Christian Sands studied jazz piano with Jason Moran and Dr. Billy Taylor. Of his Village Vanguard debut three years back (at age twenty-two) with Christian McBride and Inside Straight, the New York Times praised Sands’ “youthful ardor” and “alert intelligence.” Sands spoke with Listen about jazz versus classical.

Explain what you were saying just now about how ‘We [jazz pianists] do what classical pianists do, but we do it in a second.’

When you’re playing classical piano, the way you approach your instrument is explicit: forte here, mezzo piano there. It’s written that way. And no matter who you are, you’re supposed to play it like that. With jazz, it’s all about improvisation. You can have mezzo forte in the left hand and forte in the right hand, but maybe the middle finger will be playing piano. There are so many variables to think about. You can play two chords, with the second completely different from the first, and it can go by so fast! Or just add some grace notes, inflections in the spur of the moment — and it can happen at any time in the music.

Do you think actively about voicings in the classical sense when you play — are you tracking voices? 

Yeah, the majority of the time I’m thinking of leading tones, of where these harmonies can go, either behind my solos, playing the melody, or accompanying another soloist. It depends on the instrument, but I’m always thinking about what complements what’s going on [in the other voices]. I’m still working on it. I think all jazz musicians are working on how to do that. Personally, I always think in terms of accompanying a vocalist — because the voice is the closest thing to people. Even if I’m playing solo, I try to play as if I’m accompanying a singer. It’s like, the melody is the voice, and how do I enclose that? How do I bring the voice out? How do I ‘cover’ the voice? There are all these tactics I’m constantly employing. 

It sounds like you’re also talking about being conscious of a sense of ensemble. 

Yes, yes, big time.

Christian McBride Trio. Christian Sands with Christian McBride (bass) and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums)

And what’s your role at any given moment, and how does that role change? And whereas in classical music, that’s predetermined — sometimes you even get a little clue on your score: solo, tutti — in jazz, it’s shifting sand.

Right — in jazz, all that can change in one measure. You can have four people lead; you can have one person lead. For example, in trios, I’ll be leading (because I have the lead voice), but every once in a while the drums will have the melody, or the bass will have the melody, or I have to play the bass line, or I have to play the rhythm part and the drums can do colors — so it varies, and it’s all spontaneous.

When you’re working on a tune, what comes first: the groove? The idea? How does that evolve as you’re sitting at the keyboard?

It happens in a number of ways. I can get a melody in my head and then the melody will develop and I’ll go home and write it down, or I’ll sing it into my phone and record it until I get home. And then I make my changes: ‘Okay, we’ll have this voice do this and this voice do this.’ Or sometimes I’ll be practicing and I’ll come across a chord that I’ve never played before, and I’ll want to figure it out. And sometimes that inspires a certain mood, a vibe that I want to continue to look at, and then that develops into a song. Or sometimes a rhythm comes. You’ll be walking down the street and you’ll hear one — especially in New York, there’s so much music happening, and there are always different rhythms going on. Whether you’re in the subway and you hear a mariachi band or you’re sitting next to somebody and can hear rock ‘n’ roll [through their headphones], you think, ‘Okay, that’s interesting. Let me check that out and see how to incorporate that into what I’m doing.’ There are always different variables, and there are always different ways to compose. 

Now, you’re a young man, at least in my view. I’m not asking you to speak for your entire generation, but what does it mean for you to be a young jazz artist today?

That’s tough, because it means so many things to me. My goal is to be a role model for humanity. Because I believe that jazz is the human experience, live. You’re seeing and hearing feelings, in time, right then, on the spot. I want to be able to connect with thousands of people, millions of people, people around the world — and no two people are feeling the same thing, or thinking the same thing, or thinking the same way. So my goal, as a jazz musician, is to bring everyone together through music.  


This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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