Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
Sands is a product of the modern jazz education system — he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, one of the most prestigious jazz programs out there, and studied with both Jason Moran and Dr. Billy Taylor. He got his first big break when he joined Christian McBride’s Inside Straight, which brought him on tour around the world. He’s currently studying composition with Vijay Iyer — he was literally in the middle of a lesson when All Things Considered interviewed Iyer in March.
As you can see, Sands carries himself with a soft-spoken humility. He also happens to be a very good and very in-demand musician. I met him briefly when he stopped by NPR with Ben Williams’ band, and you can hear him on Piano Jazz and playing with the Olatuja Project.
All this would seem to make him the anti-BBNG musician: possesses a music school pedigree, is polite, demonstrates competence in straight-ahead jazz, plays a lot of seated shows in suits, actually looks up to older musicians. But he’s but a 23-year-old with a voice that occasionally cracks — merely two years older than BBNG’s oldest member. And check out the tune Sands is playing throughout in the background: Kanye West’s “Runaway.” (It becomes more obvious around 6:21, when you can hear Sands’ riff on the signature “repeating single note on beat three” motif.)
Like BBNG’s members, who cover Kanye’s “Flashing Lights,” Sands came of age musically as Kanye West rose to pop culture superstardom. Naturally, Kanye’s beats are part of Sands’ musical lexicon too. (So is the popular hip-hop duo OutKast, whose song “Prototype” Sands also briefly talks about arranging.) Just because he came up in jazz’s mainstream doesn’t mean that Sands doesn’t think about how his art interfaces with pop culture today. I like to think it’s given him more tools to deal with that, actually.
I’d like to point out one more bit of this interview I find revealing:
A strong thing that me and Dr. Taylor spoke about was how to keep [jazz] going. In this kind of society now, is everything is Internet driven, and television driven, and radio driven. And a lot of the stuff that we do as jazz musicians caters to just jazz musicians, you know? It doesn’t really cater to TV, or doesn’t really cater to mainstream radio. And it’s not on purpose — it’s just because we just like to have fun, and a lot of our stuff borders [on] 10, 12 minutes. And they don’t have that kind of time sometimes. So the thing that Dr. Taylor really talked about was: Bring your audience with you.
The success that BBNG enjoys owes a lot to the fact that the band has brought its audience with it. The band has done more than meet its young fans halfway — it’s given away plenty of free downloads and YouTube clips and cover tunes, and booked its shows in standing-room venues, and communicated often in photos and Tweets and strongly-worded interviews.
In comparison, the jazz community of recent decades — musicians, fans and even bloggers like this one — could generally do a much better job of communicating why live improvisation is still relevant, and why swing and the blues are forever relevant. But Sands is at least thinking hard about this issue, much as Billy Taylor still was not long before he died in late 2010, at age 89. If you were listening to Kanye West like most other 23-year-olds, and simultaneously wearing suits to time-out-of-mind jazz clubs and fancy performing arts centers — for gigs that your non-musician peers rarely attend — how could you not think about it?
Something like Capsulocity, the folks behind this series of video interview/performances with young New-York-based musicians — well, it’s not the answer. But it certainly could be a part of the storytelling, the translation to the present tense, that more jazz artists deserve.