How martial arts taught Christian Sands the fundamentals of jazz

Christian Sands’ music is what 21st century jazz sounds like. It’s dynamic, it’s surprising, it’s melodic, and yet it’s still so full of the tradition of jazz.

Over the last decade, the pianist and composer has established himself as an artist to be reckoned with, creating moods and sounds with some of the biggest names in jazz and carving out a unique spot for himself.

His latest album is Be Water, his fourth with the Mack Avenue record label, which takes inspiration from the tranquility and power of water and muses on “the possibilities offered by echoing its fluidity and malleability” — a philosophy largely modelled after that of martial artist Bruce Lee.

The expressionistic recording finds Sands with his core trio of bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn, with additional contributions from guitarist Marvin Sewell, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Steve Davis.

Sands joined us from his home in Connecticut to talk about the ideas, experiences and philosophies that informed this new album.

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Would you say this has been a time when you’ve been inspired to practise and be creative, or is it hard to get in that mode based on everything that’s going on?

It’s a combination of both. There’s a lot going on in the U.S., not only with COVID-19 but the loss of jobs, the loss of gigs, the loss of people, the injustice that’s happening right now. But at the same time, it is inspiring to talk about it, to have conversations, to write music about it — so it kind of goes hand in hand.

I get the sense that the new album Be Water is about being flexible, flowing, adapting to current situations, whether that’s in music or in life. In essence, is that what “being water” is — being malleable, ready for anything?

That’s exactly right. It’s about being as prepared as you can possibly be for the unknown, for the things that are to come. The last thing you want to do is to be faced by a challenge that you can’t rise above. It’s about being flexible, it’s about being aware, and it’s about being honest to yourself as well.

You’ve said you were making the album at the age of 30 and you had been starting to see that you were hardening a bit, not being as open, and you wanted to make sure those sensibilities stayed with you. Is that a fair assessment?

I’ve always been a relaxed person, a very open person, but after you get to that 30 threshold, you sort of get a taste of specifics. So now, I’m specifically open with certain things. I’m trying to remain that way — taking what I was in childhood, the openness and curiosity and precociousness, and bringing that into adulthood, but in a way that’s mature, in a way that’s still open, but strong and with purpose. That’s really the idea of the record. That’s where I was coming from.

Your last recording was called Chasing Dragons. You spent time in China. Your dad taught martial arts. Bruce Lee was part of the inspiration for the new record. What is it about that Eastern culture that’s had such an impact on you?

I’ve grown up with film. I grew up watching Bruce Lee with my father and my younger brother Ryan. You know, The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury), Game of Death with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We’ve always had that in our system. My father also taught martial arts at a certain point. He’s given us this discipline, but also the creativeness to work with as well. Learning styles from jeet kune do, to aikido and hapkido, to American-style karate — there are so many different disciplines of the art, and it in turn feeds the music as well. I love different styles of music. I love all music. So it goes hand in hand.

Did you see the 30 for 30 documentary on Bruce Lee?

It’s been on my queue. It’s on my to-do list. I haven’t seen it yet because I’ve been trying to binge and work at the same time, so I’m trying to keep myself away from it at least until I’m in a space where I can breathe and be the water that I need to be to watch it.

When you were a kid and martial arts were part of your life, did you see that correlation between music and martial arts, or were you a kid just doing stuff and having fun?

A little of both. When you’re a kid, you’re just doing anything, especially when you have supportive parents who are putting you in interesting things. I was doing martial arts as a kid, and I was also heavily into arts and crafts, and I was building things, and I was playing piano at the same time. It all just was me. When it was me hanging out with my friends in the neighbourhood and then we’d come inside and play piano and then we’d go and play a video game, it was all intertwined. I didn’t necessarily know there was a connection — but I felt it. When I was sparring with opponents, or with my dad or my brother or my cousins, there would be moments like, how do I attack this? How do I get from point A to point B? And then learning music was sort of the same thing. I never put them together until I was much older, but it was very much the same type of discipline. There was nothing strange about it. I feel like they both taught each other in ways that I didn’t realize until I was older.

It sounds like creativity is something that was encouraged in your family.

