘Reaches’ for New Horizons in the Jazz Cosmos
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, July 11, 2017
Pianist Christian Sands’ debut Mack Avenue recording, Reach, pretty much tells the evolving story of a 28-year-old artist who is embracing the vanguard of expansive expression.
On Reach, the New Haven, Connecticut-based rising star on the keys not only sees a bright horizon to explore the diversity of the idiom but also an opportunity to delve into the wide breadth of styles he’s mastered. This ranges from Dr. Billy Taylor-informed traditional swing to the contemporary hard-edged funk and blues-rock, Headhunters synth electronics, Latin percussive fuel and hip-hop beats. He makes nods to Chick Corea, Bud Powell, Tito Puente and even counts Kendrick Lamar as a fearless hero who reminds him of early Trane. Sands calls what he’s seeking to do on his Christian McBride/Al Pryor-produced album “a fresh look at the entire language of jazz” as he invents and reinvents with aplomb.
Not surprisingly, Sands, who grew up in a household full of Motown and funk, reverted back to his favorite albums for inspiration and found the font for Reach in Michael Jackson’s 1987 release Bad—his final Quincy Jones collaboration five years after Thriller. “I’m a child of the ‘90s, and I listened to that record all the time,” Sands said. “I was looking for what makes a record good, and I was thinking of albums people love to hear like Miles’ Kind Of Blue and Nefertiti. But Michael was right there too. On Bad, he was so versatile and played so many different styles with different sounds. He used all these different lanes.”
Sands didn’t want to channel Bad, but instead use Jackson’s aesthetics. “Like Michael, what I’m doing is using all my different lanes, through different moods, different rhythms, different harmonies to tell my story,” he said. “I’m looking to the future and reaching out directly to audience members who haven’t heard me play who I really am, who have never heard me play the synth or Latin styles. My day-one fans aren’t surprised because they’ve seen me performing since I was 8. They know me from festivals where I was playing a keyboard or a Fender Rhodes.”
For his Latin jazz cred, Sands toured twice with Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield in Los Hombres Calientes when he was still in high school and recorded the Grammy-nominated album Kenya Revisited Live in 2009 with Bobby Sanabria’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Manhattan School of Music. But his marquee recognition came that same year via McBride, first with Inside Straight and more prominently as a member of his trio. But to Sands, that only scratches the surface of his musical palette. There’s an abundance of colors and mixes that he’s yet to document, which is what Reach introduces.
While Sands was active playing in bands in his native New Haven area, a key jumping off point to the big leagues took place when while still in high school he attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst’s Jazz in July. This began his apprenticeship with Dr. Billy Taylor, one of the founders of the jazz improvisation program. “It was awesome studying with Dr. Billy in the seminars,” Sands said. “I remember seeing him the first time with faculty members in the Fine Arts Center, and he was wearing a white shirt, khaki pants and big glasses. He walked up to me and just talked with me like I was the only person in the room. I studied voicings, the mechanics of how jazz was made and then took private lessons with him. I was originally going to stay just the first week, but he asked me to stay on for the second week and got me a scholarship to do it.”
Dr. Taylor became an encyclopedia of jazz to Sands as he learned firsthand about Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Monk, Bud Powell, Mingus and up to Jason Moran. He was also hip as to what was happening in the moment. “I asked him if he had heard about The Roots and John Legend recording his song ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,’ and he said he really liked it,” said Sands. “He said he liked what The Roots were doing, expressing themselves with jazz and adding in new rhythms. He felt it was something special. He also liked Tribe Called Quest. He was open to its music because he said he had studied with Mary Lou Williams and that she was hip to that kind of music—the funk, the avant-garde.”
Sands became a protégé who traveled to the Bronx to visit Dr. Taylor and accompanied him to Kennedy Center when he served as the Artistic Director for Jazz. Sands’ next important contact was Herbie Hancock.
“I remember getting the  Head Hunters album with the yellow sun face on the cover,” he said. “Funk was my thing, but when I discovered this, and it was instrumental music, I just wore it out. I played it every day. Later when I was playing with Bill Summers in Los Hombres Calientes, he was also doing Headhunters tribute shows, which he wanted me to play on. That was a dream come true to be playing ‘Watermelon Man.’ My head was just exploding.”
