Friday, October 3, 2014

Pianist Christian Sands at Eskenazi Hospital gives notice that music's uplift can be more than superficial

For ages, music has been associated with promoting both mental and physical health.  Recent science has confirmed that it also has beneficial effects on the brain similar to that of healing, state-of-the-art drugs.

Christian Sands is the first of the current APA jazz finalists to put in a lively week here.
So Marianne Tobias was using sound judgment (pun unavoidable) to emphasize her motivation for linking music and medicine in a concert series she established at Eskenazi Health with the cooperation of the Eskenazi Health Foundation.

A further link through the American Pianists Association allowed her to focus some of that generosity on jazz: This season, each of the finalists in the 2014-15 Jazz Fellowship Awards will play a solo recital of 30 to 45 minutes at the north end of the new hospital's soaring lobby on a piano Tobias has donated.

On Thursday afternoon, it was a treat to hear Christian Sands launch the series near the culmination of his week in the city.  All four of his fellow finalists have similar appearances scheduled as each takes a turn vying for the top award, worth $100,000. At 25, Sands has already earned two Grammy nominations and is a member of star bassist Christian McBride's regular working trio.

He considers himself a protege of the musician and educator Billy Taylor. Midway through his Eskenazi recital, he played a lively piece by Taylor, who died in 2010 at the age of 89. The work reflected Taylor's encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz-piano tradition. It had aspects of ragtime and stride piano filtered through a bebop sensibility. There was plenty of work for both hands, an aspect of jazz-piano technique that tended to be neglected through the bop era and beyond.

Sands told me later that he received inspiration from Taylor about everything a professional musician needs to know, including building a career and teaching. Sands has done a considerable amount of the latter, and in Indianapolis felt right at home connected with Herron High School. "It kept going and going and going," is how he enthusiastically described the development of his rapport with music students there.

"If you do know a song," he said to the Eskenazi audience after pointing out that his recital could go in all sorts of unpredictable directions, "raise your hand. I've been teaching kids all week."

After a long introduction with a rumbling bass-tenor left hand and lots of fancy work in the right, Sands pieced together the familiar strains of "Body and Soul."  It was a fitting calling card for the first jazz performance in a new public hospital. (I decided not to raise my hand.) In the course of the performance, Sands made adept transitions between different ways of treating the Johnny Green standard, thickening and thinning the texture as the mood struck him.

Even more revealing of Sands' imagination was his treatment of Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie."  He presented this wonderful ballad  as something very slow and grand, for the most part, which made the transition to a hard-digging, worksong-like episode sound quite natural.  He folded in "crushed," sidelong sequences that replicated the mercurial Monkian wit.

Showing a sharp wit of his own, Sands closed the program with a blues he wrote just this week, spurred by his positive impressions of Herron and its students.  "Herron High School Blues" has a skipping, staccato theme, as if to reflect the bounding energy of adolescence. Along the way, he included a sonorous single line in the left hand that seemed to point to the serious work of growing up as well.

Sands' technical preparation is as solid as his improvisatory skills.  He told me he began piano at 3, tutored in the Suzuki method. He's been playing jazz since the age of 7. "I had lots of classical training," he added, "and I still love classical music — especially opera: the stories, all the drama."

No surprise there. Among the classic bumper-sticker adages of jazz is the Lester Young imperative: "Tell me a story."  Christian Sands already seems thoroughly tuned in to that sage advice.