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Christian Sands Reaches For The Past With "Gangstalude"

Sharonne Cohen

"What I've found so far on a musical level is new ways to approach rhythm, melody, and improvisation. You never really finish finding yourself... it's a constant journey."

This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada. 

At only 27, New York-based jazz pianist & composer Christian Sands is already a five-time Grammy® Award nominee . On April 12th he releases REACH, his debut for Mack Avenue Records, drawing from the past while looking to the future. With a range of styles and a distinct mix of influences from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop beats, Sands says the album is "really all about finding myself." Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Sands found himself drawn to music at a very early age. His mother listened to everything from gospel to country to Ray Charles, his father explored jazz. Tackling the piano at four, he composed his first piece of music at five and was playing professionally by the age of ten. Attending prestigious New Haven art schools, Sands went on to earn Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, where he received his first Grammy® nomination (Best Latin Piano Solo) for Kenya Revisited.

While still in high school, Sands met legendary jazz pianist, composer, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor (1921-2010) and became his protégé, while listening to the Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, John Legend, Outkast and Nas. At 20, he caught the attention of renowned jazz bassist Christian McBride, who asked Sands to sit in with his band at New York's famed Village Vanguard; this performance led to a permanent spot in McBride's Inside Straight Trio. Sands went on to share the stage with giants such as Wynton Marsalis, Diane Reeves, Shelia E, and Randy Brecker, playing festivals and venues around the world. Both Marsalis and Vanity Fair named him a rising jazz star.

REACH features a potent core trio with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Marcus Baylor, and guest appearances by Gilad Hekselman (guitar), Marcus Strickland (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet), and Cristian Rivera (percussion). McBride, who co-produced the album, makes a cameo at the end of Bill Withers' 1972 soul classic "Use Me" (one of two covers; all other tracks are Sands originals). Sands is skilled, soulful and melodic throughout, his energy and spirit altering with each tune.

NOISEY: How did you approach the album stylistically?
I had Michael Jackson's Bad in mind. What I liked about that record was that it was so versatile; there was a whole array of sounds. I wanted to capture different moods and styles, the way he did.

There are all types of influences in your music. Let's start with the opener, "Armando's Song," inspired by [legendary jazz pianist] Chick Corea.
What influences me is his sense of rhythm and the sense of freedom when he plays. It can be a barrage of notes, or really sporadic, but it's all very rhythmic. He is the Rhythm King.

The trio swings on "Bud's Tune," your homage to [jazz giants] Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols. Tell me about their influence.
Bud Powell [b. 1924]—well, that's where Chick Corea is coming from. Powell is one of the modernists of jazz piano; he had a different sense of playing melody and time. His right hand was extremely versatile and virtuosic. Herbie Nichols [b. 1919] is someone people don't really talk about. He's Bud Powell's' polar opposite: a similar sense of melody, but very angular. He had an avant-garde approach; his chord changes move in odd spaces and times.

You offered an interesting arrangement of "Use Me."
Growing up, Bill Withers played in the house a lot. This tune was always one of my favorites; I wanted to play it, but not the usual way. Messing around on the piano, I decided to slow it down and change the timing, came up with that groove, and changed the harmony around. When I perform it live, it changes all the time.

Where do the Afro-Cuban influences come from on "Óyeme"?
I wrote it for the love of Latin drums and music. I've played with many Latin musicians ever since I was a kid. I wanted to push the envelope a little more here, and play something that's easy to groove to and dance to, but also has something for musicians.

The title of the bluesy "Song of the Rainbow People" implies social commentary.
Yes. It's about reminding people that we all are the same. Even though we have different backgrounds and creeds, it's all about connection, reminding ourselves that it takes all of us to make the world work. It takes all the colors of the rainbow.

And then there's the hip-hop flavored "Gangstalude" . . .
I grew up watching a lot of gangster and western movies; it's an influence in my playing. Jazz co-existed with the original gangsters, like Al Capone, who appreciated the music. In 1926 Fats Waller was kidnapped and taken to play piano for Capone on his birthday. He ended up leaving with a pocket full of dollars.

You're known as one of the most well-dressed young men in jazz, and even have an Instagram account documenting your various looks. What is this about for you?
Growing up, both my father and grandfather wore suits. It runs in the family. My father was all about first impressions, and how you represent yourself—whether it's the way you speak or the way your dress. I wore suits as a kid; it was something that put you in a different place. It required a certain demeanor, a certain kind of conversation. It separated the men from the boys.
Miles Davis is the biggest influence on me—both in terms of his playing and the way he dressed. He and James Bond. Bond kicks ass in these suits, just like Miles Davis. People often ask me about what I'm wearing, or what they should wear. So I decided to document what I wore every time I played. That's how the Instagram was created.

You've said that the album is about finding yourself. What have you found?
The whole album is about self-discovery and artistic discovery, about constantly pushing forward and progressing. I'm still searching. . . What I've found so far on a musical level is new melodies, new harmonies, new ways to approach rhythm, melody, and improvisation. You never really finish finding yourself... it's a constant journey.

Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.