Jon Ross | 19 NOV 2019
In his 1955 “Concert by the Sea” concert recording, the late pianist Erroll Garner put a succinct exclamation point on the evening with the fleeting “Erroll’s Theme.” The blues melody, which begins hesitantly after a cascading chordal introduction, skips leisurely by, but the entire tune is gone in less than a minute. It’s a brief coda to a seminal 1955 recording that has become one of the best selling jazz records of all time.
Saturday at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, the innovative and indefatigable pianist Christian Sands and his High Wire Trio – rounded out by Luques Curtis on bass and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. – turned Garner’s brief kiss of a tune into an expansive odyssey of sound toward the end of a brilliant set dedicated to the jazz master. For nearly two years, the 30-year-old pianist has served as the creative ambassador for the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, working directly with the late pianist’s estate to produce releases and update Garner’s music in a concert setting. Saturday’s music came with small audio snippets from Garner and those in his inner circle that served as introductions to some of the compositions. Sands’ goal? Revitalize the music, revering the compositions but filling the tunes with an immediacy and vibrancy.
In Saturday’s opening tune, “Chase Me,” Debussy-esque, rubato chords solidified into labyrinthine runs of notes, twisting and turning at a brisk pace. Rivulets of sound poured from the keyboard. Sands’ right hand moved in concert with the left, boundlessly leaping across the keys, before his left hand began pulsing chords in syncopation with his still-dancing right fingers. The tune became a vast breadth of ideas, unleashed in a torrent, after a florid, tender origin.
Even when Sands plays at warp speed, his fingers retain a ghostly fluidity, barely brushing the keys. For the uptempo tunes, Owens, Jr., played on top of the beat, pushing the music forward with a sometimes frantic energy. The drummer dutifully supported Sands, but played with a whimsical temperament, filling his accompaniment with sparkling asides. During “Wild Music,” Owens, Jr., brought a tenacious vigor to his extended drum solos, molding interlocking rhythms that pushed and pulled as he built to a riveting concussive display.
Spivey Hall is a regular Atlanta-area stop for Sands. Two years ago, he appeared at the hall with his then-bandmates Dezron Douglas and Marcus Baylor, and Sands has also performed at Spivey with bassist Christian McBride. The pianist is a familiar face at the Savannah Music Festival (he’ll be back in Savannah in late March), and earlier this year, he performed on the smallest Atlanta Jazz Festival stage.
Sands is an apt selection to evangelize Garner, and concerts like Saturday’s show enthusiastically and convincingly present the case for renewed appraisals of the pianist. Sands radiates personality in his engaging stage manner; his crackling, combustible piano playing; and his dress – on Saturday, a navy shawl-collared dinner jacket festooned in floral patterns. For whatever reason, headlining status (whatever that means in today’s jazz world) has been elusive for Sands, for whom the term “rising star” is woefully inadequate. Hopefully renewed interest in Garner will help shine a spotlight on this brilliant pianist. ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.