Soccer Mommy’s Solid Songwriting on Display @ Mr. Smalls

One of the first qualities that stand out about seeing Soccer Mommy (Sophie Allison) play live is her sweet and genuine nature. What stands out next from the 22 year old from Nashville  is her exceptional talent and the energy the tight band brings, who started backing her for her latest album Clean (2018). Allison retains her indie bedroom pop vibe she began creating on her EP and first two LPs, but the band adds a fuller and rock-heavier sound that translates well in concert. 

Kevin Krauter opened the show at Mr. Smalls theater in Millvale July 12th, a beautiful, intimate venue created from a former church to a young crowd that clearly liked Indie music. Krauter’s band sounded similar to Twin Peaks, though mellow and a bit spacier. Lyrics often were light-hearted meditations on love, and killer drums were a signature of the band that had a lot of fun. 

Soccer Mommy’s set consisted largely of material off Clean, and they opened with some solid tracks including “Try”, “Last Girl” and  “Wildflowers”. “Last Girl” was wonderful to hear live with lots more energy than the studio version, as Allison sang about unrequited desire, softly crooning “I want to be like your last girl/ She’s the sun in your cold world /and I am just a dying flower.” 


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Dressed in a comfortable skirt and t-shirt, Sophie said that she was sick and enlisted the help of the crowd to sing “Cool”, a great song that had lots of singing in the audience from fans who knew the lyrics. 

The band took a short break near the end to let the original Soccer Mommy play some tunes solo, and her cover of “I’m on fire” by Bruce Springsteen, after she joked about how steamy it was inside Mr. Smalls, was a good change of pace. The crowd stood in silent appreciation, and it carried through to the next song “Still Clean”, which highlighted the range of her pretty voice. 

Concluding the set were two of her best songs, “Scorpio Rising” and an encore, “Wildflowers”. On “Scorpio Rising” Sophie sings “You’re made from the stars / And we watch from your car /And I’m just a victim of changing planets / My Scorpio rising”, as the band rejoined her onstage. 

Soccer Mommy’s simple arrangements and heartfelt lyrics translated into a quiet achievement showing their ability to crisply deliver solid songwriting.

Windborne + Pittsburgh’s Symphony play Rolling Stones music in a satisfying show

I did not know quite what to expect when I went to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) and Windborne Music play the music of the Rolling Stones at Heinz Hall on July 13, having never heard classic rock accompanied by a symphony. Windborne is a group that specializes in orchestral arrangements and covers of classic rock like The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who, U2, and Elton John. Fortunately, the orchestra added a nice harmonic layer to a night filled with classic Stones hits mostly from 1969 or earlier.

Windborne wore simple black clothes to match the formal PSO black attire. Multi-colored lights oscillated at different speeds throughout the show and WDVE’s Sean McDowell introduced the show and conducted one of the songs, stepping in for Windborne’s Brent Havens who arranged the music for orchestra.  

The frontman performing as Mick Jagger, Brody Dolyniuk, was energetic and had a good voice, though he never captured the raw, mad energy of Jagger bouncing around the stage. Heinz Hall’s opulent setting and the older-skewing crowd at times clashed with music that was clearly supposed to be danced to in reckless abandon.

Dolyniuk constantly sought out crowd involvement throughout the night, but was most successful when he taught some signature Jagger moves to the crowd during “Crossfire Hurricane” and scores of people stayed dancing in the aisles for “Jumping Jack Flash”. 

“No expectations”, “Paint it Black”, “You can’t always get what you want”, “Wild Horses”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Gimme Shelter”, and “Street Fighting Man” were some of the highlights of the night. George Cintron of Windborne played incredible licks all night and played slide guitar crisply on “No expectations”. “You can’t always get what you want” sounds absolutely phenomenal with a full orchestra backing it, as does “Gimme Shelter”, the best performances of the night. On “Gimme Shelter”, Justin Avery, the keyboard player hit unbelievable high notes written for female R&B singers as the hair-raising background vocals. For the final encore, the orchestra and band played “Brown Sugar” off Sticky Fingers (1971). 

While cover bands rarely recreate the real thing, Windborne and PSO made some beautiful arrangements and the depth of top notch original material made for a good night of music. Additionally, the subtle touches the orchestra adds give the music a fresher twist for die-hard Stones fans.

The crowd pulls out lighters and phone lights to sway with “Wild Horses”. Photo by Ed DeArmitt/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Makaya McCraven talks Eastern Europe, the “magic” of live music, poly-rhythm, and vulnerability

In June, I reviewed drummer Makaya McCraven’s performance for Pittsburgh’s Jazz Festival. I caught up with him as he prepared for a jazz festival in Ghent, Belgium and gears up for a European tour. We talked about his most recent album, musical political resistance, and how vulnerability in music allows for authenticity and emotional energy.

Jack Austin (JA): You played a lot of music from Universal Beings (2018) at the August Wilson Center for the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. What were some of inspirations for the album? 

