At age 27, fast-rising jazz star Christian Sands came back to New Haven, to the city of his musical roots, and to the delight of the 33rd New Haven Jazz Festival audience.
Sands has toured the U.S. and the world playing jazz piano, recording with the best players the jazz world has to offer. His own expanding discography dates back to a recording he made at the age of 12. He has been nominated for a Grammy four times. Saturday night, Christian Sands headlined the jazz festival opening concert on the Green with trumpeter Josh Evans, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Marcus Baylor.
The homecoming, part of the week-long New Haven Jazz Festival held in multiple venues across New Haven, is sponsored by Jazz Haven, Mayor Toni Harp, the Board of Alders, and the Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism. The festival runs through this Saturday night at clubs across town.
Saturday’s opening slots offered a showcase for a new generation of young talent as the Neighborhood Music School Premier Jazz Ensemble, conducted by instructor Jeff Fuller, took to the stage.
Later, Jazz Haven “musician emeritus” awards were presented to more seasoned honorees. Grammy winner Chris Brubeck, son of the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, received one, as did the legendary Fred Parris of The Five Satins, whose famed doo-wop love anthem “In the Still of the Night” continues to be a source of New Haven pride and international recognition more than a half-century after its release.
A multi-instrumentalist, Brubeck later joined headliner Sands and the quartet on stage playing trombone. A familiar face around New Haven environs, Brubeck has served as artist in residence for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, provided a five-day residency with Wilbur Cross High School’s band and chorus, and has conducted workshops at New Haven’s Education Center for the Arts (ECA) and Neighborhood Music School (NMS).
Following awards presentations, festival goers were treated to the music of the six-time Grammy-winning Mitch Frohman Latin Jazz Quartet, with Joel Mateo, drums, Zaccai Curtis, piano, and Alex “Apolo” Ayala on bass, standing in for regular bassist Luques Curtis.
Frohman, who plays both sax and flute, has earned impressive Latin music bonafides after long-time associations with the Tito Puente Orchestra, Mongo Santamaria, and others. One of the quartet’s featured festival songs was the theme song to the long-running HBO series, Sex and the City. Frohman’s sax playing is included on the song’s original soundtrack.
Among those enjoying the view from the festival VIP section was Jazz Haven President Craig O’Connell, who was pleased with the festival attendance. “It’s a great turnout for another hometown hero. We are all pulling for people like Christian Sands here in New Haven,” he said.
O’Connell also discussed the Jazz Haven mission: “Jazz Haven is about education, not just entertainment. We view jazz as America’s classical music rooted in the American experience and it’s our job to promote that.”
Sands started taking formal music classes at age 4 at Neighborhood Music School. According to Sylvester Sands (pictured above), Christian’s father, Christian was asked during his intake interview at NMS if he had ever heard of Beethoven. Christian’s response — “Yes, Beethoven the dog” — was a perfectly age-appropriate response. Not necessarily age appropriate was that Christian had already mastered Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the piano and composed his first chamber piece only six months later — part of the narrative lending credence to his description as a child prodigy.
Sylvester, who also plays the piano, said that at age 3, Christian would often sit in his lap when he played. “At the time,” he said, “I did not realize it was sinking in.”
Jazz Haven board member and NMS instructor Jesse Hameen ll and NMS instructor and recording artist Jeff Fuller also had a hand in instructing and working with Sands at a young age. Both recorded the album Footprints with Sands when he was only 12.
Citing other mentors and important influences, Sands credited Rex Cadwallader, his first jazz studies teacher at Neighborhood Music School. Also at the top of the list was his revered late mentor, Dr. Billy Taylor, and other “creativity-pushing” musicians like Jason Moran. He also cited architects, and painters Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, as sources of inspiration.
With the musical synergy being enjoyed by thousands on the New Haven Green, bassist Fuller, standing near the stage, was clearly feeling every beat: “Players have a common language when a group plays on stage. It’s like a conversation. They listen to one another and they respond to one another. Within that theme, it’s left to the individual to improvise — but to converse collectively.”
Fuller described Sands as being at the top of the musical food chain. “There are very few that can compare in terms of conception — not to mention technique.”
He also recalled playing basketball with Sands: “He would frantically run around the basketball court, but I could always get him with my three-point shot” he said.
To see the full schedule of New Haven Jazz Festival artists and venues, visit the Jazz Haven website.