It’s easy to forget how many essential classical music forms are rooted in dance. Pianist Steve Sandberg builds his World Classical Music Project concerts partly around this fact, melding classical, jazz, and world music.
At his January 30, 2021 concert, livestreamed from Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn, Sandberg performed short classical pieces – a Chopin mazurka, a waltz by Sibelius, a gigue (jig) by Mozart, a considerable amount of music by Ravel, and more – each followed by an original work for jazz trio based on the piano piece, some with space for improvisation. These diverting flights of fancy revealed a bountiful creative spirit, elevated by very fine musicianship.
Baroque composers used the ancient dance forms as much as anyone. But this concert’s single reach into that more ancient music came from an abstract construct: a three-part invention by Bach. Nevertheless the composition Sandberg spun from it, “Subindo,” sang of blood and sweat, with a fusion of Balkan, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban modes, sparkling piano riffage, a rollicking 7/8 beat, and a pointedly emotional solo from bassist Michael O’Brien.
There was precious little straight-ahead 4/4 time in the program at all. Chopin’s C major Mazurka led smoothly into a number called “Mazur” which has a bright 3/4 Latin jazz beat. A spacious, deeply felt performance of Sibelius’ “Valse Triste” expanded into a spidery waltz of Sandberg’s own, with some Schumann worked in. (I thought I caught a hint of Gershwin too.)
One of the most enlightening and surprising moments was the aforementioned Mozart Gigue, which sounded thoroughly modern in Sandberg’s quirky, revelatory solo performance. The lyrical, much slower original piece that followed felt unfocused in comparison, as did a diffuse take on Thelonius Monk’s classic “Monk’s Mood.” But the energy picked up with an electric merging of Ravel’s “A La Manière de Borodin” into a Balkan-inspired piece called “Borodin,” with an irregular beat and spectacular, intricate work from drummer Rudy Royston.
Clearly the French composer’s complex psychology and exploratory music has served as a chief inspiration for Sandberg, at least on this go-round. The pianist called on Ravel again to close the concert with “Alborada del Gracioso.” This “Jester’s Aubade” with its Spanish flavors led into an elegant trio piece that riffed on “My Favorite Things.” It sounded partly improvisational and featured another superb bass solo.
The concert remains temporarily available for streaming at Soapbox Gallery. Tickets are pay-what-you-wish. Steve Sandberg and his trio return to Soapbox with a different program, again from the pianist’s World Classical Music Project, on March 13.
Below, enjoy an earlier performance by Sandberg of his Bach-inspired “Subindo” with O’Brien on bass and two other musicians.