Makaya McCraven (MM): Inspirations for the album. It’s really kind of born out of a process that came about with the record in the moment and that kind of started the whole thing. I mean I guess like if I wanted to talk about influences, you know some of my parent’s records you know I definitely have been influenced towards kind of this project and some of these concepts of travelling and playing with different musicians in different locations and the kind of music, right. Music traveling with people.

JA: Which of your parents’ records influenced you most? 

MM: All of them, I mean definitely the record for “Song of the Forest Boogaraboo”, my father. It features Archie Shepp, a lot of great Nat Reeves, a lot of great musicians on there. And then some of the works of my mother’s collective “Calinda”. There’s a few records, I’m trying to remember the name because it’s in Hungarian, but I can picture the cover and the cover is a similar hue to Universal Beings, but the band [my mother’s] was a band out of Hungary that was politically active using Eastern European folk music and across Eastern European culture, across the Eastern Bloc. So they were playing Gypsy music and Jewish music and they were pretty politically active. This was in the 70’s in Hungary. 

JA: In what ways were they politically active? What were some of their goals?

MM: Well you have to look at the historical context of Hungary after the war while the Berlin Wall was still up. So people weren’t able to travel. There were lines drawn with country boundaries as you know, and it’s culture. Culture isn’t divided by the lines that are imposed by different states. And so by playing music of of people that was a similar folk music and using instruments from the larger region that was beyond just [state borders].

JA: That album seemed epic in scope, and I picked up a spiritual, cosmic vibe throughout. Are you a spiritual person? What draws you to this type of music? 

MM: I mean you know spirituality is a very kind of individual thing and you find it kind of in all aspects of life. I think the practice of music in itself is simply a practice of spirituality in some sense. You know I think one thing that I know about music is like one of my favorite times in music is when the audience becomes completely quiet. I love that moment when we’re a full room of people and then you can hear a pin drop and in those moments you have a sense that there’s something there, you know, something else. There’s a feeling that we’re sharing you know in silence or a shout together. There’s something about this experience of live music and people coming together and focusing on something together that’s magical. You could describe it using a variety of words but that’s a place that I like to go to in the music that we have. I feel like we are transcending time. You know, the feeling, you go into a movie theater and watch a movie and you come out and it’s like ‘oh my god it’s night’ and it didn’t feel like it… [it] felt like you were in there for half an hour you know because your sense of time was being warped by this experience. And I think that that’s really some of the magic in the music that I like to try to bring to my shows and to my recordings.

JA: What artists do you listen to? 

MM: I try to keep my ear to the ground and listen to a lot of music that’s that’s coming coming out currently. You know, I listen to a lot of classic records from everybody in the jazz world, from Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and you know Max Roach to Tony Williams to you know Wu Tang Clan. So like Radiohead and Fela Kuti. All sorts of stuff, my ears are always open, I’m always searching for whose music to learn about and to inspire me. The pursuit of being a musician to me is a lot about being a student and about professional growth and the pursuit of mastery in the craft is ever fleeting. You know, there’s no real rival for it [the pursuit of mastery]. So you know as a listener, sometimes it’s you know I don’t have as much [time to do] as much casual listening, either I’m working on stuff or I’m studying or I’m keeping up with what’s happening. I’m interested in music my peers are making as well as what’s been there. And it’s trying to say something that would mean something to myself now and in a way that I feel like I can connect with the world around me.

Music and especially instrumental music can communicate things in ways that words can not, you know.And that’s what’s beautiful about it. You know instrumental music. You have to interpret it. And you know, as you know as a music journalist, writing about it is difficult because you have to figure out how to describe this thing that [is] in an abstract form that we can experience together and interpret and we can get meaning for. To use literal language to bring it, you know to really describe it is very difficult. And that’s one of the magic parts of music. It’s that we can communicate with each other in abstract forms you know. That music is like a language because we can be both playing tennis. I can have vocabulary and I can communicate with people that know that vocabulary in different styles. But it’s also like a language [in that] I can communicate feeling an energy to an audience that might not really depend on their knowledge of that said vocabulary you know. It’s not a language in the sense I can ask somebody to go pick up a glass of water and bring it or something like that. You know, it doesn’t function in the literal sense unless you add lyrics. Instrumental music sits in this place that we are communicating in an abstract form of interpreting individually and collectively and I think it’s really special and cool… Neato.

JA: You played with a quintet in Pittsburgh. What are the benefits of using a larger band like that as opposed to a trio? 

MM: Well I would say first and foremost it’s the textures. You know, being able to have a harp and piano,guitar, all these lush textures, you know, in colors just like a painter or something that to me is a really beautiful and lush sound. I also love to play with a smaller group where we… It’s a little bit more vulnerable or we can we can be more spontaneous where there’s less people to consider you know. So really I love it all. The more that I’ve you know, really [done] my own work as a leader, the more I want to continue to allow myself the opportunity to be in a lot of different playing environments and and really explore just the challenge of textures and ways of playing, you know. I enjoy be[ing] able to work with a trio and then span to a sextet, you know. Or say I can have I can have harp or maybe strings on this night, you know, or play with a percussion ensemble.

