New Orleans pianist Nick Sanders proved that his hometown remains a font of musical genius with an astounding return visit to Snug Harbor on Sunday. Now based in New York, the 25-year-old Sanders toured in New Orleans with drummer Connor Baker and bassist Henry Fraser — the working band that appears on his masterful debut CD, “Nameless Neighbors.”
Bringing his two colleagues was a wise move, not simply because they matched Sanders’ technical virtuosity, but because, as a unit, the trio exemplified the higher virtuosity of artists who listen, think and tell stories through their music. Together, they explored Sanders’ trove of memorable, often minor-themed compositions, probing harmonic corners, expanding on the rhythmic possibilities of angular off-kilter themes, and warming to a host of distinctive melodies. A few, well-chosen standards (Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols) spiced the mix. And, yes, the trio also managed a rare feat by delivering a cliché-free account of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
Sanders proved to be a two-handed whiz at the keyboard, able to sustain complex contrapuntal lines and spin dramatic variations while maintaining the musical momentum. His sound was warm and embracing, but plenty of lightning flashed through his cloudscapes, as he nudged his bandmates with crisp trills, ringing octaves and edgy harmonic choices. Sanders’ command of dynamics also heightened the musical drama, as he filled the room at a whisper, and conjured thunder without swamping the rich overtones of his instrument. Yes, that classical training does come in handy, sometimes.
And Sanders didn’t do all that on the back of his “rhythm section.” The trio felt like a true, three-way partnership: one in which the solos occur simultaneously, with every player at the service of the music — and the moment.
Fraser’s bass carried the pulse with hip-swaying authority and he talked back with flamenco flourishes and snap pizzicatos. Baker, on drums, was Mr. Sensitive, completing his partners’ thoughts with a percussive halo of rim shots, rolls and rustling brushwork from a kit that was tuned to provide melodic counterpoint.
Had to miss Sunday’s show? Don’t fret: This is the sound of the 21st century, people. You’ll be hearing from Sanders and his youthful colleagues for decades.