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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of Nick Sanders.

Photo courtesy of Nick Sanders.

Nick Sanders has been described by The New York Times as a pianist with “a precise touch and a wealth of information at his command,” and released his début recording Nameless Neighbors (Sunnyside) this June. The record features his original compositions performed by his trio, which includes Henry Fraser on bass and Connor Baker on drums; they performed at the Gallery in June to celebrate the release, and will be performing on our stage again this Thursday, December 5th. We caught up with Nick by phone to talk about what he’ll have in store for our audiences this week, and how he’s been adjusting to the New York scene:

The Jazz Gallery: You last played at the Gallery with your trio about six months when Nameless Neighbors was released. What’s changed since then?

Nick Sanders: Quite a bit. I’ve been doing a lot of composing and I’ve written a lot of new music since six months ago. We’re still going to be playing a couple of tunes from the record, but for the most part, it’s going to be mostly all new music. Our sense of playing together has gotten even more intuitive and is just really relaxed in the sense that we’re trusting each other, as far as the actual dynamics of the trio is concerned.

They [Henry Fraser and Connor Baker] live in Boston right now, but they’re moving to New York next summer, and I’ve been in New York a lot more; I was going back and forth for Boston for work and teaching and stuff, but I’ve been able to fully transfer to New York. As a result, we haven’t been able to rehearse as much, but they came by a couple days ago and it was like nothing had changed, even though we hadn’t played for that long.

TJG: Do you have any particular approaches to rehearsing with the trio?

NS: I write most of the material; in terms of the original music, I write almost everything, but at the same time, I always ask Connor and Henry, “Is there anything you’d change or do you have any suggestions?” Sometimes we take one tune and try it a bunch of different ways; sometimes I write something and I don’t have a specific direction, but the material is there, and so I’ll pause it and say, “I think I’m going to try it this way,” but maybe Henry will say, “Oh, let’s try to do it a different way,” and maybe take one section and do something different with it—like different things with the feel—and it’s great because it is really a cooperative thing. I feel like because it’s that way, it just makes everything a lot more fun. It’s easier and more interesting, and that’s kind of how I run a rehearsal.

For the most part, everything is memorized. It’s kind of weird, actually—I have a specific way of writing charts out that’s more, how do I say this, it’s really efficient for rehearsing. It’s great because it’s a piano trio and I’m doing most of the melodic stuff, so I have it all right there in my hands. It makes rehearsing a lot easier and you can really get into the interpretation and the actual music instead of freaking out about playing one measure correctly.

TJG: Could you say a few words about Henry and Connor? How’d you guys meet? 

NS: I met them at New England Conservatory—they’re seniors now—and I met Henry first. We had kind of been playing in different configurations, and I was really attracted to his sound and the way he played. It was just really killing, *laughter* for lack of a better word. He has a great attitude and is really professional and laidback. Connor I met a little bit later. I always knew him when he came into NEC, since I was a couple years older. I hadn’t seen him play that much, but then Henry said, “Oh, you should get Connor.”

At the time, I was writing a bunch of music that ended up being on the record, but I was trying out different drummers. When Connor came in to play, I think after about only two or three times, I was like, “Okay, this is the guy that I want to have to play.” We had played that music for Fred Hersch, who was teaching there at the time, and I had studied with Fred for about two years before. He had never played my music with the trio, so I played it, and he was like, “You guys should record an album,” and he offered to produce it. At the time I asked him in private, “Should I hire famous jazz musicians in New York to do the record, or should I use the people here?” He said “You guys play so well together that you should use them,” so that’s how it ended up.

TJG: You studied with Fred, Jason Moran, and Danilo Perez, among others, at NEC. Could you talk about how their instruction guided your development?

NS: When I auditioned for my undergrad at NEC, Danilo was at my audition, and I remember after the audition he took me out to lunch, and I thought, “Oh, that’s a great sign.” He was my primary teacher and I remember him teaching me about keeping time in your whole body—really feeling time throughout your whole body and not just in your mind. He gave me a lot of really great exercises that would be super-independent coordination things in terms of time. He was very conceptual; he wasn’t as concrete as giving me a bunch of patterns or whatever stuff to work on. It wasn’t like that at all, it was much more conceptual.

Danilo left, and then Fred and Jason came in at the same time, which was amazing. It was just crazy! I came from a really strong classical background before I even started improvising; I didn’t start jazz music or improvising until I was 17, but Fred was really into proper sound production at the piano. We really got into the actual sound of the piano and also using a different harmonic approaches, and we would work on some Bach Partitas just for fun. Honestly with Fred, it was just seeing him play at every lesson: I’d play something and see him play—that in and of itself was invaluable. And especially for the way that I learn, I think seeing him do it was just a huge inspiration and gave me a lot of ideas subconsciously.

