The holiday season looks very different for Christian Sands these days. The New Haven, Connecticut native recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, trading a lifetime of Winter Wonderlands for a disconcertingly Green Christmas. Then there are the usual changes and transitions that we all face in life but that seem to be thrown into starker relief around the holidays: family and friends lost or gained, relationships ended or initiated, another twelve months of experience to shape our continued evolution.
All of those factors come to the fore on Christmas Stories (Mack Avenue Records), Sands’ first album of holiday songs old and new. While the acclaimed pianist and two-time Grammy® nominee inevitably views Christmas as a time of nostalgia, reflection and reunion, he also recognizes it as a time for renewal and looking ahead. At the same time as we’re looking back on the year just ending, we’re also beginning to wonder at the new year about to begin and the fresh slate of opportunities that it presents.
“For me, Christmas really is all about family,” Sands says. “Especially as an artist that travels a lot, Christmas is a time when I get to see people that I might not have seen for the entire year – not just my immediate family but friends and loved ones. It’s a time of mixed emotions, all the hustle and bustle mixed with moments of remembrance for people that are no longer with us. Old relationships are gone, new relationships have started, you get a rare opportunity to sit still and reflect and think about the new realities that the new year might bring.”
Christmas Stories brings Sands together with members of his extended musical family: at the heart of the album is his working quartet, with guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and the pianist’s actual brother, Ryan Sands, on drums. In the holiday spirit, they’re joined by a number of special guests: saxophonist Jimmy Greene and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, both mentors to Sands, along with a pair of newer acquaintances, percussionist Keita Ogawa and guitarist Max Light.
The celebratory album is a spirited mix of cherished memories and new inspirations, blending timeworn traditions with unexpected surprises. The way that Sands weaves together strands from the past into a vibrant new tapestry is evident from the outset on Christmas Stories. The album begins with one of the holiday’s most well-worn chestnuts – “Jingle Bells” – transformed into a raucous blues built on the regifted swing of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Jimmy Greene’s fireplace-warm tenor tone is a perfect fit for the classic “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
“Along with playing outside and building snowmen, that song reminds me of rejoicing in the love of family,” Sands explains. “So, I wanted to play that song with someone who is immersed in his own family and who felt like family to me. Jimmy was the first person I thought of. I thought of how amazing he is as a man, as a father, and as a family member of mine in the music.”
One of the Sands brothers’ favorite Christmas albums while growing up was Nat “King” Cole’s classic, whose gentle, laid-back swing is echoed on their rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Meanwhile, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” takes a surprising turn with a lively Latin rhythm supplied by Keita Ogawa’s buoyant percussion. “Silent Night” gradually builds like an accumulating snowfall, beginning with the calm serenity typically associated with the carol but accelerating through its seven-and-a-half minutes into a blistering climax before settling back into blissful introspection.
“During the holidays, the night usually doesn’t stay silent,” Sands jokes. “It may start out in that peaceful mode, but once you get family together there’s chatter, there’s laughter, there’s excitement. It can get loud. I wanted the song to reflect all these different moods and take people on a journey through the entire night.”
Sands adds three new compositions of his own to the holiday canon on Christmas Stories. The rollicking “Snow Dayz,” featuring rising star guitarist Max Light, is a merry, rock-fueled tune that sounds like the modern-day equivalent of a Vince Guaraldi Peanuts soundtrack. Sands set out to depict the unbridled joy that greets a day off from school to romp in the new fallen snow, hinting at a ’90s-era sound to conjure the childhood years that he shares with Light and his brother (“and Yasushi’s a big kid at heart,” Sands says of the slightly older bassist).
The melancholy “Shoveling” follows, representing the return to chores and responsibility that follows playtime. Sands plays the solo piece with a crystalline touch, accompanied only by the sounds of wind and crunching snow. It’s impossible to listen without feeling a chill down one’s spine.
Accompanied by the jingling of bells, “The Gift” features Stefon Harris, his vibes glimmering like the sheen of wrapping paper on a tune that captures the anticipation and thrill of giving and receiving presents on Christmas morning. It’s preceded by “A Christmas Hymn,” an impromptu duo outing by Sands and Harris that arose from their studio warm-ups. The tender sanctity of the piece stems from the pair’s shared gospel roots.
“I am a very faithful and spiritual person, as is Stefon,” Sands says. “We just started playing and it naturally took on this religious aspect.”
Sand’s starkly beautiful “Last Christmas” ends the album on a wistful note. The title bears multiple meanings, suggesting the finality of lost loved ones, the reconnection from one holiday to the next, the spirit of embracing every Christmas as if it will be our last together. Sands is alone at the piano until the midway point, when strings swell to carry the surging emotion.
“Every choice on this album was very personal,” Sands concludes. “I wanted to include classic pieces that have a sense of familiarity and humanity to them, I wanted songs with a sense of peace, and I wanted songs with a sense of religion as well, because that’s who I am. But I’ve gotten to spend time on the road and at the holidays with my band, so this is not just my Christmas story. It’s all of ours.”
Christian SandsPianist and two-time GRAMMY® nominee Christian Sands is an emerging jazz force. His abundant piano technique perfectly matches his ambition, accomplishing a much deeper musical goal: a fresh look at the entire spectrum of jazz. A protégé of Dr. Billy Taylor, Sands released his debut album at the age of 12. He came to wider prominence through his work as a member of two bands led by iconic bassist Christian McBride: the Christian McBride Trio and Inside Straight. Sands has shared the stage with such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Sheila E, Gregory Porter, Warren Wolf, Tia Fuller, Gary Burton, Stefon Harris, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jason Moran, Geri Allen, Randy Brecker, Russell Malone, Terence Blanchard, Louis Hayes, Patti Austin, and Wycliffe Gordon, among many others. Christmas Stories is Sands’ fourth release as a leader for Mack Avenue, following Reach (2017), Facing Dragons (2018), and the Grammy-nominated Be Water (2020).