These are all different things I have of the variety of shows coming up through the year where I would do all sorts of different things and that’s really exciting to me and really kind of falls in line with my goals as a student of music to put myself in two different situations, challenge myself, work with great people that I can learn from and I respect as well as provide opportunities to a wide array of musicians through the work I can maybe provide. And you know it’s all good it’s about supporting the community, if the community can help support you. And that’s really been my concept as a musician. I don’t believe any artist is truly singular. I think we come in cohort and we come in groups and we come from mentors that we share among each other or jam sessions that we went to or small programs that we shared in our different scenes or different areas or different towns. 

So you know that’s a big part of the In the Moment (2015), Universal Beings records was to acknowledge that there are a variety of scenes in the world. So this record is not totally global it’s you know it’s U.K. and U.S. in terms of its contributions but within the kind of larger global scene there are many different places that are supporting artists and groups of artists and artists have cool things going on. You know I always wanted to kind of be growing up in a small kind of music scene. I always wanted to you know highlight that you know that there’s amazing talent around us. So hopefully you know people can realize that you know they should support the musicians that are playing in their towns, you know, because we need you, you know. And that’s the heart of every community. 

JA: What do jazz festivals like the one in Pittsburgh do for the genre? 

MM: Every major city in the world has a jazz festival and they provide a lot of opportunity both for the fans and the artists to have a place to come together meet and share the music and the culture. And I think that’s important. And if we don’t have platforms we festivals and clubs to play at, then what are we going to do. You know, the music can’t live. You know and we need to be able to sustain [ourselves] by having an economic engine that helps provide for artists. I really love the fact that so many festivals are outdoors, they are free to the public, and you get a much wider range of people that can come and get to enjoy the music than who can just come in and pay 40 45 bucks and a drink minimum to go see some music. So I you know I appreciate I really appreciate that public aspect of it because that’s one of the things for me and I want to bring my music to the people and I don’t want to have to be only playing for a small or elite group of people, you know. So I really think of it as “Folk music”, you know music for folks.

JA: How did you get to be known as a “beat scientist”? I think I know what you are getting at, but what does that term mean to you? 

MM: It maybe started as colorful language but you know in a really simple sense as a drummer I studied rhythm. Rhythm is what I work with primarily in my medium. And that of course is poly-rhythm, I’m very interested in poly-rhythm and mixed meter. I’ve got a lot of that from looking at the nuts and bolts of how rhythm works and really dissecting it. Poly-rhythm you know looking at it culturally to West African poly-rhythm or the music that my mother was making from Eastern Europe that used a lot of five/eight, seven/eight, nine/eight, eleven/eight, in a dance setting, in a cultural setting. And you know I find that time and rhythm is a really expansive field that is quite deep if you want to, if you really want to go into it, I mean. Keeping a pole and playing rhythm is basically the only way that we know how to record time passing by. The ticking of a clock. We have to give. We have to give that. That’s how we interpret. We all feel rhythm, and time, and also frequency of sound. Any pitch is a pulse which is also dealing with time rhythm two pitches, two frequencies going at a different rate that are in a perfect ratio. They equal a harmony. There’s science, there’s ethno-musicology, a lot of stuff. And you know, that’s what that means to me. You could break it down as just like a colloquialism, like you make hip hop beats. 

I study the electronic media. I’ve been teaching masterclasses for Ableton, an electronic music program that is pretty innovative. I’ve been teaching some masterclasses for them, I did it in Rotterdam, I’ve done it in the Hague, Portland, Oregon and Chicago and on the East Coast as well.

JA: How long are the sessions?

MM: Well anywhere from an hour to four hours. I did a four hour masterclass in Rotterdam last year which was brutal. But that’s what they asked me to do.

A lot of this goes again to time and rhythm. You know I do a lot with loops, right, loops again being some form of pulse, how to make loops. You dissect them using the hardware the Ableton has got called Push 2 as well as the concept of sampling and chopping time and repurposing recording to make new music new, sounds you know. There’s a lot to go in there. I’m just basically out here trying to learn some stuff. I wrote that “Beat Scientist” thing, you know I said it once. And that really took off. And in the end you know as I thought about it, it really was applicable to what I’m doing. So you know. Voila here we are.

JA: Pretty much all of your albums have a live component to them. What draws you to live music? 

MM: It’s the spirit of the music, the people there become part of the vibe in the energy you know. And I think a lot of these records that we’re talking about excluding a couple other projects that have out but the ones that are in this live context I feel like the musicians get activated in a different way and there’s another kind of energy in the room and that comes across in the recording. And it’s a different type of energy or space you know. We’ve recorded in some smaller acoustic spaces. I liked the feeling of the band playing in one room. There’s no headphones. We’re playing with our ears and not  as of a controlled setting. And I like to allow there to be some chaos in there in terms of allowing the unknown to be possible, you know, allowing something greater than we can plan to happen.And there’s danger in that, when you leave God open and there’s people in front of you and you can’t go back. And I think some of that danger thing is it manifests itself as the enemy, energy sometimes and excitement and vulnerability as well because you are more vulnerable in that setting and vulnerability I think is a powerful tool. 