Sands met Hancock at one of his shows in Bridgeport, Connecticut, not far from New Haven. A photographer friend who was taking photos at the show encouraged Sands to come and he would introduce him to Hancock. So Sands along with his younger brother and his parents bought tickets, but the photographer never showed up. “Herbie ended the show with ‘Chameleon’ which was great,” Sands remembered. “We just hung out for a few minutes at our seats way up in the balcony. An usher came over and said, ‘Mr. Hancock would like you to come backstage.’ To this day I don’t know how that happened, but of course I went backstage, and it was if he knew me. Press people were around him, but he motioned me over and we talked for a couple of hours about the piano, funk, computers. He gave me his phone number and email, so I wrote him a thank you that night. Hey, I was thinking I’m a kid and I got to meet my hero. I never expected him to reply, but the next morning, he wrote me back. We’ve kept in contact since.”
The connect to McBride comes as another serendipitous event. On Dr. Taylor’s suggestion, Marian McPartland booked Sands to appear on her Piano Jazz NPR show. However, since she was ill at the time, she asked McBride if he could fill in as the guest host. He didn’t know what to expect except he figured the youngster would be a straight-ahead young talent. “When I reached the studio, I heard him before I saw him,” McBride said. “Christian was warming up and he was playing all this angular music that was more like Paul Bley or Andrew Hill. That turned me on. I think we played ‘Cherokee’ together. It was really fast, and there he was expressing himself at fast tempo by playing lines instead of shapes. A lot of young pianists when playing fast play shapes, but Christian was playing the lines as if he had a lot of Oscar Peterson in him.” McBride said he “hid my excitement,” and after he left told his manager: “We’ve got to grab him before someone else does.”
The opportunity came when Inside Straight was playing at Jazz Standard in New York, and pianist Peter Martin couldn’t make the week. “I called Christian to see if he could make it, and he killed it,” said McBride. “I still tried to not show too much excitement, but I knew he was special. When I had to go to Europe as a trio, I asked him to come with [drummer] Ulysses Owens, and it became my primary group that served me well.”
When Sands was signed by Mack Avenue, he knew McBride would be his top choice to produce. “Christian is the best bass player, period,” Sands said. “And we love conversations, talking about funk, James Brown, Johnny Taylor, Otis Redding—all the soul artists, but then we’d talk about all the jazz artists. He didn’t see the two as exclusive from one another. He saw them one and the same. He knows my playing and what I want to accomplish with my music. Musically we’re from the same place and that excites me.”
Originally Sands was thinking of his launch into Mack Avenue as a standards album, but under the influence of Bad, that drastically pivoted into Reach, which McBride had a few hesitations about. “What Christian is doing is all over the place,” he said. “It’s disparate and all on the same record. Initially I thought, maybe it’s not such a great idea to pummel people with everything you can do. Maybe save a little for later as your career progresses. There’s so much diversity that you wonder, how will this get programmed on a straight-ahead radio station? But I really like the way this has turned out, and I’m very excited for his career.”
But Sands says, he wanted to create something that could reach everyone, and he feels like this is just his first baby step with eight originals and two covers. The first two tunes on Reach are played as a trio with the in-demand rhythm team of Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Marcus Baylor on drums. The disc bolts out the door with Sands syncing up with his rhythm mates for a blazing blast into ”Armando’s Song” teeming with quick scampers across the keys, call-and-responses with the bass lines and propulsive drumming. “It’s an exercise in Chick-ism,” said Sands, who admits that he wrote the piece with Corea’s tune “Armando’s Rhumba,” from his 1976 album My Spanish Heart, in mind. “Let’s just say I was thinking about Chick when I wrote it. I wanted to pay homage but also write a piece that he might dig too.”
Reach featues a tripleheader of expanding the trio to a quartet with guitarist Gilad Hekselman. He knocks the ball out of the park with tonal sophistication and get-down grit. Sands has history with Hekselman in bassist Ben Williams’ trio. “I love playing with him,” Sands said. “With Ben, I get the chance to play with guitar on a regular basis. It’s easy. I don’t have to fight. We lay out for each other. We do it naturally.”
Sands wrote “Reaching for the Sun” originally for trio, but then played it with the guitar sound on his computer and knew this would be the perfect fit for Hekselman. “Christian said he wanted it to groove,” the guitarist said. “It’s an honor that someone would want to write a song with me in mind. It’s a cool tune and really does capture the perception of my essence.” As for his contributions, he said, “I ask myself how can I come in and add something external and be cohesive with the vibe. It’s like having ginger between eating different pieces of sushi.”
Some content of this interview originally appeared in a ‘DownBeat’ feature.
Cover: Christian Sands, piano; photo: pic.twitter.com/bHrGdYUHfg