The career of pianist Christian Sands, 29, has shifted into high gear since the release of his Mack Avenue Records debut, Reach, last year. In May, the label issued his five-song EP, Reach Further, featuring three new songs recorded live at L.A. jazz club Blue Whale, along with two unreleased tracks from the Reach sessions. The new recording advances his mission of giving “a fresh look at the entire language of jazz.”
In September, Sands will be the musical director of the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour group, consisting of singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocalist/trumpeter Bria Skonberg, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and vocalist/drummer Jamison Ross. Sands also is set to launch a new album this fall.
Additionally, the pianist recently became the creative ambassador of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, which is releasing its third in a series of archival recordings on Octave Music in partnership with Mack Avenue. Sands served as a co-producer of Erroll Garner: Nightconcert, a live November 1964 recording captured at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw. It features 16 tracks, eight of which are previously unheard interpretations and a newly discovered original, “That Amsterdam Swing.”
“Being creative ambassador is a big honor,” Sands said. “It’s given me a different hat to wear. Aside from being a performer, now I have taken on the role to help shape and execute someone’s creative vision who isn’t here and combine it with my own, all the while staying true to what the artist intended.”
Sands grew up listening to some of Garner’s music and gleaned wisdom from such jazz elders as Dave Brubeck, Dr. Billy Taylor and Dick Hyman to understand the different stylings he used. But Sands didn’t fully grasp the depth of Garner’s playing until Geri Allen (1957–2017) asked him to be a part of her 60th anniversary presentation of The Complete Concert By The Sea at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.
“Geri was our North Star for what we’re doing to build the Garner legacy,” said Peter Lockhart, one of the co-producers on the trilogy of new releases. “At the University of Pittsburgh. where she was teaching, Geri ushered in all the Erroll archives, including 7,000 reels of tape that we’ve digitized and more than a million documents. Nightconcert is dedicated to her.”
Sands said the process of working on Nightconcert led to numerous surprises. He was impressed by the interplay of Garner and his longtime trio of bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin. “They moved so seamlessly,” Sands said. “Wherever Erroll’s mind wanted to go, his bandmates moved right alongside him, as if they all were sharing the same mind.”
Nightconcert features Garner’s idiosyncratic takes on a number of standards, including a version of “My Funny Valentine” that Lockhart said is the best he’s ever heard.
Sands has formed the band High Wire Trio with bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. to celebrate the recording, reflecting just how deeply Garner’s music resonates with the bandleader. “He was so spontaneous, but also fearless,” Sands said. “Being involved in the project allows me to explore different ways to express myself and strive for that fearlessness Erroll possessed.” DB