Greg Stiller on piano, Brandi Younger on Harp, Matt Gold on guitar, and Irvin Pearce on sax. Photo by Jack Austin.

JA: Why do you think vulnerability is important to artists and musicians?

People want to feel things. People need to feel things. There are many purposes that we can live here for, but one I like to really think about in music is to really connect with the human experience and spirit. Music to make you laugh, make you cry. Make you think, make you dance or jump, it makes you want to cover your ears. You know it makes you want to jump around, elicit some sort of emotion. And when the source of the energy, when we’re putting that out to people you know people don’t want to be phoning it in. They don’t want to see you faking it. 

And I don’t think it’s always as deep or just content to just be able to execute what it is you have to play. When there’s real feeling and emotion in it, it’s powerful. A lot of feeling, emotion comes when you’re honest and that takes some vulnerability you know, and you have to, as an artist, you’ve got to, put yourself out on a stage in front of people and have the world warts and all judge you. That takes some vulnerability and I think when you show that and you step into it I think people respond to. I think it’s real. I think you know we’re connecting with some other human elements. You know that’s what they’re like- Charlie Parker. You can hear him going forward. He was stretching. They were pushing themselves you know that to me is on it. If you’re pushing yourself you run the risk of falling over, a failing. But then it’s how you respond and how you go and to me that’s firing you know to not just be playing it safe. That’s really what I mean. We’re not just playing safe. You’re putting yourself out there you know and that’s exciting. Nobody wants to watch anybody walk on a wide platform instead of a tightrope. It’s not as exciting, you know what I mean. That’s not exciting. [It takes] skill, challenge, and difficulty [to] do something difficult. There’s something about that in today’s music as well. You know what it was like watching you walk down the sidewalk or I could you know watch you like it’s like with skill and challenge and difficulty do something amazing. You know I think there’s like there’s something there’s something there’s something today in music as well.

JA: Do you think you are a better producer or a better drummer? 

MM: I wouldn’t like to engage with “better this, better that” I mean I like to consider myself a musician first. I’m not just concerned with mixing hip hop and jazz, or doing this, or breaking this band you’re breaking that boundary or whatever. I want to make great music that moves me and moves people around me, you know. And you know those are different skills and different things I study I practice to be able to do that. For other composers I just do it my own way and things I’ve found through experimenting and I’ve been fortunate like that. The music has connected with people and I have this platform and I’m grateful for that, you know, but I just want to make good music with great people. And put something meaningful out into the world, you know, and try to make a decent living doing that. I want to be able to take care of my family. 

JA: What makes something that you put out meaningful? 

MM: I think great art is provocative often. So something that makes people think, you know it’s something that engages with what’s happening. You know what, I don’t know. I think that’s a hard thing to define. That’s what we’re searching for. You know what I mean, I would hate to just say I have that figured out. The journey is the journey is where it’s at.

JA: What projects do you have planned for the future and what have you done in the past week or so since the festival?

MM: I’m working on a variety of projects that I don’t want to get too deep into, but I always have several things kind of going at once. You know I’ve been trying to keep up a relatively brisk schedule. I’ve definitely [been] helped by my wonderful label International. So we have a few projects in there, a lot of touring material, we’ve been doing a lot of my compositions that have been part of our shows for a long time that haven’t really been on record. And so last week I toured around Canada. We just played Montreal Jazz Festival. Let’s go, the concert was a really amazing experience, really great support from everybody it was really special. We did Vancouver Victoria Jazz Festival, Saskatoon [Saskatchewan] Jazz Festival. I just landed in Brussels and drove up to Ghent, Belgium where I’m sitting here in front of the water canal [which is] really beautiful and we play mainstage Ghent Jazz Fest tomorrow to kick off a 20 day, 15 show tour in Europe.

Q+A with Stanley Clarke after Pittsburgh Jazz Festival

Stanley Clarke is a 4-time Grammy winner largely known for his pioneering work in jazz fusion with Chick Corea and their Return to Forever band. As a leader, Clarke is unique in having songs dominated by bass licks. I caught up with Clarke after he played the last show of the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, electrifying an enthusiastic crowd as he played “School Days”.

Jack Austin (JA): You are considered one of the founders of jazz fusion because of your work in the 70s for Return to Forever with Chick Corea. Do you feel this designation ever limits you to playing that type of music? 

Stanley Clarke (SC): No, I don’t think a genre necessarily limits anybody. It depends on what your boundaries are, you know what I mean. If you’re a country musician than your boundaries are some chords or some lyrics, that’s what it is. It depends. Genre doesn’t control the music, people control the music, so what we do, we do a lots of different types of music. Some things require more exploration, some things like our encore, we’re only interested in what makes people feel happy. So it’s also important to experiment.  

JA: You have worked with a number of artists I appreciate, like Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver. To you, who was the most impressive bandleader you worked with? Who was the most fun to tour with?

