Christian Sands talks Erroll Garner, Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and his newest album

At 30 Christian Sands has played prominently with Christian McBride, Bobby Sanabria, and Gregory Porter, has created a handful of impressive EP’s, two full albums, including last years Facing Dragons, and he is working on a third, to be released some time next year. Sands was known as a child piano protege, and as a leader and arranger he has shown wild creativity that compliments his dazzling piano skills seen with groups like McBride’s.

Most recently, Sands has worked as the creative ambassador for the Erroll Garner Project, designed to promote the music of the classic pianist and Pittsburgh native. With a trio including Ulysses Owens on drums and Luques Curtis on bass, called the Christian Sands Highwire Trio, Sands will play at the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival on June 23, 2019 at 4:30 pm on the Smithfield Stage.

Before the festival I spoke with Christian about creative outlets, Facing Dragons, and the upcoming album.

Jack Austin (JA): What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

Christian Sands (CS): A whole bunch of different things. I listened to a lot of gospel, listened to a lot of classical music, my mother loved Mozart, I was born in that era where parents played their kids Mozart to try to make them smarter. In the 90’s. So I was one of those kids… I don’t know if it worked. I listened to a lot of jazz of course, a lot of Thelonius Monk was playing in the house, a lot of Grover Washington Jr., and Joe Sample. My father loved those artists, loved Miles Davis, loved John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock. A lot of R&B in the house, a lot of Temptations, a lot of the Del’s, the Delfonics is one of my favorite groups, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson…..

JA: It sounds like a very musical household.

CS: Yeah, there was a piano in the house. Both of my parents played a little. My father took some lessons in high school. My mother took lessons when she was in elementary school. But nothing extensive, very very small, short lessons. But they loved music, absolutely loved music. Country western was also playing in the house, my mom loved Charlie Pride, Ray Charles, so a lot of different styles of music, a lot of soul music in the house.

JA: When did you start to take music seriously? Did you always know you wanted to be a professional jazz musician?

CS: Well, I always knew I wanted to be creative, and music just happened to be the vehicle I could be that with, you know. I didn’t necessarily know I was playing jazz when I was young, I just liked to create and express myself, and with classical music, it is very disciplined and there is a certain way you have to express yourself. When the teacher was finally tired of telling me to stop soloing on Bach and Beethoven, she told my parents to put me in jazz studies and that’s when I started jazz studies. There, I really got to be myself. I don’t think it was ever like I’m going to be a serious musician it was just creativity and a love of being free, and I think that is what jazz has done for me.

JA: Do you have any other creative outlets besides music?

CS: I kind of do everything, you know, I’m a big fan of design, I draw, and I paint. Which are not for sale. I love everything, I love life, I’m a big advocate on experience. And different experiences influencing your art and the craft. Music is just one of those things that I love to do. So that’s the main thing, everything else is just creativity and interest.

JA: What were some of the major inspirations for your latest album Facing Dragons?

CS: Life. Life is always the biggest inspiration you can have I say. Everything about Facing Dragons was exactly about that, facing your dragons, your obstacles, facing things you are unsure of, facing the unknown basically. Every piece was a reflection of where I’ve come from, where I’ve been, and where I’m trying to go. It’s sort of an extension of Reach, so a Reach part 2 or part 3.

JA: Sonically, how did you try to convey that struggle or that battle with the dragons?

