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Steve Sandberg Quartet: Alaya

Dan Bilawsky By

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The best word to sum up pianist Steve Sandberg's work is expansive. If his own performance history doesn't make that point clearly enough—he's hobnobbed with Brazilian music royalty like the Gilberto clan, made his mark on the salsa world by working with artists like Rubén Blades and Celia Cruz, touched down time and again in the world of musical theater, and garnered several Emmy nominations for writing and musical direction on children's programs like Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go! —then this album should do the trick.

Alaya is a breathtaking composite of world music, jazz, and classical expressions. In other words, it's Sandberg's whole musical existence merging into a single stream. In these eight tracks, he delivers unto us an exultant music that's incredibly personal and precise in its direction, yet universal in its language and ability to connect. You need not recognize that the frolicking, Bartók-influenced "Janos" bounds along in seven to know that jubilant thoughts carry the moment; Francesco Clemente's paintings don't have to be on site to understand the emotional pull taking place in the somewhat introspective "Weeping Bear," inspired by that artist's work; and nobody's required to be an expert in musicology, horticulture, agronomy, and African religions in order to appreciate the spiritual rapture endemic to the triumphant "Iboga," a piece that simultaneously references a plant medicine and the Bwiti religion which looks on it as a sacrament. Sandberg's influences and execution are all about specificity, but the appeal of his music is in its universality.

The quartet that brings this music to life—Sandberg, violinist Zach Brock, bassist Michael O'Brien, and drummer Mauricio Zottarelli—is as tight as they come. Brock is both lyrical and virtuosic in his expressions, dancing and guiding the ear to and fro; O'Brien harmonically and rhythmically anchors the group, adding creative strength from the deep below; Zotarelli drives the train and paints cymbal-ic gestures around the periphery of these songs; and Sandberg summons the spirits and the sounds in alternately subtle and direct fashion(s), shaping the overall direction of the group.

It's hard to know if you should call this jazz, and that's the beauty of Alaya. It's both genre-blind and stylistically inclusive. Sandberg's work touches on everything from South American chacarera to odd-metered Afro-Cuban grooves and Frederic Chopin's classical language to Astor Piazzola's Nuevo Tango music. It's an alluring admixture that delights all the way through.

Track Listing: Janos; Maurice; Weeping Bear; Iboga; Annie; Eusebio; Mazur; Black Ivory.

Personnel: Zach Brock: violin; Steve Sandberg: piano; Michael O'Brien: bass; Mauricio Zottarelli: drums.

Title: Alaya | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Artist Share

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