SC: My favorite band leader was Art Blakey. He had a band called the Jazz Messengers and many of the great[s] of jazz came through his band. So we are all very proud to call ourselves Jazz Messengers. It’s one of the things me and Chick Corea have in common. Wayne Shorter. Freddie Hubbard. Reggie Workman. I learned a lot playing with Art. I think that in jazz that is my greatest achievement, playing with Blakey. 

JA: How would you say your music has evolved over the years?

SC: You know, it all evolves. The degree that it evolved, I leave it up to the people. It’s always evolving. It’s hard to quantify something like that, that you can’t measure. We’re not, you know, playing sports, where it’s 4 seconds more or something, you know. It depends on who is listening, how much it will evolve with them. 

JA: What is the key to longevity as an artist, as a musician? 

SC: I think it’s have a good diet, exercise, always practice, remain humble, and keep as many weird people as you can, away from you. 

JA: So you looked like you were having a lot of fun out there on the stage. What were you feeling in that moment? 

SC: I was having fun, I always have fun. The day I stop having fun, I’ll stop [performing]. I doubt that that will happen cause I enjoy it, it’s what I do, it’s my life. And I enjoy making people happy. 

JA: Forever, the second album since Return to Forever reunited won the Best Contemporary Jazz album in 2011. What did that mean for you?

SC: You know, those awards are always nice. They aren’t the end all of everything for someone’s career, but it’s a nice accolade. It’s a nice acknowledgement. 

JA: Who have you heard at this festival that you really like? 

SC: I’m a big fan of Charles Lloyd. I was hoping to see him, but we got here, we took a red eye from Los Angeles last night so I was just sleeping all morning. Literally got up from my hotel, and came over here. 

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Makaya McCraven proves electric live performance, kicks off Pittsburgh Jazz Fest

Makaya McCraven is a highly abnormal bandleader. First off, he’s a drummer, but calls himself a “beat scientist”, and his studio albums largely contain recordings of many different live gigs spliced together to create revolutionary, fresh compositions. To see McCraven live, is, quite simply a treat.

On Thursday, June 20, McCraven kicked off the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival with a spectacular performance at the August Wilson Center. Mike Canton, host of WYEP’s “The Soul Show” introduced McCraven and explained how jazz festivals are a wonderful way to discover new talent, and said he discovered McCraven’s harpist, Brandi Younger at the festival several years ago. Legendary jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, who most famously came out with Afro-Harping in 1968, was a huge inspiration to Younger, and the similarities were evident in her playing.

The crowd was filled with obvious jazz fans and hipsters who swung with the music, bursting into wild applause frequently during wild solos. Canton said fans came from Detroit, Texas, and California for this show. The pony-tailed older gentleman beside me said he was a Tigers fan and came to see them play the Pirates.  When he saw McCraven was playing, however, he knew he had to stay an extra night. He had seen McCraven play in Detroit and Chicago (where McCraven lives), and said that it was a truly exceptional experience.

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McCraven’s sextet opened up with “Black Lion”, playing a spacey cosmic intro. Half way through they really begin to groove with lots of improvisations on piano, bass, and guitar following a dominating rhythm. Irvin Pearce finishes the song with a repeated killer sax riff.

One of McCraven’s greatest strengths as a bandleader is that he utilized all the instruments at his disposal well, and on the second piece of the night, “Young Genius”, there is a compelling balance between the instruments, and the harp is featured prominently.

Building momentum, McCraven played “Atlantic Black”, the third song of the night from his latest album Universal Beings (2018), and one of the most dramatic on the LP. This is a song to hear live. Very fast paced rhythm with drums and stand-up bass start the track out, and later sax splashes are added in, as well as lots of arpeggios going up and down the neck of the guitar. McCraven constantly shook his head, starting to sweat, as he perfectly lays down quick drum patterns, making eye contact with his band. Generally the group remained in sync throughout the song and concert. During the final wavering between chaotic ultra-fast frenzy of sound and smooth melodic respites, Makaya looked like a mad (beat) scientist absolutely enjoying himself.

For the next couple minutes as Younger played the soothing, beautiful harp intro to “Hungarian Lullaby”, the crowd froze in utter silence, cautious not to disrupt the dazzling display of talent. McCraven’s mother was a singer from Budapest and the song is based off Hungarian folk melodies she sung to him as a child. Fantastic instrumental harmonies made this a great song [and one absent from his discography], and slightly more even keeled than the other tracks he played on Thursday.

McCraven’s rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, recorded by request from Impulse! Records, wasn’t anything too special live, and I personally missed the vocals and lyrics. Following that, the sextet played “A New Movement”, a track dedicated to McCraven’s daughter when she was born, which was decent with some catchy hooks and excellent piano solos by Matt Gold.

Concluding the set was “Song of the Forest Boogaraboo.” An epic intro loaded with tension and suspense led to an explosion of sound guided by Pearce on tenor saxophone. The killer song concluded the set well, showing off very funky beats, and demonstrating why McCraven is an artist who needs to be heard live.

