The adage “it’s never too late” fits drummer Brandon Sanders who at age 52 is making his recording debut after playing drums for the better part of three decades. Though the title may suggest otherwise, Sanders is based in New York and has a ‘day job’ as a social worker, but yes, he did grow up in the fabled troubled area of Los Angeles known as Compton. Sanders puts a positive spin in his title but most of us know that many fine people have emerged from that area, none more famous than the tennis playing Williams sisters, and musically ‘Keb Mo’ to name just one. Interestingly, his grandmother runs a jazz club in Kansas City (where he was born), the Casablanca, and that’s where his primary inspiration comes from, both listening to acts there and hearing the stories she told about the greats.
Ensuring that he was surrounded with top tier talent, Sanders brings on vibraphonist Warren Wolf, tenor saxophonist Chris Lewis, pianist Keith Brown, bassist Eric Wheeler and a couple of vocal turns from Jazzmeia Horn. Sanders’ friend and L.A. based drummer Willie Jones III produced. Sanders delivers a mix of jazz standards with two of his originals. Sanders crisp rim shots open the standard “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” a tune that was a major part of John Coltrane’s repertoire in the late ‘50s with Lewis admirably handling the saxophone here as one three major soloists along with Wolf and Brown. Wolf’s vibraphone excursion is especially impressive. His title track is requisitely uplifting with its bluesy, swaying melody. Lewis has that ‘old school’ tenor sound such that this tune could just easily fit in the era of ‘60s as now.
Leveraging his DJ experience which began at around age 14 or 15, Sanders has a gift for sequencing, pacing, and adding variety to the playlist. His selection of covers reflects his tastes growing up, from Coltrane to Ellington to Sarah Vaughan to Stevie Wonder and James Brown. You can hear the interplay between vocalist Horn and pianist Brown, forged from several years of collaboration on Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help it” with bright takes from Wolf and Lewis. Keith Brown shines on Kenny Barron’s “Voyage” with Wolf adding even more shimmer to the piece as the leader keeps it steady. Lewis jumps in swinging in his low register fluid choruses. Sanders steps out too, making this one of the standout tracks. These cats are swinging!
Demonstrating his DJ touch, Sanders follows with the direct opposite, the sultry classic ballad “Body and Soul,” where Lewis digs deep into a Ben Webster-like mode. The elegant restraint in all the players is simply sublime here. Yes, we bounce back up with a vibrant treatment of “Monk’s Dream” featuring the three major soloists before Horn returns for an emotive reading of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Sanders’ soul jazz strutting closer, “SJB’’ is for a friend who persevered through difficult times and became an inspiration for Sanders. If you’re not tapping your foot to this groove, you better have your doctor check your pulse.
Sanders is never flashy but instead supports the quintet with subtle, in-the-pocket class. So, he passes muster with aplomb in this debut, leaving us excited for his next foray, where perhaps we’ll hear more original material.
- Jim Hynes