LJF 2019: Christian Sands HighWire Trio

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Pianist Christian Sands’ trio appearance at Love Supreme this year was one of that festival’s highlights, a joyous set delivered by an engaging showman of a pianist who could certainly work a crowd. At one point the trio began a slow blues that saw two old men, both of whom remembered the song first time round, delightedly explain to all around who would listen “This is Can’t Find My Way Home, it’s Steve Winwood and Clapton and Blind Faith from 1969!”, as if anyone else had a clue about what we – and I was one of those aforementioned old hippies – were talking about. For Sands considers pop music to be “essential in jazz. It’s new melodies, it’s new stories, or some stories told in different ways. Jazz is about storytelling and pop music has a unique story to tell”.

For his Cadogan Hall appearance as part of this year’s London Jazz Festival, Sands brought along his new HighWire Trio – Luques Curtis on bass and Terreon Gully on drums – to revisit the legacy of one of jazz’s most popular artists, the pianist Erroll Garner. It is a great pairing, for both Garner and Sands are unashamed populists and both are virtuosi pianists, Sands now carrying the torch as creative ambassador to the Erroll Garner estate. Garner’s trademark style of his right-hand playing behind the beat while his left strummed a steady rhythm and necessary punctuation, created both insouciance and tension. His hands often worked independently of each other, conjuring up three-against-four and other more complicated cross-rhythms between the hands with apparently effortless ease. Not for nothing did pianist Ross Tompkins describe Garner’s distinctive approach as due to “happiness”.

Sands captured that happiness perfectly. Playing a series of Garner compositions and other songs associated with him, including an evocative treatment of McCartney’s Yesterday, as Garner was an admirer of the Beatles, he relied on the soft touch that Garner made famous, often playing pianissimo to great effect. But he also hammered home the block chords and ran in flashy style up and down the keyboard, for Sands is a master pianist in full command of his musical imagination.

Perhaps his highlight was a very slow and atmospheric My Funny Valentine, employing Garner’s trick of improvising a whimsical introduction, often in stark contrast to the rest of the tune, that left listeners in suspense as to what the piece would turn out to be. Luques Curtis’s bass was wondrously resonant and full, Terreon Gully’s drums active but never intrusive. To add to the three musicians were vocal excepts from the likes of Martha Glazer, Art Blakey and Garner himself, setting the scene for what was to come. The inevitable encore of Misty, given a thoughtful reading with some inside the piano work to introduce it, ended the show in fine style.

The opening act of the evening was saxophonist Camilla George, in a trio with bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Winston Clifford, joined for the finale by keyboardist Sarah Tandy. The formal setting of a Cadogan Hall stage, and the unadorned trio format, left George a tad over exposed, but her eloquence soon won through. She had an interesting way of letting her melodic lines stray in unexpected directions, hinting at ideas that soon passed by, and played well against her strong bass and drums support. Tandy’s brief finale appearance was too short to make an impact, as indeed was George’s whole abbreviated set, but as a snapshot of a musician who is quickly making a good name for herself, this was a nice little teaser.

Christian Sands HighWire Trio plus Camilla George. Cadogan Hall, London SW1, Tuesday 19 November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival