Interview: Christian Sands

Beethoven, Bebop, and Beyond
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When jazz pianist and composer Christian Sands talks about his new album, Reach, he could very well be describing the multifaceted career he has carved out for himself since childhood. “From the writing to the feel to the Latin and experimental songs with synths, there’s something on it for everyone,” he says.

A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Sands was exposed to a wide range of music from a young age. “I started taking piano lessons around the age of four,” he explains. “I originally took Suzuki, classical lessons at the neighborhood music school. There was music in our house, because my parents were both big music fans. My father listened to jazz records like [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue and big band records by Thad Jones. And my mother listened to a lot of gospel music and occasionally some country and western music. She also listened to classical music and loved Mozart.”

Sands’ classical training would soon morph into jazz. “I started working on classical repertoire,” Sands says. “I was playing Chopin and a lot of Mozart, and then I started playing harder things like Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. I also used to improvise on many classical pieces, and as we know, in the classical world, you’re not supposed to do that! [Laughs.] For example, I would take a left hand ostinato, or a figure from the right hand, and play around with them. My teacher finally got tired of telling me not to do that and suggested that my parents put me in jazz lessons because I ‘liked to create.’ So I started taking jazz piano when I was seven year old with a teacher named Rex Cadwallader. I remember the first thing I learned from him was the blues—what the chords were, and what the sound was all about. From there I learned things like Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” as well as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” which I learned from a car commercial on television!”

Sands would also develop a love for electronic music that continues to this day. “I had a few keyboards, like the [Korg] Triton Pro X that I got when I was around 13 years old,” he says. “I also had some older Casio keyboards that I learned how to control via MIDI. Later I borrowed a Prophet and a Minimoog from a friend, and I got a Fender Rhodes when I was in high school. I was listening to all kinds of things, from Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Kelly, to players like George Duke and Joe Sample. Later on, I started getting into electric things like [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters, and progressive rock things like DragonForce and Dream Theater. I actually had a Dream Theater cover band when I was in high school. [Laughs.] Then when I was around 15, I started studying with Rahn Burton, who taught me about stride piano and ragtime, and later Dr. Billy Taylor, where I learned about players like Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Later, I went to Manhattan School of Music and studied with Jason Moran as well as Vijay Iyer.”

A big break came in Sands’ junior year in college, when he nabbed the coveted piano chair in bassist Christian McBride’s band. “I got the gig with Christian in 2010 after being asked to do Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show. Unfortunately, she was ill and had to have Christian sub for her. That’s how we first got to play together. A week later, his manager called me to play with his band in New York City. And I’m still performing with him today.”

In addition to his work as a sideman, Sands has a fertile career as a leader, with his new Mack Avenue release Reach scheduled for release later in 2017. “The idea behind the album is about reaching for things,” he says. “It’s music I wrote in the past few years where I was reaching artistically, compositionally, and rhythmically. It’s all about moving forward.”