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Christian Sands: Renaissance Man

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I'm always trying to push it. And pushing it in different areas where I believe jazz should shine.
—Christian Sands
Christian Sands is more than a jazz pianist, though he excels at it and it is central to his art. After all he started playing at about the age of two and first performed in public at age nine.

Sands is a prolific composer. He has written music for television. He wants to do movie scores. He plans to work with visual artists and fashion designers, blending in his music to themed projects.

"There's so many more things out there. In all shapes and forms," he says. "The possibilities are endless. There's a lot of things happening. I'm always trying to push it. And pushing it in different areas where I believe jazz should shine."

The latest example of his music, released this year, is the album Be Water (Mack Avenue Records). It was recorded in 2019. As Sands moves on as an artist, the rendition of that music evolves when his band performs. That's something he's happy about as an artist. He's moving beyond his outstanding contributions to the projects of titans like Christian McBride, and creating his own world.

There is significance to the album title. One influence on the title comes from from Bruce Lee, the martial arts icon and movie star. Sands has studied martial arts. He is aware of the interview in 1971 in which Lee, speaking in philosophical terms, famously said, "Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless. Like water ... Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

That wasn't entirely the origin. It was conceived over time and punctuated by an incident in Hawaii.

"This was something that was kind of brewing in my soul for a while. Not just by writing the music, but by life, my experience. It started off with my doctors telling me to drink more water, as simple as that is. Many times doctors tell you to do that, but you don't listen. I said, 'Let me actually do it.'"

Flash forward: The group was playing in Hawaii. The weather an surroundings were ideal. "I mean it's Hawaii so you're around paradise everywhere." The band was leaving the island that day and Sands and bassist Yasushi Nakamura were driving to the airport. But, with time to kill, went to a park for a while. "Not like a park here (New York). Very, very different. You have palm trees and lush water. It's clear, it's gorgeous. We decided to stick our feet in the water and take in the sights. And this magnificent sea turtle just appears in the distance. We've never seen that in person before. As we're watching it, the sea turtle approaches us. It gets closer and closer until it literally is at our feet. It sticks its head out the water, looks at us for a little bit and then swims away. So I feel like it was nature, the universe saying, 'You need to make this album about water,'" he says, laughing.

"So that was kind of the note that said, 'Okay, this is going to be about water.' Then I was watching Bruce Lee films on that very long flight from Hawaii to New York. So that's where all of these elements kind of came from ... The title really is simply that—to be like water, to be as malleable and as versatile as water is, in multiple ways. This entire project was inspired by water. It was inspired by the human emotion. It was inspired by music and jazz. And I feel that water and jazz, specifically, have a lot in common. The versatility that they both share is really good. The possibilities are endless."

It was recorded before the pandemic. The band's intent was to play the music without limitation, to see where it it could go, with no pre-ordained goal. "That's the kind of mentality that we had when we recorded, not knowing that we were preparing for 2020 and all that had to give us," Sands says. One cut from the album, "Be Water II," was nominated for a Grammy for best instrumental composition.

Since the band resumed touring, "the music has changed so much ... We have different ways of playing this music. You can simply say the water has changed. Now, with the experience of 2020—the depth of what we've gone through personally, what we've gone through musically— it's deeper now. The water is deeper. There's more things to explore, sonically, creatively. Each musician is dealing with something different and they bring it. There was a whole year of us not playing together. So we've come back together. Now the music has shifted in a beautiful way."

The tours, which included a trip to Europe in May, are not quite the same. There are precautions. There are rules. Promoters, stage crews and staffs are all adapting. "But it is great to be back on the road, to feel that energy from people, to connect with people." He says the Be Water music has been very well received.

Sands, 32, has more miles to go before he sleeps. He's on a journey that began in New Haven, CT, where he grew up. His home provided a creative atmosphere. His father painted and also did illustrations and photography. His mother wrote poetry and short stories. A family friend was the musical director at the church and a lady who would also look after Mr. and Mrs Sands' children when they needed it. She had a piano. She didn't mind the toddler's curiosity and let him explore it. Eventually, she suggested piano lessons for the boy.

"Technically, I started playing when I was one, because I would sit down at the piano and, instead of banging out things, I would try to use my fingers. But it took a couple of years to find a teacher. Who wants to teach a two-year-old how to play piano? So I started lessons at about four years old," Sands says.