CS: In different ways. I wanted the trio because I love those guys, Yasushi Nakamura and Jerome Jennings, are absolutely amazing. And a lot of the tunes sort of wrote themselves with the instruments involved. For example on Frankenstein, I knew I wanted tenor saxophone and trumpet on because I knew the color it brings, I knew I wanted a certain color, a certain tambor to the song. And especially with the people I chose for it, it was the way they play together. There is a way they play together that is kind of dark and mysterious it. It kind of gives you that Frankenstein theme you know from the story. “Sangueo Soul”. That was something where I had to research the rhythm Sangueo from Venezuela. You know I had to really find out what it meant I had to really find out how it treated itself. You know what is it about? Is it a fun thing is it not a fun thing? So the whole reason why this song has all those percussion is because the Sangueo rhythm has all those percussion…. Yeah a lot of the tunes that I’ve written in the instrumentation for them kind of go hand in hand like “Sunday Mornings”. That’s about going to church when I was a young kid and that had the B3 organ in it, it had the guitar in it that had the percussion in it because when I was a kid we had all those instruments in the music section. I used to sing in the choir when I was a kid. And you would hear the organ. You would hear. We didn’t have a B3 but we had we had a pipe organ and we had a lot of keyboards [for the album]. It was like seven keyboards at one point. And so the style of music the gospel music you know you have the B3 you have the tambourine. You have drums you have guitar solos in late gospel music. You know when you talk about Kirk Franklin, you talk about Tye Tribbett. So there’s certain aspects of the music that I’ve written that kind of go hand-in-hand with the issue.

JA: You mentioning that you sang in a choir made me want to ask you, would you ever consider adding vocals to your music?

CS: I’ve thought about it, you know, and a lot of people have asked me to do it as well. But you know it’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen.

JA: How would you describe your sound? Who influences it the most?

CS: I think my sound is just a product of my upbringing and my personality. You know I’m a very glass half full type of person. I’m very optimistic. So I think my sound is optimistic. You know I think my sound is honest because I try to be as honest 100 percent of the time as I can be you know. But I’m always looking for something new and I’m always looking to push myself. I’m always looking to stretch. So I think my sound sounds like that. I’m a big fan of history and a big fan of showing respect to elders and where we’ve come from so I have a big respect of the older style of music you know like James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, I have a big respect of the history of the piano. So I think that’s also in that as well. And also I just like to have fun so I think my sound is fun.

JA: I saw you play at the Side Door Jazz club in Lyme, Connecticut. How do you compare a small venue like that to a festival setting like the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival?

CS: Well there’s different feelings you know in a small club. It’s very intimate. So you know I can immediately feel the energy in there as soon as it shifts. You know it shifts the light in a small club. You know in a festival where you have thousands of people outside you know already the energy is high. You know people are already excited about being there. It’s warm. Hopefully it’s warm outside. But even if it’s raining I mean people are just glad to be there. You know they are diehard fans and they want to really really truly be there. So the feeling is a little different because it’s more exciting it’s more reckless it’s more or less this let’s just let our hair down and and be within the moment. I mean they’re both, they’re both the same thing. They’re both very similar but they’re very different feelings at the same time.

JA: On that note, what is an ideal venue for you? What is an ideal crowd?

CS: Well I’ll say the crowd, I’ll say an ideal crowd is just people who are just open to going anywhere. You know without expectations you know I like those crowds. I like the crowds that don’t really know what to expect. You know, or kind of go in with something with an idea in mind but also are open to that idea changing because you know it changes all the time. I try to keep that in a serious form where the music changes. You know we will play these tunes and they are not the same every night. So it’s all about the journey. You know I like crowds that go on journeys with us. So my ideal crowd is that. The ideal venue. That’s tough because every every venue is different you know a small club is very intimate which means you can do small things and they come across very big. But in a bigger setting like the outside of the festival or an outdoor theater or something like that you know you have to project as the artists, you have to. You have to do more. But the effect is greater, the reaction is greater, you know. So they’re both kind of wonderful places to be.

JA: So there’s no place you’ve always dreamed of playing at?

CS: The Sydney Opera House. I would love to play that. You know there’s definitely venues that I would love to play at. Just because I love design and architecture so there’s beautiful places I want to play. You know I want to play. I would love to play in front of you know an Egyptian pyramid or things like that.  You know I mean I like visual thing I like visually stimulating things. So in every place that you play gives off a different energy and a different vibe. So the music also reflects that too. You know, so for playing in the Side Door it’s a small place. You know we have a lot of fun. The energy is great in that room versus you play somewhere else and the energy is not as fun or not as great then it kind of affects the way you perform it affects the way you kind of deliver the music. Still gonna be good nonetheless but it all depends on the environment. It might inspire you to do something else like it’s in the brightly lit in the room. We’ll probably play more uptempo things or more exciting thing. But if it’s really dark in and you know ominous in a cave somewhere that we’ll probably play something in that vein or go against it and try to play happiness and in light to create some light in that room.

