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Christian Sands Faces and Slays Dragons

Dragons appear in mythologies in Asia and Europe, from Judaism to Buddhism to Hinduism. They are bringers of wisdom, tyrannical harbingers of the apocalypse, and fearsome foes to be vanquished. Christian Sands, the 29-year-old rising star of jazz piano, has chosen to name his most recent release Facing Dragons, due in part to gaining wisdom as a leader – this is his third recording under his own name – and also his going in a new direction “musically and spiritually,” as he wrote in his acknowledgements on the disc, and facing dragons that may be fearsome. In taking risks, and collaborating with new musicians, Sands does not merely face his dragons.

All the way through the recording, Sands’ compositions are powerful, thoughtful, and elegant. eight of the nine cuts are originals, and range from straight-ahead jazz to improvisational introspection. The only piece Sands didn’t compose is an arrangement of the McCartney/Lennon number “Yesterday.” With the way Sands and the trio interpret the number, one would be hard-pressed to say the Beatles ever sounded as soulful, taking the listener on a dynamic roller coaster of crescendos and decrescendos.

Throughout the recording, Sands truly shines as a composer. He mixes polyrhythmic, Carnival-esque pieces like “Sangueo Soul” with up-tempo straight-ahead numbers like “Fight for Freedom.” He then brings the recording around with a quiet ballad and solo introspection with “Her Song” and “Rhodes to Meditation” [a delicious pun on the Fender Rhodes piano Sands uses on the piece]. The cut “Sunday Mornings” genuinely takes the listener to church with moving passages for the Hammond B-3 and for the guitar, while “Samba de Vela” is a wonderfully playful quintet number with Brazilian flair.

And let us not heap all the praise on Sands; the accompanying members of his ensemble all equally shine. Keyon Harrold’s trumpet and Marcus Strickland’s saxophone add a fuller body to Sands’ normal trio, and both Harrold and Strickland offer subtle nuance as well as scorching solos, particularly on the number “Fight for Freedom.” A band member Sands has not previously worked with is guitarist Caio Afiune. Afiune is a wonderful addition to the group, layering a rich, warm dimension onto already masterful pieces, specifically the soulfully warm ballad, “Her Song.”

Overall, this is an outstanding performance for Sands and his group. It’s ambitious, but not overly so. It delicately balances valleys of quiet with peaks of exuberance. New material and new collaborators lifts the recording, and pushes it forward. This is truly an outstanding piece of work, as a whole, and in it’s parts. If dragons were what Sands faced when confronting this project, they were certainly vanquished in the end.

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