Pianist Christian Sands Leads Valiant Group Through Serenity/Turbulence on ‘Be Water’ (ALBUM REVIEW)
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Pianist Christian Sands Leads Valiant Group Through Serenity/Turbulence on ‘Be Water’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Pianist Christian Sands is fascinated with the element of water – vital to life, surrounding us in so many ways, calm and beautiful and by turns turbulent and devastating. This is his inspiration for his third full-length album on Mack Avenue, Be Water, from the tranquil to the powerful, malleable and unpredictable. The album takes its title from the philosophy of martial arts master and movie star Bruce Lee. Lee appears on both halves of Sands’ title track offering this advice, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water in the cup, it becomes the cup; if you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle…Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” (And, perhaps coincidentally there is a forthcoming movie of the same name but this Is not its soundtrack.)

The evocative recording finds Sands with his core trio of longtime bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn, with an elite cadre of front line players including guitarist Marvin Sewell, (several electric and acoustic guitars),Marcus Strickland (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Sean Jones (trumpet) and Steve Davis (trombone). On one piece the ensemble is also supplemented by a string quartet featuring Sara Caswell, Tomoko Akaboshi, Benni von Gutzeit and Eleanor Norton. Sands plays acoustic piano on every track, layering in keyboards and voice on the opener, Fender Rhodes on four, and Hammond B-3 on “Drive.”

This is a highly conceptual work, rich in visual imagery if one were to close one’s eyes and imagine the context of water in the song. The opener builds gradually, with the glacial pace and implacable momentum of a rising tide. The simple sounds of lapping waves flow into a dawning melody on arco bass, slowly but forcefully surging to a gripping crescendo as more instrumentalists join in. The piece was modeled on the impactful openings of another of Sands’ major influences, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. The rollicking “Sonar” takes the concept of navigating via sound as a metaphor for the way in which we relate to our surroundings. Lee’s words usher in the chorale-like “Be Water I,” with its interwoven horn lines over Penn’s shifting tempos. This is the first piece where we hear all three horns, one of only two. Its companion piece, “Be Water II,” is an elegant, majestic dance between the trio and the string quartet, arranged by Sands’ Manhattan School of Music classmate Miho Hazama.

Propelled by Penn’s driving rhythm, “Crash” depicts the impact of waves on the shore, or the collisions among people. It has a nice flowing, repetitive rhythm that builds to a climax with a resounding chord that does great justice to the word ‘crash’. The funky, syncopated “Drive” peers within, imagining personal ambition with the unstoppable force of the ocean, driven by emphatic bass and drums and summoning ferocious solos from Strickland on tenor and Sewell’s jaw-dropping entrance and subsequent solo on his custom slide while Sands dances all over the piano. This piece is explosive! a world apart from Sands’ “Intro” and some of the quieter pieces that follow.

The amorphous “Steam” by its very nature proves to be elusive; abstract and improvisational and highlighting the superb drumming of Penn and bass playing of Nakamura as they respond to Sands’ thrust or engage in their own two-way dialogue. The choice of the lone cover, Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” is an interesting one, apparently derived from water’s ability to travel ridiculous distances or begin in the clouds only to fall to earth. This is another trio piece with Nakamura’s prominent Arco bass, Sands’ scintillating piano and Penn’s driving beats. The gospel-tinged take builds to a fast, exuberant tempo midpiece before receding quietly like (dare we say ‘water’). The unlikely pairing of Sewell’s expressive guitar and Sands’ evanescent touch evokes a tranquil lake, reflecting a clear blue sky and gliding birds on “Still.” The fanfare-like “Outro” playfully reverses the “Intro,” ending the album on a cinematically celebratory note, as if a rushing waterfall in spring, as all three horns rejoin the trio, along with Sewell.

Sands delivers a stunning piece of music, with so many passages of sheer beauty countered by captivating moments of unyielding power. It’s a true testament to his imagination and talent. You may never think of water the same way again.

Read Article: Glide Magazine