JA: What album are you most proud of?

CS: This one maybe [Facing Dragons] But again you know I’m talking about Facing Dragons now but it can very well change with the next one you know. It’s kind of like picking which child is your favorite child. You know it’s one of those things where you know you don’t have a favorite but there are days when you have favorites. So there are definitely days where Reach is something that I like but you know I’m also an artist that just,  once I do something I kind of just move on from it. So you know I haven’t listened to Reach since I made it. I haven’t listened to facing dragon since I made it. So you know after I you know you put all your heart and your soul and your blood sweat and tears into the project. You kinda just leave it and move on to the next one. So right now my focus is on the next one So I really can’t, that’s a hard question to answer.

JA: Can you tell me a little bit about the album you are working on now?

CS: Well I just started working on it and I’m really excited about it. You know I can’t tell you what it is yet because you know I want to be secretive. You know I’m very private that way, but it’s gonna be good…. This is going to be a good record. I’m excited about it.I’m going to try to do some different things you know extend it some more extend my writing some more extend my playing some more expand you know just extensions and all all different directions.

JA: When do you think it will be released?

CS: Hopefully if all goes well sometime in early next year. I’m thinking April. Late March or April.

JA: You’ve worked a lot with Christian McBride. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship?

CS: It’s an amazing relationship. We’re like brothers. He’s like my older brother just being with him you know learning learning from him was such a blessing to be a part of. You know I started playing with him I believe I was 19, 19 or 20 something like that. And you know from being 19, 20 being in college. You know you learn in school but you also learn from experience. You know you learn on the road you learn with things that are happening to you. So with all the things I learned being on the road, McBride was incredible. You know things that are very important not just for musicians just for people in general is just how to deal with people how to deal with being tired how to deal with you know relationships how to how to deal with just talking to people how to deal with you know a lot of different ways to just being a wonderful human being, especially the one that he is. So you know it was a lot of fun and he’s an amazing person.

JA: What are the biggest differences in how you play as a leader compared to a band member?

CS: As a band member I mean you still get to shine but you very much taking directions you know, which is wonderful being in the Christian McBride trio. I got to learn a lot but I also got to contribute a lot because he is that type of leader that liked us to contribute. He loved when his bandmates contributed, brought music in or you know anything. So being in a band is great because you learn all the material, you learn. You get to learn a lot of stuff and then you get to make mistakes and all that. And it’s not as big of a risk as it is when you’re a band leader. If you’re band leader you’re in charge of everything. You’re in charge of the music you’re in charge of how the show goes you’re in charge of your musicians that are playing with you, you gotta make sure everybody’s cool. You know there’s a lot more responsibility with being a band leader. You know it’s like being a captain of a basketball team. I’m on a basketball high, by the way from that Raptors game from last night. So if I if I say any you know basketball metaphors than that’s why. But yeah. Being a bandleaders is way more responsibility. You know but I love that. I like that. I like having that responsibility. I like inspiring people. I like to you know make sure that we’re all creating something really wonderfully.

JA: Are you optimistic about the future of jazz?

CS: Yes. Because it is the type of music that changes with the time. You know, so it’s never going to go away as many times as people say that it’s dead. You know, all that bullshit, it’s not [going away]. You know because the music is always reflected in the people. And right now it’s there’s so many different types of people, there’s so many different avenues. There’s so many different experiences now. There’s so many different people connected in different ways. You know so the music sounds like that, you know, the music has all the elements to it whether it is something that resembles Miles Davis Quintet or something that resembles Oscar Peterson or something that resembles you know Cecil Taylor. I mean there’s so many different things with the music that it will never go away. It’ll change a lot but it won’t go away.

JA: Who are some of your favorite jazz bands right now?

CS: I love what Cory Henry does with the Funk Apostles. I love it. I’m a big fan of that. I’m a big fan of Gilad Hekselman and his group. I love that. I love Kendrick Scott and his group, Oracle. That’s a great founding group. Great great band, a great bunch of people. Cecile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner. They they sound amazing together. I mean they’re both amazing by themselves so together I mean it’s a no brainer. Jazzmeia Horn’s group. I love the way they sound and the way they work together. I love the way they feed off of each other. Chick Corea with Brian Blade and Christian McBride. The way they are masters of how the music is, how the music was, where the music is going. You know, really inspiring, really incredible, really creative. Jon Batiste. I love his music, I love who he is as a person, I love how his music affects people. I love the people that he’s chosen to do that with, you know. I love all those types of people. Ambrose Akinmusire and his band. Everyone he uses in that band is absolutely incredible, Sam Harris is ridiculous. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris on piano. So yeah there’s a lot of people…..

JA: That’s a long list.

CS: You know when you’re a musician you know everybody and everybody’s band. So you know Branford [Marsalis] band you know that’s a great, that’s a really great band. I mean everybody has a wonderful sound you know. Christian McBride the new band, I mean the many bands that he has. They’re all they’re all very very very great. You know. Jason Moran and the bandwagon. That’s one of my favorite bands of all time. Vijay Iyer with his band with Marcus Gilmore and Stephen Crump. Absolutely amazing. Yeah so there’s a lot of people. Charles Lloyd, Chales Lloyd band, and Wayne Shorter Of course. You know Danilo [Perez] and those guys, so yeah it’s a lot a lot a lot of options.

CS: “The reason I’m in Pittsburgh is for this project I’ve started for celebrating the music of Erroll Garner. Who is a Pittsburgh native, you know. A true Pittsburgh Steeler [fan].”

JA: Could you tell me a little bit about how that project developed?

CS: Yeah. So I’m officially the creative ambassador of the Erroll Garner project which is basically the Erroll Garner estate. And my job is to help really just bring Erroll back to life. You know I mean this is somebody who was such a prominent and such an exciting musician and pianist, composer, arranger who is larger than life, who was one of the number one entertainers we had in America. And now you don’t really hear people talk about. So I decided to put together a group is called the Highwire trio and it features Terreon Gully on drums and Luques Curtis on bass and we perform music written by him [Garner]. Some of the music has never been performed before. I found a whole bunch of different tapes from archives and going through crates and what have you and I found a whole bunch of things where there’s recordings of his band just playing some things, you know, but they’ve never recorded it. So most of the music we’re gonna play has never been heard before. Some of them have but they’re just different arrangements of them. Ninety eight percent of it is all of his music.

JA: So what about Erroll Garner’s music did you want to celebrate?

CS: I’ll start here. The reason I was a part of the project, is I was working with the late Geri Allen and Geri Allen was a part of the project and she helped produce the new installation of the Monterey concert that Erroll Garner had. The concert by the sea. And so we perform it together, it was myself with three pianos and rhythm section, myself, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, Russell Malone, Victor Lewis, Derek Oles on bass is a really amazing show. And so Geri was heavily involved with the Erroll Garner project until her untimely death. She was kind of bringing me in as she was passing. So that’s really how I began to be involved with the Erroll Garner project. The music of Erroll Garner is is absolutely amazing. I mean this is somebody who when you talk about pure improvisation this is this is it. You know you talk about pure jazz improvisation with jazz language with with the language of the time of the era you know of. In just raw piano I mean this is it. That’s what I love about Errol’s music. I love his honesty. You know, how amazing on such a high level it is. And also it’s really hard to play too. It is absolutely incredible whether he’s written it or he’s arranged it. You know everything he’s done is really amazing.

JA: Is there anything you would like to add about the project?

CS: Well that’s the project I’m bringing to Pittsburgh for the Jazz Festival. Ulysses Owens is actually playing drums with me at the festival. So Ulysses Owens is playing, Luques Curtis who’s playing bass and it’s gonna be a lot of fun, you know. So just tell people to come out to the festival.