The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival continues through June 23rd. For the full schedule, click here.

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.

Q+A with North Carolina Rapper Mallz –

We talk his latest EP, Spike Lee, and the future of rap

Jack Austin (JA): When did you first begin rapping?

Mallz: Oh man, I started way back when I was 10 years old, it was just for fun and making parodies of songs and stuff. I just kept doing it throughout the years. But I got really serious about it in high school and then actually decided to pursue it as a career option towards the end of college. I started recording probably when I was in middle school. I just had a boom box, and plug in headphones, and a mic set and just rapped into that, trying to make pause tapes but just really wasn’t good at it. And then in middle school I met a friend of mine named Nim. And we became really tight, and we just met because we were both friends, we were both into comic books, and liked to draw. And we both found out we rapped. So we sort of formed a rap group in high school, and he had a recording set up so all my high school tapes were recorded at my friend Nim’s house.

JA: Growing up, who did you listen to?

Mallz: I’m a little bit older and I also have an older brother who introduced me to hip hop, so my memories of hip hop go a little bit further back than a lot of other people. My earliest memories are of listening to Run DMC, Fat Boys, LL [Cool J], Public Enemy, I started to get my own taste in music around the time when I was like 7 or 8, and it was when I heard Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, and De La Soul, and later on A Tribe Called Quest. I grew up within the culture.

Public Enemy, one of the first rap groups Mallz listened to.

JA: Who do you listen to now? Who influences your music the most?

Mallz: Who I listen to now, I still listen to all the old stuff, as far as hip hop goes, all the stuff I grew up listening to. Current artists that I listen to Kendrick, Open Mike Eagle, I listen to a lot of non-hip hop stuff like Hiatus Coyote, I’m a big jazz fan, I love Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, kind of all over the place.

JA: What do you think the biggest differences are between this EP and earlier albums like Hustler of Culture and Subject to Change?

The big difference is that this one wasn’t all my idea, it wasn’t all my control. The new EP Radioheads started out from this producer I know named Steve Skyline who actually worked on my previous album Subject to Change. He’s been in a bunch of beat battles in the area, and he would always come in second or he would lose to the eventual winner in some of the early rounds. And so finally he won, and part of his prize was an interview on the radio show that I co-host with DJ Samps. While we were doing the interview, and during the time we were off the air just playing songs, live songs on the air, he just came up with the idea DJ Samps will make the samples, you’ll [Skyline] chop up the records and make the beat, and then I’ll rap on it. DJ Samps kind of acted as executive producer and all I did was just rap, I didn’t have to worry about the direction of it or anything. It was a team effort. Musically, I would say there is more of what I like to say flexing on it. I have one song which is about a topic and theme of me being an introvert and a loner, and being on my own but the rest of it is just fun, boastful hip hop, you know ‘I’m good’ type stuff.

JA: In the past were you more involved in production aspects?

Mallz: Not yet…. I’ve been kind of learning it but haven’t really fully committed to sitting down and getting those 10,000 hours to become proficient. I haven’t totally immersed myself. I have my toe in it [production]. It is coming.

JA: How did you like working with DJ Samps?

Mallz: He is the homie. He is a staple and huge supporter of North Carolina hip hop going back about 20 years. Like Little Brother and  Justus League,, all those guys came through his radio station. He played all of their records, any up and coming artists in the area, or the state, really. He played their records. So I met up with him, it’s been a few years since I first moved out to the Triangle Area which is Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. When I first moved out here, he invited me up to the radio station, and I just kept coming. I ended up co-host [of a rap show]. We would always talk about music, we had similar tastes and attitudes towards it. He managed a group called Third Day, so he knows what he’s talking about. He was definitely somebody I trusted and why I would be a part of this project.

JA: Earlier you mentioned a lot of Radioheads is flexing. Beyond that, what are you trying to say with the EP? Is there a unifying message?

Mallz: In all of my music I do try to put in some medicine with the flashy stuff. I do try to have some stuff, if I’m bragging on the mic, I will try to have something you can take and keep with you, where you’re like “Ah man, that’s good.” So I have references of people who I admire like James Baldwin, Huey [Newton] and Malcolm X [on “Super Saiyan”]. I kind of came up in the days of Public Enemy and X Clan, and artists and groups that had the party records and they had fun, but at the same time you were getting something from it. I don’t necessarily have one specific message that I try to get out there. I just want you to take something, learn something about a reference to a person or a book, or anything you’ve never heard of. Maybe it will inspire somebody to go look it up and check it out. They might like it, they might not, but that’s giving you more than “hey, I rap good.”

JA: I noticed that line about James Baldwin and Malcom X. Could you elaborate on why they are important to you?

Mallz: Just reading their work, reading about their lives, and being a black man who grew up in the South, knowing about your history and American history and the truth about American history, I think it is very important. For me personally, I try to give a piece of me in my music and put in things that I was influenced by whether its music, literature, art, or whatever. I reference Salvador Dali, he’s my favorite artist. It’s giving a picture of me, the things I’m into. I think it’s important to have that human element in music and especially in rap. A lot of people get caught up in the material things or just the ‘I’m better than you’, and it’s okay to be human. And these are the things that make me human.

