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David Sancious: From Monk to Sting

David Sancious: From Monk to Sting
Luca Muchetti By

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David Sancious is one of the most sought-after and sophisticated sidemen in the world of popular music. He has collaborated with the likes of Sting and Peter Gabriel and has been a member of the original E-Street Band led by Bruce Springsteen, not to mention countless gigs with superstars such as Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and Santana.

His love for jazz has never abandoned him—"It involves the ability to play in an ensemble, and at the same time it encourages total spontaneity and creativity"—as he puts it.

Despite his busy career as a multi-instrumentalist with many pop and rock artists, he has found the time to release several albums as a leader. Two more albums, in which he focuses on the keyboards and the guitar, should be coming out soon.

All About Jazz: You grew up studying classical music, but your debut as a professional musician took place in the Jersey Shore sound scene, between the late 1960s and 1970s. Can you tell us something about your influences as young musician? Some people see influences of Monk in your style from that period, but also of Mozart...

David Sancious: Both Thelonious Monk and Mozart were early influences for me so I think it's fair to say that the style is a combination of both. I consider that a great compliment.

AAJ: Do you remember which one was the first jazz record you bought? Or the first jazz musician you listened to?

DS: It's hard for me to remember the first Jazz record I purchased. I bought so many of them. One of the first Jazz musicians I listened to was probably Erroll Garner because he was one of my father's favorite pianists and he used to play his records a lot.

AAJ: How did you join Springsteen and his band?

DS: Bruce invited me to be in the band after we met at a jam session that lasted several hours at Asbury Park. I think he wanted me in the band because he was hoping to do something different than what he had been doing up to that point and he thought I could make a contribution to that.

AAJ: Looking back at those years, is there something in particular that you remember well, or that you miss today?

DS: I remember playing in Asbury Park in the summertime and the great atmosphere and the excitement of the fans that would come to those early shows.

AAJ: On The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, the second Springsteen album, two of your interventions stand out in particular: the fresh jazzy mood of "Kitty's Back," and the outstanding classical feeling of "NYC Serenade." Bruce would never be so "jazz" and "orchestral" in the following 40 years of career... Can you tell us how you worked on the arrangements of those two songs and Springsteen's reactions to your ideas?

DS: The arrangement for "Kitty's Back" came about fairly spontaneously. We just tried different keyboard instruments to see which one sounded best, and that's what we arrived at. The song sounds "jazzy" because Bruce wrote it that way. As far as "New York City Serenade" is concerned, it sounds classical because it's a very open, melodic, song and Bruce decided he wanted to have some violins on it. He asked me if I would write a string arrangement for it, and I did. It was the first time I've ever done that and it worked out beautifully.

AAJ: Your keyboard playing on the song "Born to Run..." represented a solemn farewell to the E-Street Band and to rock and roll music. It also marked the beginning of a new path together with your new band The Tone, whose first album was produced by Billy Cobham, and which then released three more albums that float somewhere between jazz and progressive. What were you searching for? What did the Springsteen-period represent for you, and what was the direction of that project compared to the very first part of your career?

DS: As far as the progression of my solo albums is concerned, I wasn't really searching for anything pre-determined. I was just following the natural progression of my talents and my interest at the time. The Springsteen period represents the foundation of my professional career and the association with one of the premier artists of our generation.

AAJ: The '80s seem to be your "wild years": you crossed every music genre playing with Aretha Franklin, Jack Bruce & Friends, Jon Anderson, Santana and three albums with Italian singer Zucchero. It was clear that your approach to music was cross-cutting and atypical, and it's interesting because you seem like a real jazz player but rarely play jazz in a "traditional way..." Can you describe how it feels to play in every kind of situation? Do you think that your versatility is the result of jazz's free nature?

DS: It is a privilege and also great fun to play different styles of music with different people. I do believe that the aesthetics of jazz work in any form of music. It involves the ability to play in an ensemble, and at the same time it encourages total spontaneity and creativity.

AAJ: Later on, you were involved in the recording of two masterpieces like The Soul Cages and Ten Summoner's Tales, with another pop artist that has a lot to share with the jazz heritage, Sting. Looking at the footage of the Lake House sessions—where Ten Summoner's Tales was recorded—there seems to have been a real inspiring atmosphere: what do you remember from those projects?

DS: I have very fond memories of the Soul Cages because it was my first time in the studio with Sting. Also Ten Summoner's Tales was an amazing project. The atmosphere at Lake House was great. We worked really hard, but we also had a great time making the record.

AAJ: Sting and Springsteen, faraway but so close: what do they have in common and what's the Sancious ingredient that connects them?

DS: What Sting and Bruce have in common is that they're both tremendously talented, they are both great songwriters and they both have a very strong work ethic. My studio experience with both of them is great, as they both give me a tremendous amount of freedom. And they really appreciate what happens.

AAJ: You joined Sting during a recent tour, and Springsteen for a surprise-reunion onstage at Asbury Park. Watching the videos on YouTube the mood doesn't seem so different from 40 or 20 years ago... How did those reunions go?

DS: It's always great to be on stage with Bruce or Sting. We've done a lot of work together over the years, and there's a lot of love between us. Time doesn't change that.

AAJ: With Peter Gabriel another great chapter of your career: he referred to you as the "musician's musician." Gabriel is a nomadic musician like you: your affinity therefore was no surprise...

DS: I agree. I have a lot of affinity with Peter Gabriel, both as a musician and a human being. He's another artist with whom I share a lot of history and a lot of love.

AAJ: A question addressed to David Sancious, the session man: how much of your art is influenced by the direct request of the band leader, and how much is under your complete control? Do studio sessions ever make you feel frustrated or constrained compared to your extremely free approach to music?

DS: My attitude towards session work is that I'm there to serve the person who wrote the song, and the song itself. Usually it's a mixture of direction and freedom. It all depends on the artist and the song. I don't personally feel constrained by that.

AAJ: Your last albums as a leader are 9 Piano Improvisations (2000) and Live in the Now (2006). Can we expect something new ahead?

DS: There are two new albums coming soon. One is a collection of compositions from several years back, with keyboards, guitars and vocals, and the other is an album of me playing guitar and no keyboards. Both are untitled at the moment.

AAJ: What do you think has been the most significant influence of jazz on popular music?

DS: I think one of the most significant influences of jazz music on popular music has been that of harmony. The sophisticated harmony of jazz has been incorporated into popular music with great success.

AAJ: Do you think that jazz has historically been a reactive or a proactive kind of music?

DS: I think jazz has historically been proactive, not reactive.

AAJ: According to Frank Zappa "Jazz is not dead; it just smells funny." How does jazz smell to you today?

DS: Frank Zappa was a genius, but jazz continues to smell good to me.

Photo credit: Michael Bloom

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