The East Coast has the Newport and DC jazz festivals. The Midwest claims the world’s largest free jazz extravaganza, the Detroit Jazz Festival. The South showcases jazz and R&B talent at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. The jazz at sea festivals occur each January. But the West Coast has the acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival celebrating its sixty-second year this September.
If you ever wanted to attend the Monterey Jazz Festival but for logistical reasons you haven’t, try enjoying some of its finest musicians with the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Music Center at Strathmore on March 21.
Led by musical director, pianist, and composer Christian Sands, the sextet will include three-time Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant; trumpeter Bria Skonberg; tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, who is the 2013 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition; Yasushi Nakamura on bass; and Jamison Ross on drums. Sands and Nakamura recorded together on Sands’ latest album, “Facing Dragons.”
Sands promises attending the concert will be “a whole lot of fun,” with the sextet performing some jazz standards as well as compositions by him. In an egalitarian and inclusive fashion, each band member will also present a piece of their choosing.
The makeup of the sextet reflects Monterey Jazz Festival’s efforts to address the criticism levied at “the jazz world and beyond […] for a lack of women instrumentalists being represented on the stages of major festivals and clubs,” according to its website. The band includes three innovative and world-class female musicians.
As music director of Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, Sands’ job is to get “everyone’s vision on the same page. Everyone is from the same tree, but we are different branches. My job is to put it all together.” Melding the talent of accomplished and keen musicians may not be the easiest of tasks. However, all of the musicians, according to Sands, have previously played together in “various configurations, but this is the first time we are hitting the grind and presenting the show together.” This sextet previously performed together at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2018.
Sands’ vision of the music he composes and plays is simple, but perhaps harder to convey than one imagines. He believes storytelling and experiences lie at the heart of his music. “Everything that I write, everything that I play is from a personal experience. I tell my stories. But I also tell the people’s stories. I’m a people person. The more people I meet, the more stories and experiences I have.”
Life is a narrative. And there is no better musical interpreter of narratives than Christian Sands. The key to Sands’ playing is making the complex appear simple not only to the ears but to the eyes. Watching Sands play is a visual delight as his hands appear to float, sometimes rapidly, on the ivories.
Mentored by the former and current Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the late Dr. Billy Taylor and Jason Moran, respectively, Sands showed his acumen for the piano at a young age. As a child, he became a protégé of Taylor. Sands studied the Suzuki method of piano. He continued his formal musical education at the Manhattan School of Music. Critics dubbed him not only a new and promising voice in jazz, but an exciting and innovative one. He is a jazz musician who “extends a hand” to his listeners, according to Dan Bilawsky in his review of Sands’ album “Reach” (Mack Avenue Records, 2017) for allaboutjazz.com.
Sands’ first recording, “Hoagy Carmichael Stardust Road Live Compilation,” was in 1999, before entering middle school. He recorded consistently from 2002 to 2014 as a sideman for musicians like bassist Christian McBride, or as a lead on independent labels. In 2015, he began recording with Mack Avenue Records in Detroit with “Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Mack Avenue Super Band (‘Up!’ an original).”
His latest release, “Facing Dragons,” is his third album with Mack Avenue Records. He states this album allows him to “face all of the questions, concerns, possibilities that you have, that one has in life.” When Sands was writing the album, he was in transition. He was moving to a new place. Normally, he would wait to go through the transition before writing, but this time he didn’t.
He likes to “live in the moment,” so the organic way his transition becomes part of “Facing Dragons” is for the listener to decide. An accessible album, Sands’ take on a pop standard, “Yesterday,” will leave you appreciative of his profound interpretive ability, but also the way in true Erroll Garner fashion, Sands places notes in the melody to draw you within the spaces of the song. Before you know it, you are riding the crest of his melodic, harmonic, and percussive waves and feeling good about going along with him. At 29 years old, Sands plays and speaks like a seasoned elder of jazz.
In addition to recording and touring, Sands is the creative ambassador of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, a position he inherited from the late jazz pianist, Geri Allen, whom he referred to as “the goddess of music.” The project entails “diving into” Garner’s archives, assembled by Garner’s longtime manager, the late Martha Glaser, and donated by the Glaser estate to the University of Pittsburgh.
According to Sands, the more he “dives into Erroll, the more I learn about his playing and how I can translate my playing.” With his trio, “The High Wire,” Sands plans to tour throughout Europe and the U.S and present some of Garner’s compositions that have never been recorded or recordings Garner never released. Stay tuned on social media on Twitter @christiansands1 and on Facebook and Instagram @christiansandsjazz for updates on touring dates and locales for “The High Wire.” In meantime, come out and enjoy Sands, Salvant, Skonberg, Aldana, Nakamura, and Ross at Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour for what will be an auspicious occasion.
Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour presented by Washington Performing Arts performs on March 21, 2019, at 8:00 pm, at the Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 581-5100, or go online.