Mallz pictured above.

JA: Do you think coming from North Carolina affects your music at all? If so, how?

Mallz: I think so, but North Carolina is in a funny position that it is right in the middle between New York and Florida. And a lot of people from New York have family in North Carolina. I’m from the country, like I grew up in a one traffic light town. So I’m country, but there is still that connection to New York, and with my age, all the rap I listened to at a certain point was New York rap. So I have those Southern sensibilities, taking my time, and the whole Southern hospitality thing, but the fact that we are right in the middle between the Deep South and Up North, you kind of get everything. And also, I’m from Northeastern Carolina. I’m currently in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area which is kind of central, a little closer to the east, but kind of central. So I-95 is in between where I’m from and where I am now. You get this amalgamation of all these people, not to mention with all the universities in North Carolina, Duke, UNC has branches all across the state. You get people from all over, so you have grown up, from when I was a child to high school, in a small town, I was isolated. Then going to college and meeting people from all over it gives you a more rounded sensibility. That’s why I tell people who aren’t from North Carolina, that as far as music goes North Carolina doesn’t really have a sound because we are influenced by so much around us. We are close to the DC Maryland area, so we are no strangers to Go Go music. There’s part of North Carolina that really gets down with what is now the Southern Trap family. Then there’s the traditional boom-bap sound. And West Coast and Midwest and everything. We don’t have a sound you can pinpoint like ‘Ah, that’s the North Carolina sound.’ We are the sum of all of these regions.

JA: You’ve mentioned your age a couple times. How old are you?

Mallz: I’m 38. So I’m in a weird position where a lot of the up and coming rappers look at me as an OG, but my OG’s are still active so it’s kinda weird.

JA: So your album cover uses an iconic image of Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing who is known for blasting Public Enemy throughout the film. I know you mentioned you listen to Public Enemy earlier.  Why did you choose this image? Was there something that particularly resonated with you about that character?

Mallz: Well Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors, Do the Right Thing is one of my favorite movies. My middle name is Raheem, so when I first saw Do the Right Thing I just automatically connected with Radio Raheem, cause how often do you see characters with the name Raheem. The fact that he loved his music, everywhere he went he had his box playing music, and I was the same way. So it just made sense to go with Radio Raheem, and also with the passing of Bill Nunn not too long ago I felt it would be a nice tribute.

JA: How would you describe your sound overall? Do you see that changing in the future?

Mallz: So I would describe it as traditional East Coast hip hop. I’m very, I’m not necessarily punchline oriented but I like witty rap. Things that you might not think of at first, I try to be not so complex that you just don’t get it til later, but you listen and you’re like “Ah!’. I don’t like to consider myself Old School just because there are connotations with that phrase, but traditional hip hop is how I like to consider myself…..

Well yeah, I feel growth and change is inevitable. Throughout my career I like to switch up the way I rap from song to song, but I feel it… will be an evolution rather than a change, like a quick turn. In college I rapped with a lot of punchlines and a lot of similes, and I kind of moved away from that. But if you listen to me then and listen to me now you can tell how I got there. So I definitely see myself growing into something similar, but not necessarily a stark change.

JA: What are your goals for the future?

Mallz: Honestly if I could just maintain my creativity, continue to reach people, to reach more people, obviously to reach a wider audience. I’m good with that, I never wanted to be a superstar rapper that can’t go to the store, like I’m in Walgreen’s right now, and nobody is bothering me, and I like that. Even when I was a kid, I never wanted to be that guy that had to have security to go to the store. Just to be the blue collar, who has his lunch pail and his hard hat, hits the road, hits the studio, does his work, and chills. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and on some level I’ve achieved that. That’s something I tell younger guys coming, and first off, know what you want, and if you are shows at bars and pubs that’s okay. If you want to continue to do that that’s okay too. If you want to be doing stadium shows and everything, alright, you’ve got a goal. What are you going to do to progress to that? I would like to have myself touring a little bit more, overseas, across country, right now I”m pretty much up and down the East Coast and a little in the Midwest. I would like to expand my reach. The music is out there but my physical self hasn’t gone to the West Coast yet or to Europe or Asia or anything like that. I definitely would love to have that happen.

JA: What’s the toughest part about making a living as a musician?

Mallz: It’s fighting through the noise and the clutter. Because everyone is doing it. And I have to remind myself. There are a lot of good rappers out there, why should someone listen to me? The hardest part is just making your way among all the other people doing the same thing. Cause when I started there wasn’t that many people rapping, and now every third person you bump into raps. To distinguish yourself from all the other people doing it, and now you have this thing with everyone being on the internet and things going viral. Things go viral, things that people don’t like go viral. I tell people if you want to be famous you have to be really really good or really really bad, because people will share the bad stuff. And they may not be around for a while. To rise above all that stuff is probably the hardest thing.

