Christian Sands, The art of being water.

Written by | News, Summer 2020

It’s all about ears, according to pianist Christian Sands. Of course, we know that: you can’t appreciate music without ears, and obviously you need ears to play music. What he means is, listening to music is so much more important than reading it or, I imagine, reading about it. So with that in mind, the first thing I would recommend is that you stop reading this interview right now, and listen to his new album. It’s called Be Water, it’s his third for the Mack Avenue label, and it’s a thing of exquisite beauty. My ears are still quivering with pleasure at his nine original compositions and his version of Steve Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Home…

OK, welcome back. So you will know by now that Christian Sands’ ears are sponges. Described as a post-bop pianist (whatever that means), in reality he is a product of everyone who has come before him. He just absorbs them all: Chano Dominguez, Chucho Valdez, Tito Puente, Cecil Taylor and – as we will shortly discover – George Shearing and Erroll Garner. That doesn’t mean he has no style of his own. In fact, his playing reminds me of the great Marcin Wasilewski. It’s simply that you can’t describe what he does – you just have to listen.

The music is so free-flowing, it’s hard to imagine it written down. So my first question to him was: how much is composed, and how much emerges spontaneously?

“Specifically on this album, I wanted to bring sketches into the studio. I don’t like to tell people what to bring to it. I’m always curious as to what they’re hearing. That’s how I play music, that’s how I make music, I like collaborating on different levels. Improvisation is just what I do, I love it. I could perform without any sort of repertoire at all, and I’d be happy. So this album was a result of that, a result of me really bonding with my friends – with the people I just love talking to, and musically talking to. So just bringing some sketches in and saying, hey, this is what I’m thinking, let’s play it and see what happens, and let’s record it at the same time.”

Christian’s collaborators on Be Water would… well, they would make anyone’s mouth water: he has worked closely with bassist Yasushi Nakamura for a decade, but drummer Clarence Penn is relatively new to him. “Yasushi is such a warm personality, but he’s such a solid personality. I can always rely on him. He’s so reliable, on and off the bandstand, so you can’t leave him behind.” It was Nakamura who brought drummer Penn into the core trio. “I was looking for a drummer because the drummer I had at the time wasn’t available. So I talked to Yasushi and I said, ‘Hey man, who do you like playing with? Who do you think can play my music and you like playing with?’” Also on the album are guitarist Marvin Sewell, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Steve Davis. On one piece (Be Water II) they are joined by a string quartet.


Christian himself plays several different keyboard instruments. I wondered what governed his choice of acoustic piano or Fender Rhodes.

“Just necessity. Life happens. The studio was quite small, so we had to put all of the horns in the same room as the piano, but we didn’t want there to be any sound bleeding, so I decided to record it with Fender Rhodes [which, as an electric instrument, can simply be fed directly into the control room] and overdub it with piano later on. And I liked how the Rhodes felt initially, so I decided to keep it. So really it was just by chance.” There’s also the occasional snatch of Hammond organ. “That was intentional. I don’t have an organ, so I don’t get the chance to play it that much. But when you have a little bit of time in the studio, you get to experiment with different sounds. I always loved the organ, I grew up hearing it, being a part of the gospel church. So that’s in my musical DNA. Playing that Hammond organ on Drive was necessary – it just needed that sound. There’s a Wurlitzer in there too. I wanted to create this palette. I love to cook as well as play music, so I always love to sneak in some different ingredient.”

The title of the new album sounds a little New Age. How can you “be water”, and what on earth does it mean? Well, water turns out to be a useful metaphor, derived from the teachings of actor and martial arts guru Bruce Lee – stay with me, readers: the point about water is that it takes on the shape of whatever vessel contains it. And that is exactly what jazz musicians are doing when they improvise jazz – they find themselves in a particular context, and they adapt to it.

“The reason I chose water is because it’s a perfect analogy for life, for everything. You never want to feel stuck in any position or encounter that you’re in. And it really resonated with me because when I recorded the album I was going through a lot of different adjustments and transitions in my life – travelling, performing, turning 30. There were a lot of different things that just started opening up, and new experiences. And how do you go through those things? I’m a fan of Bruce Lee, I’ve grown up with all of his movies. My father used to teach martial arts as well, and I used to do martial arts. So, Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do [Lee’s system, also known as “The Way of the Intercepting Fist”]… all of that I know like the back of my hand. I used to use nunchucks. I was very talented with that. So I just felt at home with that creative process. Bruce Lee is somebody who has influenced me in my music from childhood.”

Lee was interested in the skills of real fighting, not just those of sporting events. And in real combat, you might be faced with anything. So spontaneity is the key – spontaneity combined with speed of reaction. So just as water can flow into any shape, the accomplished practitioner of Jeet Kune Do can control whatever situation he or she is in, by “being like water”.

This fascination with the East is no mere flirtation. Christian was the artist in residence for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new club in Shanghai for two years, and played there several times. “With each visit, I experienced something new, I met different people, I started seeing different things, I went to the Buddhist temples, ate different food, talked to different people, learned about different cultures and heard different music. And it was something that really was inspiring. When you hear these drums, or you hear certain songs that they sing and how the melodies work, or the timbre of each instrument, it really does something. Also going to the acrobatic shows – they’re breathing fire, they’re doing flips… it’s really an amazing culture.” He was in China when he wrote his 2018 Facing Dragons album. “The dragon represents all the unknown things,” he told an interviewer last year. “Instead of running from the questions, or taking your time to puzzle them out, you have to face those questions. Questions like, ‘Who am I as an artist? Where do I want this music to go, and who do I want to reach? What’s the next step?’”

He also draws inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. I wondered how a film director could possibly influence a jazz pianist. “Well, I love film, I love the drama of film. What I love about Tarantino is, when he wants to show you something, he zooms in on it, whether it’s an image or whether it’s a sound, or whether it’s an idea, he just drives that idea home. So there’s ambiguity in the album, but there’s also what you might call Easter eggs, where there’s something particular I want to tell you. I love Sixties Japanese films as well. I’ve been watching a lot of the Sun Tribe films. I love the camerawork, I love the cinematography, I love the storylines, the way they use jazz.”

We talked about the tsunami of rage around the world over the murder of George Floyd, and the crushing impact on musicians of the coronavirus. How had he been coping with not playing gigs?


Last modified: July 17, 2020