Just when we thought it was safe to “go back in the water” we learned that it wasn’t really so. Finding himself being disconnected from his audience at his regular gig at Imminent Brewing for yet another year due to the ongoing pandemic, JC Sanford brought a new trio into the studio courtesy of the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Creative Support for Individuals grant program, which has proven to be a lifeline for working artists during the pandemic, and Imminent Standards Trio Vol. 2 was born, the follow up to Volume 1 released a year earlier. While a second year in the musical wilderness may not have been anticipated, Imminent Standards Trio Vol. 2 was part of the plan all along. Only this time, with differences— in the choice of players, the repertoire, and the approach to the material. Where Volume 1 featured a rhythm section of veteran players, Sanford chose to go with youth on this occasion, with bassist Charlie Lincoln and drummer Abinnet Berhanu. According to JC, “One of the few times that I got to play with other humans over the past year was with Charlie and Abinnet…and we had a serious connection, so I thought this was the right group to tackle a new series of standards.”
Sanford’s definition of “standards” is decidedly more expansive than most. Still maintaining the spontaneous approach to the recording process, much like the live gigs that ordinarily would have happened in more normal times, the new trio took a bite out of a collection of tunes ranging from Stevie Wonder to Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon and more. Some were longtime favorites of Sanford’s, while others were more recent additions to the repertoire. One notable aspect of the current recording is the more open, spontaneous approach to swinging that Lincoln and Berhanu bring to the proceedings. Sanford notes, “These two guys have played a ton together, so they have a seriously great hookup that’s been fun to try to get inside of. Plus, now that I’m into the sixth decade of my life, it’s exciting to play with these energizing younger players.” Anyone familiar with Sanford and his expansive aesthetic already knows that this is the ideal setting for him.
Sanford is a protégé of legendary composer and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and has performed with the likes of Danilo Pérez, Matt Wilson, Donny McCaslin, and Anthony Cox and has regularly been recognized as a “Rising Star” trombonist, arranger, and big band in DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Polls over the past several years. His 2014 debut CD with the JC Sanford Orchestra Views from the Inside yielded international acclaim and was awarded a 2014 Aaron Copland Fund recording grant. He is conductor of the thrice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and is musical director of the JazzMN Orchestra.
Right out of the gate, a drums and trombone opening on “Fried Bananas” lets the listener know that Imminent Standards Trio, Vol. 2 is a decidedly different take on the trombone trio than the first volume. The Dexter Gordon tune is a contrafact on one of Sanford’s favorite set of changes, “It Could Happen to You”. Next up is a newer arrow in Sanford’s quiver, the lovely Lee Morgan composition, “Ceora.” Notable not only for Sanford’s lyrical playing, but the fresh and subtle approach to Brazilian rhythm by Berhanu and Lincoln. Having a chordless trio, JC decided it was time to provide a little harmony through the use of multiphonics behind Lincoln’s statement of the melody on the beautifully open Ornette Coleman tune “Lonely Woman.”
Because one can never have too much Ornette, “Turnaround” features the rhythm section to great effect. Sanford says, “I often choose to slide (no pun intended) in and out of tonality when playing over this ubiquitous song form, the 12-bar blues. I believe this is the first blues I’ve ever recorded as a player or leader.” Beginning with a haunting and beautiful intro from bassist Charlie Lincoln, Monk’s only 3|4 composition, “Ugly Beauty,” has been a frequent call on Sanford’s gigs and was natural to include in this volume. By contrast, pianist Tommy Flanagan’s “Freight Trane” deftly shows off the trio’s ability to swing in a straight ahead style with aplomb. Showcasing yet another completely different stylistic choice, Anne Ronell’s composition “Willow Weep for Me” showcases Sanford in a bluesy plunger mute mode. JC describes the set closer, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” as “a simple take on a great tune, dedicated to my daughter Mia who helped keep me sane and smiling through some tough times these last few years.”
Imminent Standards Trio Vol. 2 is about making the best of another challenging year by joining with two new musical friends who pushed each other in the best possible sense. Now being able to share the joy of making music with those in Minnesota and around the world will hopefully fill the musical void until a return to the namesake Imminent Brewing Company can happen in earnest.