by Jon Ward
Five-time Grammy® Award nominee pianist Christian Sands marks his Mack Avenue Records debut that forgoes the straight-ahead sound and REACHes into fresh-sounding music. The album is entitled REACH and its musical influences range from Afro-Cuban rhythms to hip-hop beats, to dirty blues with an edge. Sands expands, “The collection here is about reaching new ideas and reaching new music,” he says. “I’m reaching from past recordings to bring in the future, which is really all about finding myself. It’s a chance to express my experience.”
REACH is co-produced by Grammy® Award-winning producer Al Pryor and famed bassist, and long tine collaborator, Christian McBride. Sands has been with McBride’s Grammy® Award-winning trio, as well as some of McBride’s other groups, since 2009. “Upon first meeting Christian,” Sands says, “I could feel a cool connection. From when I first sat in with his Inside Straight band, I realized that we think about music in the same way. When I got signed to Mack Avenue, I asked if Christian could produce me, as someone who knows my playing and what I want to accomplish in my music.”
Of course, Sands has assembled an outstanding trio which include bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Marcus Baylor. Reach also features guests: Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and percussionist Cristian Rivera. McBride to makes a cameo appearance, bowing his bass at the end of the slow tempo “Use Me.” Reach consist of eight originals and two covers.
The album opens with an upbeat tune that features the core trio entitled, “Armando’s Song.” Starting with Sands playing the melody solo, with the band joining for the second statement, the influence of Chick Corea is obvious. Sands lines are clear and possess a rhythmic drive. Sands interaction with Baylor is a real treat to listen to. The composition has multiple sections and is a fine vehicle for trio to explore; which signals a brilliant start to a wonderful set of music.
The trio continues with the blues-tinged “Song of the Rainbow People.” Sands explains, “This is a song about bringing people together in the midst of all the racial and religious tension, hate and misunderstanding in the world today.” Sands’ melodic sense is right on the money, each line clearly tells a story and he ends each phrase with a strong comma or period. Again, the trio is very interactive and the music breathes.
Strickland makes a guest on two tunes, the swinging “Pointing West,” written when Sands was attending the Manhattan School of Music and playing piano in the practice room overlooking the West Side Highway and the Hudson River beyond, and “Freefall.” Both feature inspired harmonizing and trading phrases. The pair seem to find great joy in the intertwining of piano and sax and searching for new colors. The bright synthesized electronics and the dark-toned bass clarinet on “Freefall,” speak to the song’s theme of chasing a subtle apparition.
Hekselman, whom Sands has worked with for several years, makes a fine guest appearance. Sands expands on their relationship, “I wrote ‘Reaching for the Sun’ with Gilad in mind. He’s so easy to play with and we never get in each other’s way.” Hekselman brings a rock-edge to the composition, but with impeccable note choices and excellent rhythm. He also deliver fine solo on the blues-drenched “Use Me” and supports the driving rhythm on the hip-hop inspired “Gangstalude.” Of the former, “Use Me,” Sands says that he was a big fan of soul music growing up, with one of his biggest influences being Bill Withers. “I always loved that tune”, he says. “Originally I was just going to cover it, but then I started to bend and move the rhythm and extended and stretched the bass and melody lines.” As for “Gangstalude,” Sands says it was originally designed to just be a short swing interlude about gangsters–he loves mob movies like The Godfather–but then he came up with a bridge and brought the hip-hop flow into the mix.
REACH is an excellent album and there is more than enough swing to make the purist happy with just enough of an edge to keep us forward listeners happy. Sands explains further, “Actually, my biggest influence in making this album was Michael Jackson’s Bad record,” he says. “There are so many different kinds of tunes on that, so many changes. So that’s what I was setting out to do.” It works and it is not that big of a REACH when musicians and the music is this good!