I can say that last night I saw a rising star among the others in the sky, while the moon rose over the fields, like silver in the darkness. I saw an amazing young musician and his jazz quintet presenting their music to a winter crowd; the gifted bassist Ben Williams and Sound Effect were lovely to look at, lovely to hear, with Williams fresh from a Grammy win only days ago, (with the great Pat Metheny), for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. Williams, a Juilliard graduate, was also the winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, certainly a sought-after and highly prestigious award, especially for someone so young. This man is going somewhere, and I am honored that he graced us with his charismatic persona and his astounding music.
I went to the sound check, where the band came rolling in a bit late, some in velvet, some in hoodies, but got down to the business at hand, creating a musical nebula of tuning and experimenting, with very little verbal interaction, since the communication was through the music. Then through the lattice of sound emerged staccatos from the sax, harmonized by the piano, then came the rhythm, and they’re off, here’s their sound…
After a pretty impressive introduction, Williams modestly, yet confidently, commented, “With that, I’d better be good…”, knowing he was about to blow us away.
Having an excellent view of the band, my view of the group was tremendous, yet my notes are always disjointed, a stream of consciousness scrawled in the dark, to decipher later in the light of day. I hope I have the names right. On guitar, Canadian Matt Stevens, saxophonist (soprano, alto, and tenor) Marcus Strickland, drummer John Davis (who, being situated right in front of me, I simply couldn’t look away; see for yourself at jdmusicproduction.com and the absolutely incredible pianist Christian Sands.
Now let me say that Christian Sands, only 23 years old, was an astoundingly astute interpreter of all things jazz piano, but you could definitely hear a classical resonance in some of his improvisation. He was instantly accepted, admired and marveled at, having won our respect from the start, hearing a certain youthful wisdom present in his playing. He made appearances on the Grammy Award in -06 and -07, including a highly publicized duet with the late Oscar Peterson. (Check his credentials out for yourself at christiansandsjazz.com).
So the music began with a little cymbal riff, a bit mystical like a rush of rain, and then there they all were, joining as they went through changes including creative unison piano and sax single notes, the guitarist silently mouthing every note as he played, bass solos as lovely as you’ll ever hear, drumming gentle as the rain…They leaned in and out of the tides of their melodies and counterpoint, with ease and communication, and well, just plain JOY. I tend to analyze and scrutinize when I’m reviewing a concert, but I was able to let myself be carried away by this group’s sound, like riding a wave. At one point, I wrote, “I’m like a leaf fallen to the water, and I’m adrift in a sea of jazz…” And in the light of day, if that sounds melodramatic, it was every bit how I felt last night.
They performed mostly originals , but included one Stevie Wonder cover (with the humorous disclaimer that they were not condoning the infidelity in the theme), and we were privileged to be the first to hear a new tune called “Color of My Dreams”, which made its debut on the Carnegie stage. It wove a lovely spell.
The moment that was the pinnacle for most of us was when, on a tune called “November”, Sands, the pianist, reached dexterously into the Steinway to pluck strings from within, (enough to give any Steinway technician chills), and thus began an interesting musical and rhythmic conversation between the drums and piano. Off they went, smiling, and grooving, and enjoying every moment of the tete-a-tetes that sprung from their musical hearts. I could hear lines reminiscent of “Out of Nowhere” and they carried the listeners through some odd, though flawlessly smooth changes, full band, then down, then full sound again…They slipped again to that odd, muted plucking from expert fingers. Perfection.
They gave us much, these young pros, in these two hours on the stage. While the music was modern, while it could be categorized as fusion, they had an acoustic attitude and resonance that made for a really personal connection with the audience. I’ve reviewed modern jazz groups in the past that were so wrapped up in their own self-worth that the audience was left looking through a window. Not so, here. Ben Williams and Sound Effect know exactly how to handle us. Their music says, “There is JOY residing here. Won’t you join us?” And we rode with them down that river of jazz.