In ancient Roman mythology, Janus was the god of time, passageways, beginnings and endings. With his two diametrically opposed faces, he looked simultaneously backwards and forwards in time. Janus is thus an ideal title for the new duo recording by pianist Nick Sanders and saxophonist Logan Strosahl, which mines centuries of compositions to create music entirely of the present moment. The pair also share a unique chemistry, honed over nearly a decade of working together, that echoes Janus in its suggestion of two voices sharing one mind.
Janus will be released on October 14, 2016 via Sunnyside Records, almost ten years after Sanders and Strosahl began playing duo in the basement of the dorms at Boston’s New England Conservatory, where both were students. The album features an intriguing mix of material, from medieval, Baroque and 20th-century French composers through bebop and Songbook standards to witty and inventive original pieces.
That stunning range of repertoire is not intended to show off the pair’s musical knowledge, encyclopedic though it may be. It’s simply a collection of songs, both insist, that they found appealing and that sparked imaginative improvisation. “Genre isn’t crucial,” Strosahl says. “What’s crucial is improvisation. Even though we’re working with music that represents different styles, they’re really all from the same canon. They’re all Western music and we’re filtering all of it through ourselves. Genres have been artificially broken up, so we’re just trying to take a larger, simpler and clearer view.”
That broadened perspective allowed Strosahl and Sanders to find just as much territory to explore in a romantic 14th-century rondeau by Guillaume de Machaut as in the acute modernist corners of Monk’s “Thelonious” or in their own playful, co-composed “Be-Bop Tune,” which distorts the revered jazz language as through a funhouse mirror. The moods and colors shift over the course of these dozen tunes, but the duo’s approach stays the same whether a composition began life as an elegant chamber piece or a swinging nightclub burner. All are translated into the same language, one that the pianist and saxophonist have developed from college basements to bandstands but that was nearly intact the moment they first joined forces.
“From the beginning, we both approached the jazz tradition not in identical ways, but like two sides of the same coin,” Strosahl says. Sanders adds, “We always played really well together. It was always fun and didn’t take any work. It was already there, right away.”
Since meeting in 2007, both have recorded with their own projects. Sanders has released two albums with his trio featuring bassist Henry Fraser and drummer Connor Baker, both produced by his mentor, Fred Hersch. In 2015 Strosahl made his debut with Up Go We, featuring his septet – or as he calls it, his “team” – that includes Sanders and the pianist’s trio mates within its ranks. But they’ve continually returned to the duo configuration and continued to find fresh inspiration in the partnership.
The album begins with Sanders’ vertiginous “Sigma,” an original piece that is alternately dizzying and jagged and which was inspired by a character from the “Mega Man” video game series. Gaming is also the surprising inspiration behind the melancholy “R.P.D.,” which achingly captures a mood of forlorn nostalgia for a bygone era – only in this case it’s a yearning for the days prior to the zombie apocalypse of “Resident Evil.”
The passing of time is also central to Strosahl’s contributions to the album, in keeping with the Janus theme. The title track is split into two halves, eventually encapsulating a sensation of frozen time, or peering back or forward from one time into another. In both “Allemande” and “Mazurka,” the saxophonist builds upon well-established dance forms, continuing the engagement with early musical forms that runs through much of his music. “I like the formality and clearness of just naming something after a dance,” he explains. “You let the piece speak for itself and just listen to the music.”
While improvising on standards like “Old Folks” and “Stardust,” and especially on a classic jazz tune like “Thelonious,” improvising is a well-established tradition. That approach has become antithetical to modern classical performance, but Sanders and Strosahl point out that hasn’t always been the case, offering precedent for their renditions of pieces by de Machaut, Baroque composer François Couperin, and influential 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen.
“Mozart left blank spaces in concertos for cadenzas to be improvised,” Sanders points out, before Strosahl picks up on his point. “It was par for the course because it works,” the saxophonist says. “It’s amazing hearing people spontaneously create music. We’re not trying to give everything a ‘jazz interpretation.’ We’re just going into music from multiple times and places and playing it with what we know about music and improvising.”
In fact, the one common trait that all of the music on Janus shares is the sense of possibility that exists in each. Janus was, after all, also the god of doorways, and each of the twelve near-miniatures on the album finds Sanders and Strosahl venturing into some previously unopened portal leading off from each song. “Maybe subconsciously, we look for music that has an air of mystery,” Strosahl says. “Spiritually, when you play it, you feel like there’s a world that you can tap into and uncover.”