It’s hard to believe that Christian Sands is only 30 years old. The New York-based jazz pianist plays like he’s been around for that long. Sands served his apprenticeship under the tutelage of Billy Taylor who once worked as the house pianist at the original Birdland, and then became the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Sands went on to earn a Latin Grammy nomination (with Bobby Sanabria) for Best Latin Jazz Solo. Today he’s considered one of the best young jazz pianists along with his colleagues Aaron Diehl, Jonathan Batiste and Gerald Clayton. Friday night’s Kahilu Theatre concert marked Sands’ Big Island performance debut and judging by the way he lit up the auditorium, I’m sure it won’t be his last.
For his tour of Hawaii, Sands brought with him bassist Yasushi Nakamura and John Davis on drums. Nakamura worked with Sands on his most recent release Facing Dragons, and with other musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon and Toshiko Akiyoshi. He’s played at premiere jazz festivals and venues such as Birdland, Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall.
Friday’s show at the Kahilu marked drummer Davis’ third performance with Sands. They were perfectly in sync and sounded like they’d been together for years. Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Davis now calls New York home. In addition to Sands, Davis has toured with Cassandra Wilson and piano phenomenon Eric Lewis. Sands gave Davis the spotlight during the song “!Oyeme!”
One of the many highlights of the Sands Trio’s set was a new arrangement for Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Perhaps it was a tribute to the recent passing of Blind Faith’s drummer Ginger Baker, or simply a new tune that the band is working on for a future recording. The incredibly intimate treatment was sparse at the beginning – Nakamura played the melody line slowly on his upright and Sands followed with the lyric section that Steve Winwood originally sang – “Come down off your thrown…” There was a quick “Yeah!” and an even shorter burst of applause, almost as if the audience silenced themselves so they wouldn’t miss a note. As Sands’ piano percolated, Davis filled in with a muffled snare, shimmering cymbals, while keeping time on the bass drum. Their ten-minute rendition eventually built to a crescendo before retreating to the mesmerizing groove it began with.
After a few bows and the theatre’s appreciation leis were given to the performers, the Trio closed with Sands’ mind-bending tune “Like Water.” “I like the flexibility of water when it relates to music,” explained Sands. “It can be hot, cold, deep, shallow and even salty. It has so many different properties – it can be a healer and something that hurts. Like jazz, it moves freely.”
Sands then took some cloth, reached into the piano, and held it down on sections of the strings. The dampened notes he played gave the piece an unusual texture – sonically, it was like hearing music underwater. Nakamura’s eerie bowed bass line reminded me of tethered boats creaking as waves tossed them back and forth. Using only mallets, Davis created crashing wave sounds on the variety of cymbals surrounding him. The song built to a fast-paced rhythm before coming to a fabulous close.
Smiling concertgoers left the theater abuzz with the brilliance of the Christian Sands Trio. It’s a rare treat to hear jazz played with such purpose, and a shame it only comes our way a few times a year.
Rebel Music | Song of the Rainbow People | Reaching for the Sun |Bass Solo | Can’t Find My Way Home | In A Sentimental Mood |!Oyeme! |
Running time with an encore: 85 minutes
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby
Read my interview with Christian Sands here.