The last time pianist Nick Sanders played New Orleans Jazz Fest, the year was 2005 and he was appearing under the auspices of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which has spawned and nurtured so many talents in genre after genre.
On the second Saturday of this year’s fest, Sanders and the New York-based musicians that make up the Nick Sanders Trio had the Jazz Tent stage all to themselves. Their set was an acknowledgement of how far Sanders has progressed as a composer, arranger and performer. He is progressive in the best sense of the adjective — seemingly incapable of a hackneyed gesture or a squandered phrase.
This outing, with drummer Connor Baker and bassist Henry Fraser in mutually intuitive fettle, impressed with its efficiency of artistic purpose. Some Jazz Fest sets are more like Chat Fests. Not here. Indeed, apart from introducing his colleagues, a nod to composer Anthony Braxton and a couple of welcome-to-Jazz-Fest bon-bons, Sanders was conspicuous by avoiding words in favor of music.
His playing — technically masterful, interpretively inquisitive — impressed with its articulate rigor. Sanders has a classicist’s respect for structural clarity, and his harmonic language, plus an appealing rhythmic spikiness, summoned up images of personalities far removed from the Fair Grounds zeitgeist. If Serge Prokofiev was ever reincarnated and invited to play in the Jazz Tent, the emerging soundscape might well have linked itself to Sanders’ own expressive temperament.
The precise, ever-responsive contributions from Fraser and Baker reflected an exchange of ideas in which each player nourished the other, listening as much as attacking. By the time the Trio reached its de facto encore, a propulsive, glistening arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” the set’s pleasures had been abundantly confirmed.