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Christian Sands: Christmas Stories

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Christian Sands: Christmas Stories
Early on, Christian Sands had a passion for music. He was enrolled in music classes at age four and wrote his first composition at age five. He started playing professionally at the age of ten and studied at the Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut before receiving his Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. A protégé of Dr. Billy Taylor, Sands released his debut album at the age of 12 and came to wider prominence through his work as a member of two bands led by bassist Christian McBride: the Christian McBride Trio and Inside Straight.

Christmas Stories is his tenth album as a leader and his fourth for his current label, Mack Avenue. It is not a rehash of traditional Christmas songs per se, though there are five of those favorites here, but all are reimagined in a personal manner. The other five are original compositions relating to winter and the holiday season.

The album opens with the band warming up with some blues guitar riffs from Marvin Sewell, like an orchestra just before the conductor begins the piece. The song then begins with a vamp on the Miles Davis riff from "All Blues." Somehow, the melody of "Jingle Bells" soon appears. It becomes a swinging, honky-tonk blues with modulating keys. On it, Sands shows off his immense abilities along with his affinity for different styles. It is a unique take on a simple, familiar tune (see YouTube video below). It also indicates this is not going to be a standard Christmas album.

"Let It Snow" is done as a mid-tempo, lilting ballad highlighted by the warm, buttery tenor work of Jimmy Greene. It morphs into an introspective examination of the harmonies, with solos by Greene and Sands. This is followed by "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The former is done in a swinging, bluesy but at times pensive, arrangement. Sands' interplay with the guitar here is wonderful. The latter is arranged as a Latin romp. Keita Ogawa on percussion is highlighted along with Sands' brother, Ryan Sands, on drums. Together they push the pace throughout, while the piano sings and dances with abandon.

The last traditional song is "Silent Night" which is among the most interesting arrangements here. Sands explains, "It may start out in that peaceful mode, but once you get family together there's chatter, there's laughter, there's excitement. It can get loud. I wanted the song to reflect all these different moods and take people on a journey through the entire night." It begins with a peacefulness associated with the carol, slowly getting louder with more pace using slide guitar and electric keyboards. It keeps pushing forward into a blistering climax before settling back into serene introspection.

Sands wrote five pieces for this record. The first one is "Snow Dayz," a contemporary fusion effort backed by the powerful drums of Ryan Sands. The guitar and piano provide the melody. The solos, combined with the strong rocking rhythm, would work well in a soundtrack setting.

As "Shoveling" begins we hear a background of wind blowing and the crunching of snow. A piano enters as the lone voice among the elements. The melody has a resigned feel to it as if even with the celebratory nature of the season, normal day-to-day responsibilities must be handled.

"A Christmas Hymn" is a short impromptu duet with vibes player Stefon Harris that arose from their studio warm-ups. It is a lovely gospel-type ballad. Harris also plays on "The Gift." It is the longest track here and the most interesting as it contains many different sections. It is highlighted by the interplay between the vibes, piano and slide guitar which create various layers of sound over a memorable melody.

"Last Christmas" closes the album and is performed solo before a string quartet enters a third of the way through. The strings provide an ethereal touch to this hauntingly beautiful melody. It is a deeply meditative track, evocative of memories of Christmas past. It is a wonderful and fitting way to end a well-thought-out and arranged album of both a traditional and personal celebration of the holiday season.

Sands' musical journey is impressive to watch unfold. Still a young man at the age of 34, he's already accomplished a lot. His inventive and prodigious piano skills are a pleasure to listen to and his composing abilities continue to progress.

Track Listing

Jingle Bells; Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Snow Dayz; Shoveling; Silent Night; A Christmas Hymn; The Gift; Last Christmas.

Personnel

Album information

Title: Christmas Stories | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Mack Avenue Records

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