How Jacob Sacks Sparks His Creative Spirit


New York pianist Jacob Sacks currently is juggling four different groups.

(Photo: Adriane Giebel)

It’s been 25 years since pianist and composer Jacob Sacks relocated to the Big Apple from Monroe, Michigan.

“I still enjoy being in New York because there’s always an influx of new artists with new ideas, and it feels good to be a part of that,” said the longtime Brooklyn resident. “My worry is that some of these new folks might get scared away by the rents, which are astronomically high. I lucked into a rent-stabilized apartment when I first moved to Brooklyn in 1997. It’s been a godsend, because I can afford to be here. Hopefully, some of the young folks who are bringing all of this new energy will find a way to stick around.”

With the specter of insurmountable rent removed, Sacks has been able to actively engage in a number of musical situations that spark his creative spirit. Currently juggling four different groups, each is a showcase for his darkly dissonant chord voicings, subversive reharmonization and jagged right-handed flurries on the keys. It’s no wonder he takes so naturally to Herbie Nichols tunes like “Hangover Triangle” and “Step Tempest” on trioTrio’s recent SteepleChase release, Nice Treatment.

“When I was still in Michigan, I got the Mosaic Records’ Herbie Nichols box set,” Sacks recalled. “That got a lot of listens from me, and I’m still a huge fan of Herbie Nichols.”

The culmination of ongoing jams since 2002, Nice Treatment documents Sacks’ jazziest performances on record. With his former Manhattan School of Music classmates Dave Ambrosia on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, trumpeter Dave Scott and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry add a fulsome bop element to this adventurous quintet on a harmonically tweaked rendition of Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom” and deeply melancholic takes on “My Funny Valentine” and “Never Let Me Go.”

“Playing with those guys over the years it was always swinging, so that’s been percolating for some time,” the pianist said.

Sacks added that one tune on Nice Treatment stands as an homage to his first jazz hero, Tommy Flanagan: “Being from the Detroit area, he was kind of a big one for me, but I’ve never had a way to pay homage to Tommy in any previous recording. The Thad Jones tune we did, ‘50-21,’ I actually lifted from [Flanagan’s 1982 Confirmation], which was my chance to pay a little bit of respect to Tommy.”

Sacks’ longstanding duo with experimental vocalist Yoon Sun Choi goes back to 2000 and first was documented on 2002’s aptly-titled Soulmates. Their latest collaboration, I Should Care, finds the duo radically reimagining jazz standards like “For All We Know,” “Just Friends” and the title track.

“The great thing about working with Yoon is that she’s absolutely fearless,” Sacks said. “Every moment with her is almost like a fast-paced basketball game—you have to totally connect and be aware at all times. We have a vibe together with standards and one of the biggest challenges with that particular record was choosing which take to use, because all the alternate takes are like completely different universes. It’s like we’re creating multiple histories of possibility on each tune.”

Sacks also leads a daring quintet featuring saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin along with bassist Michael Formanek, and another MSM classmate, drummer Dan Weiss. Their 2018 Clean Feed release, Fishes, is comprised entirely of edgy Sacks originals. “Tony and I have played in Eivind Opsvik’s band together for 18 years,” Sacks said. “Mike and I met on one of Dan Weiss’ trio gigs when he was subbing for Thomas Morgan. And I met Ellery through playing with Mike. These guys are four of the greatest musicians I’ve ever been aware of in my entire life. My compositions on this record are just vehicles that they brought to life and took on an amazing journey.”

Another project is the cooperative quartet Landline with saxophonist Chet Doxas, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Sperrazza. The group’s self-titled debut on the Loyal Label features original material written together by applying the children’s game “Telephone,” where each band member composes a musical idea then passes it down the line to the next group member. By the time the process is completed, each writer has added to the original idea, making each piece of music highly collaborative.

“It’s a way of doing cooperative writing without being in the same room together,” Sacks explained.

But the restlessly creative pianist credits his community of like-minded musicians with helping him to stay inspired. “It’s been a real wonderful thing to be able to be connected with these people who never stop growing, never stop learning and are always sharing new stuff.” DB

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