The Music is Always There

Reflections on jazz, improvisation, and the New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2014.

By Thomas Larson

One variety of the New Orleans musician is the player who breaks free of his jazz hometown, and, ironically, stays true to its tradition. That’s what I hear in 26-year-old Nick Sanders, a Phenom and native, who got away to the New England Conservatory and has returned, from his home in Brooklyn to play his first Fest. Post-set, backstage, I sit in awe of his Adonic charm; he’s accompanied by his dad, who marveled at his son’s insistence during adolescence (“even then”), of practicing four to six hours a day.

All sorts of precursors pour through Sanders’ fingers during his live set and in his adventuresome 2013 debut album, Nameless Neighbors: the pointillist touches of the Second Viennese school, the polytonal counterpoint of Darius Milhaud, the hard swing of Horace Silver, the watery texture of Bill Evans, the quartal harmonies of Herbie Hancock, the wide-handed chordal palette of Brad Mehldau, the atonal flights of Cecil Taylor, the stylistic collisions of Charles Ives. (Sanders was no doubt the only musician at the Fest to play a tune by the avant-garde composer, Anthony Braxton.) The kid does have his own tack, however. His compositions state a complex motivic figure that he shifts suddenly and rhythmically, so its melodic mark drains from memory. The idea, bolstered by his trio, freshly graduated bassist and drummer from NEC as well, feels like endless invention. And yet he’s not afraid to stay with an elegant riff, its sentiment modally mysterious, and then move out from it—doggedly, introspectively, atonally—as he does on the album-title tune, “Nameless Neighbors,” or the mercurial “Hymn.”

One element I hear in some contemporary players is their self-surprise at landing on a fresh theme while improvising and then returning to it…

After the set, Sanders is still vibrating with the music. His hands seem to tingle, as does his voice, with surprise, almost, that I’d be interested in interviewing him. Sanders explains his upbringing, one that, as his dad says, was run by his desire. He began playing at 7, had classical music chops (lots of Mozart) by 12, and started improvising at 15. For high school, he went to NOCCA, the now-famed New Orleans Creative Arts charter, and found his calling in the jazz department. He was home-schooled, too, because, he says, “You can’t” want to practice “five, six hours a day in America”—and be a teenager. Prescient, he “knew how much work it would take” to be a jazz pianist. To learn to improvise, he listened to hundreds of records, studied the method books, and played most Fridays at NOCCA with a trio. One man he studied with, the great clarinetist and teacher of generations of New Orleans musicians, was Alvin Batiste. Sanders played with Batiste at Snug Harbor, a club which borders the French Quarter, before Batiste passed away.

So how’s he connected to New Orleans music? He is among the furthest out of the city’s players who remains, if distantly, in its orbit. “I can play the traditional tune,” he says, “but it’s not what I want to do.” I ask him to talk about his harmonic language, which, to my ear, sounds as much like 20th-century composers, Gunther Schuller, for example, as it does jazz stalwarts like Monk or Gil Evans. He stumbles at the question, in part, I suspect, because his thinking with his hands is so fluid, so changeable: “I can’t pin down an exact harmonic system.” Perhaps he hesitates because, like Jungians with a dream, pinning it down might deplete it of its magic. Though he thinks about chord structures and harmonic off-ramps, it’s “all very intuitive.” One element I hear in some contemporary players is their self-surprise at landing on a fresh theme while improvising and then returning to it, to structure a chorus or two around that serendipity.

Sanders’ trio’s closing number, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” captures his harmonic slant. Right off, Sanders topsy-turvies the G minor tune to G major, the familiar swing melody re-voiced and lifted enigmatically. Such a twist slaps the tune awake. Sanders reconstitutes a standard that’s rarely been “improved” on in the many times, times a million, it’s been played. This is what he’s very, very good at—and, barring too many of life’s potholes, will continue to roll with as composer and pianist.