He started off with classical piano but he would improvise on the pieces. His teachers were frustrated. Flights of fancy were not called for in Chopin and Beethoven's music. So, they ushered his entrance into jazz studies, which he started at about the age of seven. Rex Cadwallader taught Sands from then until he was 18. He became a mentor and a friend. He had experience writing in the classical field as well as big band jazz.

Cadwallader was "someone who didn't stifle my creativity, but helped me grow. Every time we went to class, it was always learning something new. Not as far as repertoire, but as far as how to push your creativity."

In his neighborhood school, there's wasn't much music. But some children interested in music would take a bus to a program at a performance arts high school in a different part of town. "It was nice little break. I did that for two years" learning theory and composition.

"It was a great place to expand creatively because you're also there with dancers, with singers, visual artists. You could try anything. So I did dance classes just so I can figure out how to write for dancers. I did visual art so I can figure out how to write and perform with visual artists." He collaborated with singers "to hear what they were doing. How they were breathing, all that stuff. It was a lot of fun."

He was good enough at age nine to perform at a concert in New Haven at Spray Hall on the Yale University campus. It was a tribute to Harold Arlen.

He recalls, "It was the first time I was on stage and I've been on stage ever since. When you're young, you do recitals and things. But this was the first time it was a performance on stage. I had to bring a tuxedo. After that, I was the youngest person in the community called on to perform a lot. Whether it was private events, or local local jazz clubs. I'd be the only kid at this club at 11 or 12 at night. Me and my dad."

For young Sands, "Jazz was cool." His mother listened to classical music and he dug that too. Then came the first concert he attended with his folks. It was at Yale, with Clark Terry and Frank Wess. "I remember watching Clark and Frank come in. You hear that sound and feel that energy, seeing Clark play the flugelhorn and trumpet at the same time. It was incredible. It was just so cool. I'm sitting in the front row. When you're a kid, you absorb things and you copy different things. Nothing's telling you not to like this. And I loved it."

The next day Terry and Wess conducted a master class, open to the public. His parents brought their young pianist. The professionals asked the group if anyone wanted to come up and play. Sands was itching to. "We played and we played and we played. Learning all this stuff. 'Okay, this is how Monk played 'Round Midnight.' And these are the right changes.' All that kind of stuff. It felt good. It felt free. Especially coming from a classical background, where it was very disciplined. I was also doing martial arts, so discipline was fine. But (in jazz) that ability to be creative. The possibilities are endless. I was like, 'This is where I want to be.'"

That opened the horizon. As a youngster, he shared the stage some with Dr. Billy Taylor at some shows and that started him getting some notice. His chops were real. Just out of high school, he went on the road for a bit with Los Hombres Calientes, with Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield.

In college he studied jazz and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Manhattan School of music. He didn't gig much at first, instead focusing on his studies. But toward the end of his undergrad years, he met Christian McBride. By his senior year, a trio was formed. It evolved into Sands being the pianist in McBride's Inside Straight band with Steve Wilson on sax and Warren Wolf on vibes. Personnel would change a bit with Jaleel Shaw and Ulysses Owens, Jr. involved. Eventually, the Christian McBride Trio came to be, with Owens and Sands.

McBride "was definitely the one who, nationally and internationally, got my name out there. I've gone to many places from a small hole-in-the-wall to a castle. To that extent, that's definitely Christian McBride for sure." He's worked steady ever since.

Of his influences, Sands says "everyone has something unique and interesting to say." But more specifically, he mentions Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Herbie Nichols, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner and Mulgrew Miller. "Everyone influences me in a way. How they move around the instrument. How people write for the instrument. How people play with others. There's so many (influences) from the classical genre and the jazz genre. And beyond. Aretha Franklin is one. Anita Baker, the way she plays organ. There's certain things that I like that she does.

"But also, on a wider perspective, I'm a big fan of art. I'm a big fan of Salvador Dali. I'm a big fan of Picasso. A lot of different people I love. So many different writers, painters, creative film directors ... I love architecture, design. Everything influences how I create, how I write, how I play. Things that I want you to catch or that I don't want you to catch, but still feel.

"My biggest inspiration is probably Art Tatum. Because he's all of that. There's certain things that he plays where you feel it, but he might not have played it. But somehow you fill it in for yourself. It sounds super complicated, but easy to get and hard, at the same time, to play. It's fluid. It's amazing. And so he's someone who's influenced me from a child up to now. Every time, I hear something new. Every single time. It's frustrating and inspiring."

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