A journeyman pianist puts his influences out there (Corea, Glasper) but does so with energy and creativity. An artist on the rise.
Christian Sands is a tasty, superb young pianist. He was mentored by Dr. Billy Taylor, and his playing has some of that gentleman’s tasteful virtuosity. He gained experience playing in Christian McBride’s Inside Straight band, so he knows how to groove in a rhythm section like mad while keeping everything clean but soulful.
Reach is not Sands’s first record (he is in his late 20s), but it feels like his mature debut nevertheless, being on a bigger jazz label, Mack Avenue, which specializes in this kind of soulful mainstream jazz. I like Reach most when it pushes a bit past the pianist’s clear influences. But, that said, Sands’s influences are fresh. Specifically, I hear a ton of Chick Corea in his touch, possibly also a result of both pianists having experience with Latin jazz.
“Armando’s Song”, which starts with a very precise melody with an Iberian tinge, is a Sands original, but it can’t help but bring to mind some similar tunes (with similar titles) written by Corea. Sands also articulates his runs with a Corea-esque percussive attack. “Oyeme” is a Latin theme, adding percussionist Christian Rivera to strong effect. “Bud’s Tune” is a hip anthem that uses some cool call-and-response between a bopping right-hand melody and a bass line. (Noted: Bud Powell is also a great influence on and inspiration of Corea’s.)
Half the tunes here feature just a piano trio, with Sands, joined by drummer Marcus Baylor and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. They are in sync like the pistons of a V-8, humming with power and smooth grace. “Song of the Rainbow People” is strong, dramatic trio work, not necessarily a memorable theme but a nicely modulated piece of playing: a chiming theme stated rubato, a piano groove that sets up the feeling of the piece, sensitive playing getting up into the harmonic form, then a dramatic build to a climax.
When Sands brings in Marcus Strickland on tenor sax, I like the band just a bit more. The added color and contrast is useful on a set of originals that, otherwise, can seem like you’ve heard them before. And, again, the quartet brings to mind Corea -- specifically his “Three Quartets” group with Michael Brecker. (High praise.) “Pointing West” uses a surging melody and contrasting dynamics, and then “Freefall” is a moodier piece that adds color through electronic keyboards and Strickland’s bass clarinet. Even so, it evokes that acoustic Corea group in the way that the composition moves through evolving themes that build to a climax.
On three consecutive tunes, Sands brings in guitarist Gilad Hekselman on clear-toned guitar. Hekselman has played with a who’s who of New York jazz, and adds energy and interest to the light Latin groove of “Reaching for the Sun”. “Ganstalude” (alluding to Jason Moran’s series of “Gansta” tunes?) uses a funk/hip-hop feel as its starting point and layers on some slick harmonies that will bring to mind Robert Glasper more than Chick Corea. That said, the performance features a hip, original melody and a solo that is among my favorite on the recording.
The group’s cover of Bill Withers’ should classic “Use Me” is flat-out terrific. Sands slows down and re-syncopates the famous lick so that it is right on the edge of being recognizable, and then the band just takes off into a much thicker sonic mix than we hear on the rest of the recording -- Hekselman adds some distortion, the bass begins walking, and Baylor funks his swing. Sands's solo brings in a fat dollop of gospel blues playing over a 6/8 feeling. Add in a bowed bass solo from mentor Christian McBride, and you have the highlight of the recording.
Reach concludes with just the trio again, playing an original ballad called “Somewhere Out There”. The leader’s solo introduction is delicately lovely, leading to a tune that evokes “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” through a set of allusions of harmony and in the intervals used in the melody (particularly on the bridge). The piano solo moves from foothills to mountaintops.
And this seems like a fitting end to a record that puts Sands’s influences out front. Rather than calling the recording derivative, I would describe it as a loving and wise outing from an artist who is building toward an identity and doing it honestly and with integrity. Everyone stands on the shoulders of their teachers, their mentors, their predecessors. The best of us acknowledge this and use our grounding wisely. Christian Sands is no clone of Chick Corea or Robert Glasper or Christian McBride or anyone else. He seems on his way to something new and in no rush to get there. May his career be long and take us for the ride.