Fred was very into solo piano—into getting into that kind of aspect of piano playing, which we worked on a lot—but Jason is the complete opposite in a lot of ways, which was great. It was such a wonderful contrast. He gave me some really cool exercises, like stuff with strange intervals and really opening up my hand, in terms of the distance between the notes I would play with my fingers, if that makes sense. That was really awesome, and was just always challenging me. I brought in my trio once and we were playing this tune called “Motor World,” one of the last on my record, and he was like, “Go absolutely nuts and wait until I stop you,” so he gave me this endurance training or something. He really got me into more free—not necessarily free playing—but leaning in that direction more, and kind of away from my playing standards and stuff. I mean, he was cool with that, but he gave me all these crazy exercises, like I had to read and play the way my voice sounded, and he would introduce me to a lot of cool people, music that I hadn’t heard.

TJG: Could you say a few words about how your classical training has influenced your jazz playing? 

NS: I can’t really say enough about it. It’s a huge influence just in terms of the…“process” is a bad word to use, but the vibe of my music—a kind of classical realm. Certain composers come to mind, like Beethoven—Prokofiev is a big one for me—and Bach, of course. Honestly, all I can say about that is that I was so in love and still am with classical piano repertoire, and I just did it so much as a kid throughout my teenage years. I didn’t think I would play jazz or become a composer; I never saw that when I was a younger. I really think that it informed my whole approach, especially studying with Fred. It really brought out those elements really well, and you can definitely hear that, I think, on the record, just the timbre and the harmonic choices.

TJG: How was it settling into New York? 

NS: It’s been great, overall; I’ve been very fortunate. I have a piano in my apartment and I can teach here. I have a studio of eight students—a lot of them I go to my house but some come here, and I love teaching and that’s how I make my living primarily right now. It gives me a lot of free time to practice my own stuff and compose because I’m only doing eight hours a week, and I can pay my rent that way. It was kind of tiring at first, I’ve only lived here for a year now, but it was kind of tiring at first going back and forth.

TJG: How has it been making the hang and being on the scene?

NS: I’m just starting to figure who I like, *laughter*, who I like to see and what clubs I like. I have a drum set here, so I host a lot of my own sessions, which has been awesome because people can come out and play for a long time. You don’t have to wait a long time and play only one tune like at a jam session. They’re kind of hit or miss; I do find that the real benefit of jam sessions and being on the scene is going and meeting people, talking to them and hopefully setting up your own sessions, which is what I’ve been doing, and it’s been really good.

TJG: What have you been listening to lately?

NS: I’ve been listening to Prokofiev piano sonatas—I’m actually working on one right now so I’ve been delving into that. Let’s see, some Paul Motian: there’s this one record in particular with Jason Moran and Chris Potter called Lost in a Dream. I’ve been listening to a lot of Aphex Twin and I’ve been listening to a lot of Miles, which is kind of weird since I haven’t listened to Miles in a while, but I’ve been on this Birth of the Cool kick for a while—I don’t know why—but I enjoy it. I checked out that record with Ethan Iverson, Tootie [Heath], Ben Street, that’s good. I’m sure there’s plenty of other stuff, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head. But also a lot of classical music, new classical music, people like Thomas Adès, so it’s pretty vast, and I really like this Japanese girl pop band called Perfume…

TJG: Whoa, how’d you get into that?

NS: Connor and Henry showed that to me, like two years ago, but I still really dig their stuff.

TJG: What’s next for you? Any new projects?

NS: I have a duo that I’ve been doing with this saxophonist named Logan Strosahl. He just moved here and is a dear friend of mine. We have kind of a duo thing: we played at Rockwood Music Hall recently and we’re trying to figure out some more stuff, but for the trio, we’re playing in May at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and that’s going to be one of the biggest things we’ve ever done. I’m trying to book more gigs between now and then, but that one looms on the horizon as really great.

We’re thinking about recording another record, too. I already talked with Fred and he’s totally down to produce again, but we’re thinking about doing that at the end of the summer possibly, so that’s why I’ve been composing a lot and getting some stuff together, thinking about the future for the next record.

This Thursday, December 5th, pianist Nick Sanders will return to The Jazz Gallery’s stage with his trio, which features Henry Fraser on bass and Connor Baker on drums. The first set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. The second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.