Few composers have broader stylistic reach. But on a new album, “A Prayer for Lester Bowie,” he makes it all cohere.
By Seth Colter Walls
Oct. 15, 2021
It’s not a big mystery why David Sanford’s energetic, well-crafted music has stayed mostly under the radar for the last three decades. “He’s not a self-promoter,” said the conductor Gil Rose, who brought out the first album devoted to Sanford’s orchestral music two years ago.
Sanford, 58, cheerfully concedes the point. “Yes, you have to be able to market, which I’m atrocious at,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m trying to get better, well into my 50s.”
As Rose put it, “He’s interested in his music, but he’s not going to beat anyone’s door down about it.”
The irony is that Sanford’s work often has door-blasting power. Yet whether he’s writing for a chamber ensemble, a big band or an orchestra, his wildness never tips into indiscipline.
Take “Alchemy,” the opening track on Sanford’s 2007 album “Live at the Knitting Factory,” played by his big band, which was known at the time as the Pittsburgh Collective. Merely the first minute balances a lot.
There’s bebop-influenced brass writing to start things off. But other sections aren’t really swinging; instead, they suggest the blunt attack of American Minimalism. A broader swing feel is activated when the reed section kicks in, bringing with it the audible influence of Charles Mingus’s bands. Then the pulse drops away and we spend a few seconds in a Schoenberg-inflected harmonic world.
It’s jazz — though there hasn’t yet been a sustained solo. It’s clearly in the contemporary classical tradition — though there’s also room for improvisation. (A scorching sax feature begins in the second minute.) Like the title promises, it’s a work of alchemy, in the tradition of composer-performers like Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell.
Growing up in a musical family in Pittsburgh, his mother a church organist and his father a sometime professional singer, Sanford discovered a love for big band around the same time he picked up the trombone. A 1991 Guggenheim fellowship led to some of the earliest compositions of his that have been recorded: “Chamber Concerto No. 3” and “Prayer: In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” both from 1992. Lodestars like Mingus and Sly and the Family Stone stayed with him through his student years, which culminated in a masters and doctorate from Princeton in the late 1990s.
Most tunes on “Knitting Factory” date from a batch of material that Sanford composed around 2003, when he had his first sabbatical from a full-time teaching job at Mount Holyoke College. He also received the Rome Prize during that period, which gave him, he recalled, the “time to just basically do anything that I wanted.”
Shortly after “Knitting Factory” was released, I heard Sanford conduct this band at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. I was convinced he was ready for a breakout. That never quite happened. But the moment may be here once again.
That Sanford is finally doing better with the marketing thing is reflected by a name change for his long-running band. It’s now billed, sensibly enough, as the David Sanford Big Band on its sophomore release, “A Prayer for Lester Bowie,” released last month on the Greenleaf imprint. (The title composition is by Hugh Ragin, a veteran trumpeter with long ties to Sanford, as well as to Braxton and Mitchell.)
On pieces like the compact yet multilayered “popit,” you can hear how Sanford might appeal to jazz, punk and contemporary classical listeners in equal measure. “Woman in Shadows” once again suggests the influence of Mingus, as well as of film noir scores.
Another track, “subtraf,” reflects some of his more recent enthusiasms, including modernist European composers like Fausto Romitelli and Helmut Lachenmann. Like other Sanford pieces, it has a guitar fuzzbox kick that recalls electric-era Miles Davis. (Sanford’s dissertation at Princeton included an essay on Davis’s album “Agharta.”)
Of Lachenmann’s “Mouvement,” which helped inspire “subtraf,” Sanford said: “It’s a larger chamber orchestra piece. And the use of colors there, I thought, OK, this is a different direction I was really kind of loving.”
“I knew it would work as a format for improvisation,” he added.
His musical knowledge and tool kit is about as broad as it gets. Other composers might bend your ear about the guitarist Pete Cosey, most famous for his work with Davis; Mingus’s somewhat obscure “Three Worlds of Drums,” which Sanford described as one of his three favorite pieces; and Lachenmann’s “Mouvement.” But few others can make those all influences cohere in the same piece.
Discussing “Scherzo Grosso,” his early cello concerto for Matt Haimovitz, which exists in versions for his big band as well as traditional orchestra, Sanford remembers “quoting the living daylights out of stuff,” in the manner of bebop titans and Luciano Berio.
“Back then,” Sanford said, “I kind of wanted to be Robert Rauschenberg.” But now he’s moved on to subtler forms of mixology.
Jon Nelson, a trumpeter in the Meridian Arts Ensemble who also played on “Knitting Factory,” has had an opportunity to observe Sanford’s writing for chamber orchestra as well as for big band. Describing Sanford’s aesthetic as “a 360-degree universe,” Nelson added that “David’s music sounds like nothing else, yet when you hear it, memories of music you’ve heard in your life are triggered.”
Haimovitz, another longtime collaborator, said by email: “I always wondered how is it that a composer who synthesizes Arnold Schoenberg, John Coltrane, Sergei Prokofiev, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Wilco — and those are merely some of the less esoteric references — never sounds like he’s appropriating anyone else’s music.” (Haimovitz said that his own best guess involves Sanford’s “generously open ears, and a true genius.”)
Of his recording of Sanford’s “Black Noise” — one of my favorite recordings of 2019 — Rose, the conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, said: “It’s not the longest CD we ever produced. But impact per minute, it’s maybe one of the strongest ones that we’ve done.”
Rose added that he would love more big orchestral pieces from Sanford, who has plans for a piano concerto, among other potential projects. But Sanford added that, as a father of two and a professor with a full teaching load, “I definitely can’t write any more music than I’m writing.”
That’s where greater name recognition might help, along with some more commissioning orchestras, and perhaps another sabbatical. In the meantime, Rose is willing to wait on Sanford, in part because this composer can justify the material in every bar of a piece.
“Everything has a place and is there for a reason, and he can tell you why, too,” Rose said. “He’s thought through everything at the highest detailed level, but it sounds spontaneous. That’s rare.”
Read it at The New York Times online.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 16, 2021, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: His Music Should Be on Your Radar.