JA: What’s the most rewarding part about making music for you?

Mallz: Just creating something. At the base, the core of it, is just the joy of creating. I still write pen and paper, I start with a blank page. And how ever long it takes me to make a song. I record myself, I open up my program, and then boom there’s a song there. Just creating is very rewarding. Also when I perform to see the response of the people in the crowd, whether they like it or not, it’s rewarding cause it let’s me see alright, that’s one to keep, that’s a good one.

JA: How do you see rap evolving in the next 30 years? How long do you think it will remain the most popular genre?

Mallz: It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But all things do change. So I do feel like in the next 30 years it will go back to how it was where you have to be actually good. Because people move on from stuff. And I don’t know what will cause it. But it will happen. I don’t think rap will just stay the Number One genre, but I think what replaces it will be influenced by it.

JA: Anything you would like to add?

Mallz: Buy the album. That’s about it.

Africa Speaks shows Santana still has some tricks up his sleeve

On Santana’s 25th album, Africa Speaks (2019), Santana builds on the momentum from 2016’s Santana IV that reunited the classic 1969 Woodstock lineup that recorded the band’s finest material. Like Santana IV, Carlos shows he still has some tricks up his sleeve, and can produce creative fresh music. The album is never able to match the raw energy and originality of Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970), Santana (III) (1971), and Caravanserai (1972), but the collection of songs produced by Rick Rubin distinctively sounds like a Santana album, and is much better than all of their output (with the umpteenth lineup changes) from 1973 up til 2016.

As suggested by the title, the album is inspired by Africa, and congas and other drums provide constant rhythm throughout, but characteristically the band, including Carlos’s wife Cindy Blackman Santana on drums, melds musical genres together into a latin jazz rock stew. One of the most remarkable aspects of “Africa Speaks”, is the vocal contributions from Buika, a soulful Spanish singer (who sounds even better live– check her Tiny Desk Concert here). Buika’s parents are from Equatorial Guinea and on tracks like “Los Invisibles” she sings in the Bube language, one of the languages spoken there.

Carlos Santana opens up the album on the titular track with a spiritual message, saying “Deep in the jungle/ Beyond the reach of greed / You hear the voices of spirits / With their frequency of light / Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night / Communicating with plants, animals, and mankind / Affirming the universal truth / All and everything was conceived here in Africa / The cradle of civilization”. On first listen I thought Santana’s guitar riffs were excessively flashy as they dominate the first track, but they grow on you with successive listens, and are certainly made to be played at high volumes.

“Oye este mi canto”, the third song is an absolute jam, replete with high paced percussion, slick guitar solos, and a steady groove throughout. Buika’s voice shakes with passion as she tells people in spanish to listen to her song, asking for “menos mentiras del mundo, mas compania (less lies in the world, more company)”. Santana’s decision to use a younger singer was wise, and the female voice gives a welcome new flavor to the band’s sound.

One of the best songs on the album, “Blue Skies” contains an intriguing piano and guitar intro that builds to a killer electric guitar solo halfway through. Buika sings “When light is raining over me/ And then I remember the smile of my mama/ When she thinks in the eyes of my grandma… When I feel that I’m lost/ Don’t know where I belong/ When a rose make my tears roll down/ Nothing better than blue skies.”

Santana and co. continue their momentum after “Blue Skies” with “Paraisos Quemados”, which starts with a funky bass hook and scattered drums backing up the guitar progressions. On the solid track Buika sings about how “hay mucho amor en mi canto (there is much love in my song)…. dolor en cada nota (pain in every note)”, as she paints a picture of dreams gone sour.

“Breaking down the Door” might be the closest thing the album has to a radio-ready single, as the jazz-infused songs meander to the beats and average nearly 6 minutes each. An addictively catchy hook played on bass launches the song and is spiced up with an arrangement of horns, voices, guitar and percussion. The song tells the tragic tale of a poor woman who marries a “rich rich man, handsome like Harry”, who abused her and eventually kills her, despite Deena’s calls for help from the town. The chorus repeated throughout “Abadeena, who do you have breaking down the door?” is sung in an upbeat tone, and there is lots of energy that contrast the tone of the message of the song as the townspeople beg forgiveness.

“Los Invisibles” is filled with arpeggios and a very danceable beat, as it describes in Bube, according to an English translation provided, that a couple is prevented from getting married by a mother who won’t let her daughter marry a poor man.

Jazz and rock elements combine nicely on “Luna Hechicera” or Moon Sorceress, before the album closes out with two dance tracks, “Bembele” and “Candomble Cumbele”, meant to be played at the wildest Bembes (parties). There is especially a lot of energy on the closing track, and they are both pretty hot.

Santana certainly proves that he still has exceptional guitar prowess and some creativity, even if he can never fully escape the pigeonhole he created in the late 60’s and early 70’s, or ever topple their genius. Africa Speaks will be a fun album for Santana fans, and there are plenty of impressive, if not exceptional moments, that will make the LP worth a listen to the average listener.