Most definitely. I grew up in a very, very creative household. Aside from just listening to music, my mother loved literature, and she would create poems or sonnets. When you’re a child, your parents tell you bedtime stories, but my mom would make up her own stories. There was always this idea of creation. My father loved the arts as well. Aside from music, he was a photographer, he did martial arts, he painted, he was an illustrator, and he played multiple instruments here and there, just a little. He just did everything. He was such an advocate for creation. Growing up in that environment fed my creativity and the person that I am today.

A lot of kids like to hear the same story over and over. If your mom was making them up, was she able to recreate it if you wanted to hear it again?

It’s funny, if you look at it in a jazz way, it was pretty much like this is the bones of the story and each time she would tell it, it would have something different in it. Now that I think of it that way, it’s actually pretty interesting. She would tell stories and I might have a favourite story, and she would tell it again but it might be slightly different, or the way she told it might be different. It would never have the same type of cadence. It might be more intense in a certain scene than it was the last time she told it. It was always a little different.

Christian McBride produced your last album, but you decided to self-produce Be Water. Can you tell us why you made that choice and what the process was like?

It’s always hard work. You put your heart and soul into it. You try different things. But with this one, I wanted to do it myself because I was going through this personally. All my albums are [personal], but this one in particular. Everything is shifting and changing, so I said let’s shift with this and let me produce this myself and see what happens. I had produced other artists, so I thought if I could do them, I could produce myself as well.

Based on the results, would you consider producing it again, or would you look outside?

It depends. It’s always about who I want to collaborate with. “Hey, I like what you’re doing. Let’s put this together. Let’s see what we can come up with together.” So, who knows? The next project, it could be anybody.

I saw that you and your rhythm section, Yushiri and Clarence, got together at the Smoke Club in early August. How did that feel?

It was amazing. We hadn’t played since February, so it had been a long time. We tried to play over Zoom and over Skype, and we were trying to fight through the lag, but it’s not the same. When we finally got the opportunity to play at Smoke, the way they set it up there was no one in the club except us and the film crew. They streamed it online, so despite the empty room, it was just great to make music with my guys and hear what everyone’s been working on for the last few months. That first night was a little… a little rocky. But it was great. We hadn’t had a chance to play before getting all the kinks out. We’re overplaying, we’re stretching things. But the second night was beautiful. They both were amazing. I think we’re going to be releasing some clips from the show [on YouTube], so be on the lookout for that.

I think jazz in particular does require other people. It’s about communication and a shared moment, more than other musical genres. It seems that jazz musicians need those other players more than other genres. Would you agree with that?

I would absolutely agree with that. It’s a communicative art form. I play it for me, it’s therapy for me, it’s reflection for me, it’s expression for me, but at the same time when you have someone listening to it, their listening is expressive. They feed into me and I feed into them. It’s the closest thing to religion if you’re not a religious person. We have a similar energy that we share. Whenever I perform, I always want my audience to be vocal. I always love that. I love when people are shouting, or they’re agreeing with what we’re saying as musicians. It encourages us to play harder, play better, play faster, play stronger, and it encourages them to shout more or express themselves the way they want to express themselves. I feel like music is honesty. It’s a place where we can all come together and get to a higher plane and a higher space in life. We leave the job behind, we leave the wife and kids behind sometimes, and we get to this place where it’s just us. Leave all the social media behind and just really commune in this place at this time. When we’re all doing it at the same time, it’s a beautiful thing.

As great as those two nights were, did it lead to sadness after that? It’s like you just went to church, and now you can’t go to church anymore. 

A little bit. It was a little bittersweet. You finish and now you’re like, “When’s the next gig?” And then you find out it’s next year sometime.

I read that you like to cook. I’m wondering if during the lockdown you became a better cook, and if you did what are some of the things you were making?

Being like water means that you have to learn how to boil water. I’ve been cooking like crazy. I’ve been trying to perfect my cooking skills. I made pecan-crusted trout the other day. I made Cornish hens with asparagus tips. I made fig chicken. I’m always trying to experiment and just be creative and perform in the kitchen. That’s my latest thing.