(Mack Avenue MAC1170. CD Review by Peter Jones)
Barely out of his 20s, Christian Sands is an extraordinarily complete musician. It isn’t just the quality of his playing, although he has the most deft and sensitive touch at the keys; or his compositions, although they are remarkably accomplished for one so young. And it isn’t even his rapid ascent through the ranks of contemporary jazz, which has seen him sharing stages with everyone from Christian McBride to Wynton Marsalis.
No, it’s the fact that he has developed ideas about music from fields as diverse as film and martial arts. Take this new album – his eighth as leader (he recorded his first at the age of 11). “Be water” is no random phrase but a concept that informs Sands’s whole outlook on music and life in general. While studying martial arts, he was struck by a suggestion of Bruce Lee’s – that in order to be an effective fighter, you must be like water, adapting yourself to the shape of whatever vessel you find yourself in.
The analogy with the shape-shifting world of jazz improvisation is pretty obvious. Sands’s style is free-flowing, and even the titles of the tunes on this new album are saturated with the idea of water in all its forms. Accompanied by his long-time bassist Yasushi Nakamura and more recently acquired drummer Clarence Penn, the melodies pour out of every tune. The Keith Jarrett-like Sonar (the way we can communicate under water) features splashy cymbals and bass patterns that follow the piano as closely as a pilot fish follows a shark. One of my own favourite tracks is Crash, in which Sands disguises himself as George Shearing, with a gorgeous swing tune that features a locked-hands refrain.
All the compositions on Be Water are Sands’s own apart from a straightforward rendition of the old Steve Winwood tune Can’t Find My Way Home. The sunny, optimistic Drive features Marcus Strickland switching mid-tune between bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, and – a revelation to me – guitarist Marvin Sewell, who unleashes a blistering solo that sounds uncannily like Elliott Randall on some old Steely Dan LP. Sands has dubbed Sewell “the greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of”, and on this evidence, that’s a pretty accurate description.
The most beautiful tune is Still (as in “Still waters run deep”), an out-of-time meditation that feels like gliding along in a punt on a summer’s afternoon. This impression is aided by subtle sound effects of trickling water and oars creaking in their rowlocks. Here, Sewell delicately brushes the strings of an acoustic guitar in chalk-and-cheese contrast to his work on Drive, as Sands invokes Claude Debussy on the piano.
Elsewhere he is joined for a couple of tracks by Sean Jones (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone), and on the stately Be Water II by a string quartet. This tune does a left turn halfway through, as the quartet wanders off into some curious harmonic exploration which the piano ignores, sailing on with its rather formal melody. By rights it should be a film theme. But that’s another story for some other time.