BY SCOTT YANOW
The music on Nick Sanders’ You Are A Creature, which consists of eleven of the pianist’s originals plus Ornette Coleman’s “The Blessing,” is as unusual as the CD’s title and its cover. Pictured on the cover is a picture from a vintage sideshow advertisement that features a contortionist in action. While the musicians on You Are A Creature did not have to do acrobatics to perform the music, they certainly had to approach this brand of jazz improvisation from a much different angle than usual.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Nick Sanders has had opportunities to study with Fred Hersch Alvin Batiste, Danilo Perez and Jason Moran. While attending the New England Conservatory where he earned his Master’s in 2012, Sanders met bassist Henry Fraser and drummer Connor Baker. Musically they clicked from the start and have worked together ever since. Fred Hersch has been one of Sanders’ mentors, encouraging him in his individuality and producing his debut album (Nameless Neighbors) and the current CD.
The many hours of playing that Sanders, Fraser and Baker have had together really show throughout this set of complex music. Certainly none of these pieces will be showing up in college jam sessions. The trio has an unusual sound in general with bassist Fraser often sounding like an extension of Sanders, as if the pianist could play both instruments at once. While there are stretches of fairly conventional swinging, much of the time the trio seems to be thinking out loud, often playing out of tempo or shifting between tempos. While one becomes accustomed to hearing solo pianists sometimes improvising out of tempo, it is much more difficult for a trio to be doing that together. And while there are individual solos, the emphasis is on ensembles and group interplay.
The opener, “Let’s Start,” has complex chord changes, close communication by the trio, and some stop-and-start playing where the musicians emphasize each beat while leaving space in between. “Wheelchair” has an almost-childlike melody, some unpredictable but tight accompaniment by Fraser and Baker, and thoughtful playing by the pianist. The brooding ballad “Red Panda” has Sanders hinting at Thelonious Monk in some of his chord voicings while “Room” is a perfect example of the three musicians thinking aloud together.
“Round You Go” is a bit playful at first before becoming darker. “You Are A Creature” has the trio stretching out a bit (including a drum solo) on some heated free bop.” “Carol’s Kid” is lyrical, “Zora The Cat” is quirky and episodic yet concise, and Repeater” has an ironic title since nothing much gets repeated (particularly during its first half) in this mostly free form improvisation.
“Keep On The Watch” utilizes a rhythmic pattern that evolves as the piece progresses. The eccentric jazz waltz “Peculiar People,” the fairly free ballad “Day Zombie” and an adventurous but melodic version of Coleman’s “The Blessing” concludes this stimulating set of original modern jazz. On the evidence of You Are A Creature, Nick Sanders and his trio will certainly be having major careers in creative jazz of the next couple of decades.