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Former Child Prodigy Christian Sands Shows Mature Mastery at New Haven Jazz Festival

Aug 24, 2016

Sands has not only lived up to his promise, but promises to evolve in new directions that not even his tutors could have imagined.

Even as a toddler, Christian Sands, the onetime wunderkind who grew up in New Haven, could play the piano well enough to turn sophisticated listeners’ heads.

By age 4, he had taken his first baby steps into “formal” studies, which prepared him for writing compositions by 5.

Striding beyond baby steps to giant steps, he made his recording debut at the ripe old age of 12 with a CD called Foot PrintsPresciently titled, it marked the start of his journey to today where, at age 27, he’s one of the top-seeded pianists of his generation.

Sands’ legion of fans—especially longtime loyalists in the New Haven area who have watched him mature physically and artistically—might argue that the multiple-Grammy nominee deserves that lofty ranking, and perhaps more. Their hosannas have been echoed in the media from Jet Magazine to Vanity Fair, the latter of which hailed Sands as a rising star in its select “Jazz Youth-Quake” category.

A graduate of Manhattan School of Music and onetime protégé of pianist and jazz savant Billy Taylor, Sands—like his late mentor—has a profound sense of the jazz keyboard tradition and desires to bring more believers into the fold. Like a number of premier young jazz musicians, he loves contemporary pop and is intrigued by its potential use on his already diverse artistic palette.

Unlike many a promising prodigy—especially those with fabulous but rivetingly robotic chops—Sands has not only lived up to his promise, but promises to evolve in new directions that not even his tutors could have imagined.

Pianist Christian Sands.
Credit Eric Murray

A hometown favorite, Sands returns once again to his Elm City roots as he performs as the headliner for the free New Haven Jazz Festival, which runs on Saturday, August 27, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm on the historic New Haven Green. The Neighborhood Music School Premier Jazz Ensemble, which features young students from the noted New Haven community arts school, opens the festival at 6:00 pm with a half-hour performance.

Sands and his explosive quartet take the stage at 8:00 pm in the grand finale for the festival celebrating its 33rd season of grooving on the Green.

Sands’ recent appearances in the region have frequently been with bassist Christian McBride’s brilliant, hard-swinging trio in memorable tour de force performances from the campuses of Yale and Fairfield universities to Northampton’s Iron Horse to Old Lyme’s perpetually swinging Side Door Jazz Club.

Leading his very own SWAT team for the downtown fest, Sands is joined by trumpeter Josh Evans, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Marcus Baylor.

Evans, a Hartford native who was mentored early on by the celebrated alto saxophonist/composer Jackie McLean, has played and toured with Winard Harper, Benny Golson and Rashied Ali, among many other luminaries. Typically, his summer schedule includes sideman gigs with such eminencies as Billy Harper and Jimmy Greene, and as the leader of his own orchestra.

Williams won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition in 2009, has been a member of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, and appears in the film "Miles Ahead," which stars Don Cheadle as Miles Davis.

Saxophonist Mitch Frohman and his quartet, also playing at the New Haven Jazz Festival.
Credit Eric Murray

At 6:45 pm, providing a steamy, festive opener for the Sands Quartet, is the noted Latin jazz saxophonist/flutist Mitch Frohman and his quartet. Frohman, who was associated for many years with the Latin jazz titans Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, is joined by Hartford’s celebrated Curtis Brothers, pianist Zaccai and bassist Luques, and drummer Joel Mateo.

The mambo maestro has played with a host of other legendary Latin artists ranging from Celia Cruz to Machito. He’s the leader or co-leader of such in-demand salsa and Latin jazz groups as The Bronx Horns, The Mambo Legends Orchestra, made up of former Tito Puente all-stars and the Eddie Torres Mambo Kings Dance Show Orchestra.

His signature sound on sax was most famously heard around the global village on his solo on the theme song for the mega-hit TV series "Sex and the City."

The Bronx native and his band will dip into his new double-disc album, "From Daddy with Love," which features the "Sex and the City" theme song, along with instrumental and vocal versions of the album’s title tune, plus savory servings of his original pieces.

Presented by Jazz Haven, a Greater New Haven-based non-profit jazz advocacy group, the family-friendly festival is held rain or shine. Food plus arts and crafts vendors will be on hand for festival-goers.

Pianist Helen Sung, who will perform at Lyric Hall on August 26.
Credit Eric Murray

Pianophiles can double their pleasure in the Elm City by catching both the meteoric Sands on Saturday and the ascending Helen Sung on Friday, August 26, at 7:30 pm, as the relatively unsung but nonetheless superb pianist holds forth at Lyric Hall. It’s a most aptly named venue, since Sung’s audience is sure to come away from her performance with a large haul of lyric expression.

Sung swings inventively, and is blessed with classically trained chops that give her tone and phrasing bright clarity and resonance.

As with Sands, Sung’s technique, while impressive, is merely a piece of her in-depth artistry, a facility she uses not merely to impress with dazzling dexterity, but also to heighten her expressiveness.

Her music is illuminated with what the late Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker’s longtime poet laureate of jazz criticism, called “the sound of surprise,” the magical, elusive quality that makes improvisation come alive, transforming the inert into the ineffable.

Jazz Haven presents the Sung concert in connection with its venerable New Haven Jazz Festival, scoring a double keyboard coup for itself and New Haven.

As a sensual bonus, concert-goers can drink in the visual splendor of the elegantly renovated Lyric Hall. A painstakingly executed, artful project, its opulent aesthetic and historic sensibility is literally crowned with a gloriously resurrected, more than century-old crystal and bronze-gilt chandelier.

Admission: $10 online and $15 at the door. Tickets online via PayPal.

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