JC Sanford enlists jazz luminaries Michael Cain and Anthony Cox for a powerful trio record, New Past, out November 10, 2023.
A joyous summit of jazz masters, New Past — the latest and perhaps greatest small-group recording by adventurous trombonist and composer JC Sanford — owes its genesis to one of the simplest formulas known to man: Location, location, location.
When Sanford moved from Brooklyn back to his native Minnesota, he connected with Anthony Cox, the Minneapolis bassist known for his brilliant work with Geri Allen, Joe Lovano and a host of others. Soon thereafter, Cox’s long-ago bandmate, piano marvel Michael Cain (Jack DeJohnette, Robin Eubanks, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello), took a teaching post in Minneapolis. “I knew Mike and Anthony went way back and hadn’t played together in a long time,” recounts Sanford. “So I thought, let’s see what happens.”
What ‘happened’ is captured on New Past, a feast of lively and luminescent post-bop gems penned by Sanford, along with choice tunes by Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk and a co- write with his 8-year-old daughter (“Avocado,” an ode to her favorite fruit). In a couple of significant ways, this record is a point of departure from Sanford’s previous trio recordings, including two volumes of Imminent Standards also on Shifting Paradigm. For the first time, he found himself working with veterans of the heady 1980s-90s New York scene. “It was hard at time to just play music because I wanted to listen to those guys talk about the music that they’ve been involved in.”
Aside from big-band settings — like his much-praised 2014 album Views From the Inside (Whirlwind Recordings)— Sanford had never recorded with a pianist. But he’d found inspiration from Cain years ago while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. “He led this ensemble I was in that totally opened up my world to different ways of thinking about music,” says Sanford, who has become as respected for his composing, arranging and conducting skills as for the trombone chops that make him a perennial in Downbeat’s ‘rising star’ poll. On New Past, Cain seems to listen as intently as he plays. “He has a very distinctive touch, very crisp with a certain energized intensity, and it kind of infects everything we do,” Sanford says.
Cox brings his own brand of intensity, propelling the opening track “Sparrows Are Badasses” as Sanford takes flight on trombone, augmented by electronics which Sanford says is “going to
be a big part of who I am moving forward”. The musicians traverse a series of moods and forms, including an elegant Brazilian/Bach mash-up in “Choro de Familiaris” and a free-jazz steeplechase titled “Followfellowflow.” The album concludes on a contemplative note. “Some Moments Are Eternal” is a lovely elegy for a lost pet, anchored in the sensitive interplay between old compatriots Cain and Cox.
Throughout the set, Sanford encourages his sidemen to generate collective power through — paradoxically — restraint. “There’s such a strong sense of intention behind every note,” he reflects. It’s an approach inspired in part by his hero Wayne Shorter, who died shortly before these sessions, and Danilo Pérez, a friend and mentor to Sanford who was the pianist in Shorter’s quartet. “I love that quartet,” says Sanford. “They’re all on this equal footing, at all times. It’s not like one person is in front soloing.”
For his part, Sanford is modest about his own playing. “I’ve had a lot of technical issues over the years,” he says, “but I found a way to make the trombone work for my artistic voice.” Here again he cites Shorter as a model. “Wayne had this very unique way of playing tenor sax. You don’t really think about what instrument it is. And that’s how I often judge how much I’m enjoying a player — if I don’t think about what instrument they’re playing, but just listen to what they’re doing. And as a composer, Wayne maneuvers through harmony in ways that are unexpected, but seem inevitable after you do it. He’s one of the biggest influences on my music.”
New Past delves into Sanford’s diverse compositional style and improvisational approach. From collective improvisations to complex harmonic forms and grooves, the trio traverses a vast sonic and textural world of Sanford’s original compositions, with a smattering of interpretations of jazz standards.